Hospital massacre compounds Gaza’s nightmare

A medic carries the body of a Palestinian killed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, southerrn Gaza Strip, 17 October.

Firas El-Shaer APA images

Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in what Gaza’s health ministry said was an Israeli airstrike that targeted a hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday – the deadliest incident in the now 11-day military campaign in the territory.

The death toll in Gaza is now at least double, if not triple, the 1,300 people that Israel says were killed during a surprise 7 October attack led by Hamas fighters from Gaza. It has already eclipsed the number of people killed during Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza in 2014.

Death is so close in Gaza that doctors are “finding handwritten wills in people’s pockets when they arrive to the hospital,” a doctor at al-Shifa hospital – the largest in Gaza – told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Several of The Electronic Intifada’s regular contributors and other contacts in and from Gaza have lost family members – sometimes numbering in the dozens – as well as friends and neighbors.

The health ministry said on Tuesday that 3,000 people, including at least 850 children, have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, exclusive of the victims of the bombing at al-Ahli. “Hundreds of additional fatalities are believed to be trapped under the rubble,” according to the UN.

“The decomposition of bodies under collapsed buildings is an increasing humanitarian and environmental concern,” the UN said.

The work of rescue teams, particularly the Palestinian Civil Defense, was hindered by the continuous airstrikes, lack of fuel to run ambulances and equipment, and “limited or no connection to mobile networks.”

Palestinians recover a victim following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 17 October.

Firas El-Shaer APA images

Nonstop massacres

Earlier in the day, Israeli strikes killed dozens of people in southern Gaza, where many had relocated after Israel ordered the forced transfer of people from northern Gaza, including Gaza City.

Israeli airstrikes targeting residential buildings killed at least 28 people in Rafah city, 40 people in Khan Younis, and 21 people in the Emirati neighborhood of Khan Younis on Tuesday.

“The fatalities included people moving southward in compliance with the Israeli military order to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip,” the UN said.

Six people were killed and dozens more injured when an UNRWA school in Maghazi refugee camp, central Gaza, was hit in an Israeli airstrike. Some 4,000 people were sheltering at the UN facility, the coordinates of which had been provided to Israeli authorities in an effort to secure their protection.

Israel relentlessly bombarded Gaza – which it has cut off from food, water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies – both before and after the massacre at the Gaza City hospital on Tuesday.

Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern border remained closed, with hundreds of tons of humanitarian assistance waiting on the Egyptian side.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s extreme right national security minister, said on Tuesday that “the only thing that needs to enter Gaza are hundreds of tons of explosives from the air force, not one ounce of humanitarian aid.”

The UN said on Thursday that “the average water consumption for all needs (drinking, cooking and hygiene) is currently estimated at three liters per day per person in Gaza.”

“There is increasing water consumption from unsafe sources, placing the population at risk of death or infectious disease outbreak,” the UN added.

The World Food Program said on Monday that “stocks of essential food commodities are sufficient for only two weeks, while there are only four or five days of stocks left in shops.”

People are queuing for hours to get bread, while bakeries are “unable to operate due to the shortage of essential ingredients, particularly wheat flour, which is expected to be depleted in less than a week,” the UN said.

Media reported that an Israeli airstrike targeted a bakery next to a school sheltering displaced people in Nuseirat, central Gaza Strip, early Wednesday:

Hospitals in phase of collapse

Meanwhile, al-Shifa hospital, the largest medical facility in the Gaza Strip, ran out of fuel to power emergency generators amid Israel’s electricity blackout – a death sentence for patients including premature babies relying on life-support equipment.

The Gaza health ministry’s spokesperson warned on Tuesday that hospitals “have entered the stage of actual collapse due to power outages and fuel scarcity.”

The UN said that the World Health Organization “managed to deliver locally stored fuel” to al-Shifa, “enabling the operation of generators for a few more days. Other hospitals are operating at a bare minimum capacity.”

Surgeons at al-Shifa “are now operating without painkillers,” Christos Christou, the president of Doctors Without Borders, said on Tuesday. “As a surgeon myself, this is unimaginable.”

Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN special reporter on the right to health, said on Tuesday that “the health sector in the enclave is at a breaking point” and called for “an immediate ceasefire and for [United Nations] member states to stop beating the drums of war.”

Wounded children are treated at a hospital in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza, 17 October.

Omar Ashtawy APA images

Even for a Palestinian public that has witnessed one Israeli atrocity after another in Gaza, the massacre at al-Ahli hospital was an unprecedented shock.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a British-Palestinian surgeon, said that he was in the operating theater at al-Ahli hospital at the time of the strike:

“There was artillery bombardment, and then there was an airstrike inside the hospital, inside the hospital itself,” he said. “A large part of the hospital was destroyed.”

Graphic footage of the aftermath of the massacre showed the lifeless bodies of small children and dozens upon dozens of covered corpses.

Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh described finding mostly scattered limbs at the bombed hospital. “It’s rare to find a full body with all its parts,” he said. “The deeper we went in the hospital, we saw more shocking scenes.”

The correspondent noted that the status of al-Ahli as an internationally affiliated Christian hospital was believed to protect it from targeting by Israel.

Outrage over the strike prompted protests in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, and various Arab capitals including Amman, where people attempted to storm the Israeli embassy on Tuesday night before being repulsed by Jordanian security forces who reportedly arrested dozens.

In Washington, thousands gathered outside the White House demanding to protest President Joe Biden’s complicity with Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for demonstrations at Israeli embassies, urging people to “not wait until tomorrow.”

Jordan canceled a summit planned in Amman, with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and Egypt and Biden, who is set to arrive in Israel on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Jordan’s King Abdullah said that Jordan, like Egypt, would refuse to allow a mass expulsion of Palestinians, as many suspect may be the Israeli – and maybe the American – goal of the military campaign in Gaza.

“That is a red line, because I think that is the plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground,” Abdullah said.

“No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt, he said,” following a meeting in Berlin with Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz.

As for Scholz, he traveled to Jerusalem on Wednesday to express the German government’s unconditional support for Israel’s extermination campaign in Gaza.

While on his way to Israel, Biden said that he was “outraged and deeply saddened” by the explosion at al-Ahli hospital and said that he “directed his national security team to continue gathering information about what exactly happened.”

Israeli spin

Israel denied responsibility for the strike on the hospital, though it has made numerous threats against hospitals in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where it has ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to evacuate.

Israeli officials put forward and retracted various claims in an inept effort to pin the blame for the atrocity on an errant Palestinian rocket. But under scrutiny from journalists and other observers, Israel’s claims quickly fell apart.

The Israeli government blamed the deadly strike at al-Ahli hospital on a misfired rocket launched by Islamic Jihad, which denied responsibility.

One key observation is that the enormous explosion and huge number of victims was far beyond anything the rockets used by Palestinian resistance factions have ever been capable of producing.

Although it convinced few, the Israeli propaganda blitz served what was probably its main purpose: creating enough doubt and confusion that the media would report its claims alongside the accounts of Palestinians.

In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday night, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad noted that al-Ahli hospital was hit in a warning strike two days earlier.

The American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which fundraises for al-Ahli hospital, said that the hospital’s diagnostic cancer treatment center was struck by Israeli rocket fire on 14 October, injuring four of its staff.

Yousef Abu al-Rish, a senior health official in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that the day after al-Ahli hospital was attacked on Saturday, the Israeli military called the hospital’s director and told him “we warned you yesterday with two shells” and ordered the evacuation of the facility.
“Speaking at a news conference surrounded by bodies of victims, Abu al-Rish held up pictures of the exploded munitions and the damage they left,” Al Jazeera reported.

Before the strike at al-Ahli hospital, the World Health Organization had documented nearly 60 attacks on health care, resulting in the deaths of 16 health care workers and damage to 26 health facilities. Four health facilities in northern Gaza were evacuated and “are no longer operational,” according to the UN.

Other hospitals have been hit in Israeli strikes since 7 October, though causing far fewer casualties.

