Hundreds killed in explosion at a crowded Gaza hospital

Updated October 17, 2023 at 7:25 PM ET

Palestinian health officials say hundreds of people have been killed in an explosion at a crowded Gaza hospital. The cause of the explosion has not yet been confirmed, with Palestinian authorities accusing Israel and Israel saying a Palestinian militant group was responsible.

It comes as Israel and Hamas trade airstrikes and rocket fire and mediators press for an agreement to allow aid to enter the Gaza Strip and refugees with foreign passports out of the enclave.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the organization "strongly condemns the attack on Al Ahili Arab Hospital in north Gaza. Early reports indicate hundreds of deaths and injuries. We call for the immediate protection of civilians and health care, and for the evacuation orders to be reversed."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for three days of mourning and canceled a meeting planned for Wednesday in Jordan with President Biden, according to Palestinian officials. The meeting was supposed to take place during Biden's trip to the Middle East.

Shortly thereafter, the White House confirmed that his planned stop in Amman, Jordan, where he was to meet Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was canceled altogether.

"The President sent his deepest condolences for the innocent lives lost in the hospital explosion in Gaza, and wished a speedy recovery to the wounded," a White House official said in a statement. "He looks forward to consulting in person with these leaders soon, and agreed to remain regularly and directly engaged with each of them over the coming days."

Arab governments blame Israel for the hospital explosion, Israel says a militant group is to blame

Palestinian authorities, along with Arab governments including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accused Israel of bombing the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza.

But in a statement to NPR, the Israel Defense Forces said it considers a hospital a sensitive building and not an IDF target.

In an official statement, the IDF put the blame of the hospital blast on another militant group, smaller than Hamas, called the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

"The hospital was hit as a result of a failed rocket launched by the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization," IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said. "The terrorist organizations within the Gaza Strip fire indiscriminately toward Israel. Since the beginning of the war, approximately 450 rockets launched toward Israel have fallen within Gaza, endangering and harming the lives of Gazan residents."

Before news of the explosion at the hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said that the death toll in Gaza Strip numbered around 3,000 and more than 12,500 wounded. It's expected that the incident at the hospital will increase these numbers.

In the West Bank, 61 people are dead and more than 1,250 injured.

More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority of that number during the unprecedented Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that included the taking of almost 200 hostages.

A Palestinian woman mourns after an Israeli airstrike at the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.
A Palestinian woman mourns after an Israeli airstrike at the Rafah refugee camp, in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.
Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

Civilian facilities struggle

Hospitals are already struggling to care for the thousands of injured people in Gaza as fuel for generators runs low after Israel imposed a full siege on the small territory.

Earlier Tuesday, the United Nations' Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA, said a school where thousands of Gaza residents have taken refuge, was hit, killing at least six people.

At least 4,000 people had taken refuge in he school in al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza when it was hit during an Israeli airstrike and bombardment, according to Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general.

Since the war began on Oct. 7, UNRWA says it has provided the coordinates of its facilities "to relevant parties" daily.

"Dozens were injured (including UNRWA staff) and severe structural damage was caused to the school. The numbers are likely to be higher. This is outrageous, and it again shows a flagrant disregard for the lives of civilians," Lazzarini said in a statement. "No place is safe in Gaza anymore, not even UNRWA facilities." The thousands who took refuge in the school still have nowhere else to go, Lazzarini said.

As these incidents underscore, facilities where civilians are seeking care and shelter have come under attack as the conflict drags on.

As Palestinians struggle to find safe passage, health care and clean, reliable water, officials from Hamas — the militant group that governs Gaza remained unrepentant for the group's attack on Israel that began last Saturday.

Israel says it will not stop its attacks until it has destroyed Hamas.

"Every Hamas member is a dead man," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week.

Hamas wants the world's attention, spokesman says

The group's surprise attack targeted a music festival, where militants killed more than 200 people and sent young people fleeing into bomb shelters.

"This is a fake story. This is a fake story. Hundred percent," Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said to NPR.

Multiple eyewitnesses and video recordings have confirmed the attack on the festival. Some attendees are also among those being held hostage.

