“The shreds of the bodies have overlapped.”
That’s a quote from a doctor at Al Shifa, a hospital in Gaza where scores of injured survivors were being treated following an explosion at Ahli Arab, another hospital nearby.
“There were so many bodies I couldn’t even photograph,” an Anadolu Agency photographer who spoke to The New York Times said.
Video from the immediate aftermath of the blast at Ahli Arab, a facility run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, showed men and rescue workers pulling bodies from rubble. Images from Al Shifa depicted stunned children with empty gazes, wailing mothers, wide-eyed infants and dozens of haphazardly arranged corpses, some zipped up in white plastic, others only partially covered by curtains, sheets and blood-stained rugs.
Hundreds were killed in what some Gazan officials initially described as an Israeli airstrike. Following a two-hour investigation, the IDF blamed a malfunctioning rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, a claim the group denied. “There were no operations… in the area at all,” a spokesman said.
It was (and will probably remain) impossible to verify the competing claims. If militants in Gaza did inadvertently kill civilians due to equipment failure, it most assuredly wouldn’t be the first time. The IDF’s claim wasn’t implausible. In addition, it would’ve been a poor strategic decision on Israel’s part to target a crowded hospital the day before Joe Biden was scheduled to visit Benjamin Netanyahu in a show of solidarity. Biden has already cautioned Israel against occupying Gaza and he’s under pressure from some Democrats (not to mention many interested parties in the international community) to use his sway to shield Palestinian civilians. Deliberately killing hundreds of innocents sheltering at a healthcare facility might’ve prompted Biden to cancel his trip.
Still, Israel has made it abundantly clear that civilian casualties, while regrettable, are an acceptable outcome if it means eliminating Hamas’s leadership and degrading its infrastructure. Thousands of Gazans have been killed in Israeli airstrikes since October 7, many of them children. Thousands more will die. The ratio of dead Gazan civilians to militants killed is, and will stay, quite high.
The problem for Israel is that, frankly, the Muslim world doesn’t care who was actually responsible, and even if it were possible to prove that it was, in fact, an errant missile fired by Islamic Jihad, many in the Mideast would say the proof was fabricated. Hezbollah called it a “massacre” and demanded a “day of rage,” which is exactly what you don’t want to hear if you’re Biden. Lebanon will close schools on Wednesday. It’s very likely that clashes between Hezbollah and the IDF will worsen in the days ahead. Axios reported Tuesday that the White House has discussed “the possibility of using military force” in the event Hezbollah engages Israel in more than sporadic exchanges.
The hospital tragedy was another blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to push for normalized relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis blamed the IDF for the blast, calling the explosion a “barbaric attack” and a “flagrant violation of international law and norms.” Egypt blamed Israel too, accusing the IDF of “deliberate strikes on civilian facilities and targets.” Hamas called it “genocide” and encouraged Palestinians in the West Bank to “take to the streets.”
Speaking of the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas headed back, cutting short a stay in Jordan where he was supposed to meet Biden at a summit to discuss the war. Biden subsequently canceled his plans to visit Jordan, which, along with the West Bank, will observe a three-day mourning period for the victims of the hospital blast. Jordan ultimately canceled the entire summit.
Whoever was responsible, this was an unmitigated disaster. Many of the dead were sheltering at the hospital following the IDF’s evacuation order which, Israel helpfully reminded the world on Tuesday, did include hospitals. The facility itself ultimately falls under the authority of the Anglican Episcopal Church.
“The hospital was one of 20 in the north of the Gaza Strip facing evacuation orders from the Israeli military,” WHO said, in a statement. “The order for evacuation has been impossible to carry out given the current insecurity, critical condition of many patients, and lack of ambulances, staff, health system bed capacity and alternative shelter for those displaced.”
Biden issued a statement after Air Force One took off for Israel. “I am outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza, and the terrible loss of life that resulted,” he remarked.
Iyad al-Bazm, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior and National Security in Gaza, participated in a press conference outside the Al Shifa Hospital. “America is a partner in the killing of our people,” he said. Last week, he exhorted Gazans to defy Israel’s evacuation order.