Israeli political and military leaders have made numerous statements indicating that all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people were are target of its campaign of extermination, and have used language declaring their intent to commit genocide.

In previous confrontations, Israel blamed misfired rockets for strikes that killed civilians, only for investigations to later determine that its military was responsible.

In another high-profile incident that generated international outrage, Israel put out a video that purported to show that Palestinian gunmen were responsible for the killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank in May 2022.

That video was quickly debunked by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and numerous independent investigations have determined that an Israeli sniper killed Abu Akleh. No one has been held accountable for her killing.

Hours before the deadly strike on al-Ahli hospital, an Israeli military spokesperson appeared to walk back a threatened ground invasion, saying that “we are preparing for the next stages of war. We haven’t said what they will be.”

“Everybody’s talking about the ground offensive. It might be something different,” Richard Hecht said during a briefing with reporters.

International media are still not being allowed into Gaza, a point made by MSNBC correspondent Raf Sanchez while reporting on the al-Ahli strike from Ashdod, a city in southern Israel.

“The Israeli military, at this point, is not providing any evidence to back up its claims that this was a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket,” Sanchez said. He added that the death toll at al-Ahli “is not what you normally associate with Palestinian rockets.”

“They do not tend to kill hundreds of people in a single strike in the way that Israeli high explosives, especially these bunker buster bombs that are used to target these Hamas tunnels under Gaza City, do have the potential to kill hundreds of people,” Sanchez added.

Gaza’s health ministry held a press conference surrounded by the bodies of the victims of the al-Ahli strike. In front of the podium, a young man held the body of a baby killed in the blast.
The ministry said that the victims of the strike were all civilians and included many displaced people who had sought the sanctuary of the hospital – a point emphasized by a medical worker at the site who said it is the only Christian hospital in Gaza:
The nature of the injuries made it difficult to identify the victims, the health ministry said, and noted that hospital coordinates are provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in turn hands those coordinates to Israel.

Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh described seeing bodies that were completely dismembered, saying “it was rare to find a full body with all its parts”:

The health ministry said that a red line had been crossed in the bombing of al-Ahli hospital, and that it now feared for al-Shifa hospital.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said that it was “appalled and horrified by the bombardment” of al-Ahli hospital. The Red Crescent said that for days, it has been calling on the “international community to intervene to pressure Israel to rescind the evacuation orders for hospitals.”

The Red Crescent added that Gaza hospitals had received numerous “explicit written threats” from the Israeli military, including its own facility al-Quds hospital.

The Red Crescent called for an immediate cessation of Israel’s constant bombing and said that international silence “only emboldens such acts and increases the danger to the lives of innocent civilians.”

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, said he was “horrified” and strongly condemned the strike on al-Ahli but still has not called for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The World Organization said that it “strongly condemns the attack on al-Ahli,” noting that it was one of 20 hospitals in the north of Gaza “facing evacuation orders from the Israeli military.”

WHO added that the evacuation order is “impossible to carry out” and demanded that it be reversed.

Human Rights Watch condemned the strike on al-Ahli and said it was investigating.

“World leaders need to act to prevent large-scale atrocities and further loss of civilian life,” said Lama Fakih, a regional director at Human Rights Watch.

Doctors Without Borders said it was “horrified” by the “Israeli bombing” of al-Ahli hospital. “This is a massacre,” the group said.

Hamas said that the “horrific massacre carried out by the Zionist occupation” at al-Ahli hospital “is a crime of genocide that once again reveals the ugly face of this criminal enemy and its fascist and terrorist government.”

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ politburo, called for Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel to rise up and confront the occupation.

Haniyeh blamed the US for giving “unlimited cover” to the enemy to commit massacres, and said that the ongoing war crimes were enabled by the silence of the UN Security council, which “refused to condemn this occupation and this aggression.”

“The resistance continues and will not stop unless this occupier leaves our land and our holy places,” Haniyeh said.

Meanwhile, those killed in Gaza continue to be remembered on social media:


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.