What do we know about the strike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Baptist hospital?

What do we know about the strike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Baptist hospital?
As speculation spirals over a devastating strike on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, The New Arab tries to piece together what we know about the horrific attack.
7 min read
18 October, 2023
The Palestinian health ministry said 471 people were confirmed dead in the airstrike [Getty]

The devastating strike on the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday is the biggest single loss of life in the besieged Palestinian enclave since Israel and Hamas went to war on 7 October.

By all estimates, hundreds of people were killed in the strike, as the facility brimmed with people seeking medical treatment and shelter from Israel's bombardment of Gaza.

Palestinian factions and Israel have traded blame for the bombing. Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority controlling the West Bank say Israel is responsible for the strike, as has the Gaza-based militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Israel has blamed the PIJ for the strike.

As questions and speculation over the bombing continue to swirl, The New Arab tries to piece together what we know about the horrific attack.

Al-Ahli Arab Hospital: 'A haven of peace'

The Al-Ahli Arab Hospital is decidedly Christian in its foundations. The hospital was founded by the Church Mission Society of the Church of England in 1882, making it one of the oldest hospitals in Gaza.

Management of the facility has changed hands between churches in the facility's long history. For three decades from the 1950s, it was managed by the Medical Mission of the Southern Baptist Church; it was known during that time as the Baptist Hospital (Mamdani in Arabic). The hospital is still commonly known as the Mamdani Hospital, or the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital.

The church has been run since the 1980s by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, who on its website describe the facility as a sanctuary in Gaza.

"With well-tended grounds, it is a haven of peace in the middle of one of the world’s most troubled places," the Diocese said on its website.

Funding for the church appears to come largely from the Anglican Church and the European Union, as well as charity donations.

The hospital was one of 20 in northern Gaza Strip to have received an evacuation order from the Israeli army amid its assault on the enclave, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Hospitals in the area have said there has been no way of safely evacuating patients in response to Israel’s orders.

What is the death toll?

In the hours after the strike, health ministry officials in Gaza said about 500 people had been killed. On Wednesday afternoon, the Gazan health ministry said 471 people had been confirmed killed in the strike - with bodies still buried beneath the rubble.

Some on social media have cast doubts on this number, saying that photo and video of the damage at the scene is not significant enough to have caused so high a death toll. 

However, the hospital was not only packed with people seeking regular treatment, but those who had been injured by Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip that has now lasted 12 days. Also at the facility were people seeking not medical care, but shelter from Israeli bombing.

Who is responsible for the strike?

Palestinian officials and other groups say the strike was launched by Israel.

Since 7 October, Israel has dropped thousands of bombs on the Gaza Strip – one of the most densely populated places in the world – killing close to 3,500 people so far, one-third of them children. 

Al-Ahli hospital had already been bombed earlier this week, injuring four healthcare workers and causing severe damage to a cancer treatment ward. 

It was widely reported, including by an organisation linked to the Diocese of Jerusalem, that that strike had been launched by Israel. Le Monde quoted a local health ministry official as saying that the Israeli army had called the hospital's director to tell them that the attack was a warning to evacuate. 

Paramedics and other healthcare personnel have been among those killed in Israel's relentless and indiscriminate bombardment of the Gaza Strip, and just yesterday, a UN-run school in a refugee camp in Gaza was bombed.

Israel has also bombed hospitals and other healthcare facilities during its previous attacks on the Gaza Strip.

However, it blamed militants from Palestinian Islamic Jihad for Wednesday's attack. 

Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters Wednesday that rockets fired by the PIJ passed by the hospital at the time of the strike.

He claimed however that the military did have an Israeli air force operation in the area around the time of the hospital blast, "but it was with a different kind of ammunition that does not... fit the footage that we have (of) the hospital."

Israel went on the offensive on its official social media Thursday, posting media it claimed proved that the missile fire that hit Al-Ahli had come from within the Gaza Strip.

It posted video that it said showed the launch site of the missiles as being within Gaza, and an audio recording that it claimed proved that Hamas knew that it was the PIJ that had struck the hospital.

The PIJ has dismissed Israel's accusations, squarely blaming Israel for the attack on the hospital.

In the hours that followed the attack, Israeli official twitter accounts put contradictory statements, first blaming Hamas then the PIJ for the attack. Some accounts used videos from last year, then deleted them. Others edited tweets to remove videos purporting to show the alleged misfire. On Wednesday, Israel released an audio tape allegedly of Hamas operatives discussing the alleged misfire, only for it to be judged likely fake by UK-based Channel 4 sources.

Israel's disinformation tactics have immediately led many to believe in its culpability, amid calls for access to the site for investigation and verification.

Palestinian militants have in the past misfired rockets, killing civilians and damaging property. However, no rocket ever launched by Palestinian groups has ever had such a deadly effect - anywhere - as that on the Al-Ahli hospital.

Preliminary open-source intelligence analyses are so far producing very different answers.

An analysis by BBC Verify has proved inconclusive.

In its analysis centring on an apparent impact crater, Bellingcat said it was likely that the crater was created by a munitions explosion. Hagari had claimed "that no craters had been left at the site".

Some OSINT analysts have cast doubt on Israel's account of events, even after it published what it called "receipts" of Palestinian militant misfire.

Israel’s smoke and mirrors

Israeli has on several occasions in the past lied about who has conducted an attack, then backtracked on its claims. What benefit would Israel gain from lying about the attacks?

Earlier in the current round of violence, Israeli military personnel had claimed that Hamas had beheaded babies and children during their assault on the Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Aza. International media outlets ran with the claim, plastering it on their front pages — albeit with the qualification that the claims were "unverified".

The army later backtracked on this claim, saying that it could not definitively say that Hamas fighters had beheaded babies and children — but the damage to Hamas’ image had been done.

Another high-profile case of Israeli disinformation occurred last year, after the murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Abu Akleh, a journalist for Al Jazeera, was shot in the head while reporting on an Israeli raid on a refugee camp in Jenin, in the occupied West Bank.

Eyewitnesses said Abu Akleh, who had been wearing a protective vest marked 'PRESS' and a helmet, had been shot by an Israeli sniper. Subsequent investigations into the incident effectively confirmed that this had been the case .

At the outset, Israeli denied that Abu Akleh had been killed by one of its soldiers — instead claiming that she had been killed by Palestinian militant gunfire.

It later backtracked on this claim, instead saying that one of its soldiers likely killed Abu Akleh unintentionally.

Its stubborn denial that it killed Abu Akleh had cast doubt on what should have been accepted as fact — that an Israeli soldier had murdered a journalist.