Hamad spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep for Morning Edition from inside Gaza. He didn't disclose a specific location.

Of that attack, which started this latest conflict, Hamad said: "We want to get the attention of the world. We are under oppression and torture and collective punishment all the time. That's our message for the world."

The Israeli military says Hamas is "responsible for the humanitarian consequences" of the violence and chaos that followed last weekend's attack.

As for the hostages taken by Hamas, Hamad claimed they were providing the nearly 200 people with shelter and protection.

Those hostages include some military personnel, children and one Holocaust survivor, Israeli military spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said early Tuesday morning during a briefing on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Hamad said Hamas would not release hostages: "But it is a war. No. Our priority now is to stop aggression and death on Gaza."

Hamad said he is more concerned with Palestinian civilians than with hostages.

Lack of water and electricity creates a crisis in Gaza

Gaza's 2.3 million residents are struggling as Israel shut off supplies of water, food and power to Gaza's main electricity grid days ago.

After meetings with Israeli officials, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the U.S. and Israel had agreed to develop a plan to get aid from "donor nations and multilateral organizations" to the besieged Gaza Strip.

"It is critical that aid begins flowing into Gaza as soon as possible," Blinken said at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv early Tuesday. There are also discussions to possibly establish areas to help keep civilians safe, he said.

The fraught situation hinges on the border crossing at Rafah, where trucks bearing humanitarian aid are sitting in Egypt, just across at the territory's southern border.

The Rafah crossing is currently closed, and the process of reopening promises to be complicated. In theory, fuel, water and other aid would flow into Gaza while refugees and foreign nationals flow out. But Israel is worried Hamas would exploit the crossing; Egypt is wary of taking in hundreds of thousands of people — and Palestinians are worried they wouldn't be allowed back into Gaza if they leave.

In the wake of Israel's Oct. 13 order to evacuate the northern part of the Gaza Strip, the number of internally displaced people reached 1 million on Monday, the United Nations said. Conricus said Tuesday that about 500,000 Israelis have also been displaced in the south of Israel due to the hostilities.

But Hamad, the Hamas spokesperson, said the organization has asked "our people to stay here" in order to "stand against the Israeli evacuation."

He denied the frequently cited accusation by Israel that Hamas plans to use civilians as human shields.

Liyam, who gave only his first name, pays respect at the grave of his fellow commander, at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Monday.
Liyam, who gave only his first name, pays respect at the grave of his fellow commander, at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Monday.
Petros Giannakouris/AP

Biden to visit the region as strikes are exchanged across Israel's border

Israeli military forces are continuing to attack Hamas in the south of the country, focusing on the Gaza Strip, while fighting new attacks from Hezbollah along the northern border with Lebanon, Conricus said. On Tuesday, Israel's military said it killed four militants attempting to cross into the country from Lebanon.

Residents evacuated dozens of Israeli towns near the northern border in anticipation of full-blown fighting between Israel and Hezbollah militants.

Overnight, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Israel's military said Tuesday that it killed Osama Mazini, a Hamas official who Israel says was responsible for prisoners taken by Hamas and who directed terrorist strikes against Israel.

Gaza's Ministry of Health reported more dead and wounded from Israeli strikes. The latest reports say dozens were killed and dozens more wounded by strikes at Rafah and Khan Younis, an area in southern Gaza where Israel had told residents to travel in advance of an expected ground offensive in north of the enclave. The ministry also reported that people remain trapped under the rubble of homes and buildings hit by airstrikes.

Amid the growing fears of violence potentially expanding across the region, the White House had announced President Biden will visit the region. But now with the blast in the hospital in Gaza and canceled meetings in Jordan, Biden will only visit Tel Aviv on Wednesday where he will make a very visible show of U.S. support for the country.

U.S. officials have said they believe at least a few Americans are being held hostage by Hamas, and Biden will seek an update on the hostage situation while he is in the region, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

NPR staffers Jaclyn Diaz, Bill Chappell and Steve Inskeep reported from Washington, D.C. NPR staffers Peter Kenyon contributed reporting from Jerusalem and Daniel Estrin and Samantha Balaban contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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