Five days after Hamas accused Israel of bombing a hospital in Gaza City and killing hundreds of people, the armed Palestinian group has yet to produce or describe any evidence linking Israel to the strike, says it cannot find the munition that hit the site and has declined to provide detail to support its count of the casualties.
Within an hour of the blast on Tuesday night, the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry accused Israel of attacking the Ahli Arab hospital, a medical center in Gaza City where scores offamilies had been sheltering. The allegation was soon denied by Israel but quickly accepted and amplified by Arab leaders across the Middle East, setting off unrest throughout the region. The claim was widely cited by international news outlets, including The New York Times, before Israel issued its denial.
But in the days since, as new evidence contradicting the Hamas claim has emerged, the Gazan authorities have changed their story about the blast. Spokespeople have released death tolls varying from 500 to 833, before settling on 471.
The Hamas-run health ministry has also declined to release further details about those 471 victims, and all traces of the munition have seemingly vanished from the site of the blast, making it impossible to assess its provenance. Raising further questions about Hamas’s claims, the impact site turned out to be the hospital parking lot, and not the hospital itself.
On Sunday, Hamas turned down requests by The Times to view any available evidence of the munition it said had struck the hospital, claiming that it had disintegrated beyond recognition.
“The missile has dissolved like salt in the water,” said Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, in a phone interview. “It’s vaporized. Nothing is left.”
Salama Maroof, the head of the Hamas-run government media office, said in a text message: “Who says we’re obligated to present the remnants of every rocket that kills our people? In general, you can come and research and confirm for yourself from the evidence we possess.”
For Palestinians, the accusation of Israeli responsibility for the blast has cemented the perception that Israel’s response to the Hamas-led terrorist attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7 has been disproportionate and vengeful. The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry says that Israeli strikes have killed more than 4,300 Palestinians, 40 percent of them children, and the high reported death toll has undermined international support for Israel’s counterattack.
Palestinians wounded in Ahli Arab Hospital blast were later treated at another hospital in Gaza on Tuesday.Credit…Abed Khaled/Associated Press
But to Israelis, the accusation that Israel hit the hospital is part of a grand deception aimed at undermining the legitimacy of Israel’s response to what officials say was the deadliest single attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
Roughly 1,400 people were killed by Hamas’s raid on Oct. 7, the vast majority of them civilians, and more than 200 people were abducted to Gaza.
Israel said the strike on the hospital parking lot was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket, citing intelligence intercepts and videos of the sky above Gaza at the time. The Israeli military said the rocket was fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group in Gaza allied with Hamas, before malfunctioning in midair and exploding when its propellant caught fire upon hitting the ground.
“According to our intelligence, Hamas checked the report, understood it was an Islamic Jihad rocket that had misfired and decided to launch a global media campaign to hide what really happened,” said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, in a press briefing on Wednesday.
The military also said that Palestinian armed groups had mistakenly fired more than 550 rockets into their own territory since the war began more than two weeks ago. The claim could not be immediately verified but Palestinian groups have previously acknowledged that their rockets land in Gaza; video last year showed one zigzagging through the air shortly after launch, before plummeting into a civilian area.
“We have made mistakes, I am not going to deny it,” said Musab Al-Breim, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, in an interview on Wednesday. “However, not mistakes of this size.”
Israel has also turned down requests by The Times to provide logs of all its military activity in the area at the time of the strike, and declined to specify the video on which it based its assessment of Palestinian responsibility.
A protest outside the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul on Wednesday. Despite a lack of evidence, accusations that Israel had attacked the hospital led to widespread outrage across the Middle East.Credit…Umit Turhan Coskun/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Israeli messaging about the rocket launch site has also been inconsistent: Admiral Hagari suggested the errant rocket was launched from a cemetery close to the hospital, while a map posted online by the military suggested the launch site was farther away.
But the Biden administration has backed Israel, with officials saying that multiple strands of early intelligence, including infrared satellite data, show a launch of a rocket or missile from Palestinian fighter positions within Gaza.
A visual investigation conducted by the Wall Street Journal strongly supported the Israeli interpretation, while investigations by the Associated Press and CNN also tentatively backed it. All three investigations cited television footage that they said appeared to show a misfired Palestinian rocket in the sky above the hospital, and experts who said the damage at the site did not resemble that typically caused by an Israeli missile strike.
Forensic Architecture, a London-based visual investigation group, disputed the Israeli account, saying that the munition had been fired from the direction of Israel. Al Jazeera, a Qatari news channel, concluded that a Palestinian rocket had been intercepted by an Israeli air defense missile. Both are often critical of Israeli policies.
Without examining the munition that hit the parking lot, it may be impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about who fired it.
But by the time reporters arrived at the site on the morning after the blast, any remnants of the munition appeared to have been removed, preventing independent analysis of its origin. Reporters and photographers who toured the site that day found a shallow dent in the ground, but no deep crater of the kind usually caused by an Israeli precision-guided missile used in an airstrike.
The strike could have been caused by a different Israeli munition that causes a smaller impact, such as an errant interceptor fired by an air defense system or an artillery shell. But Israel said it does not fire interceptors into Gazan airspace, and that it was not firing shells toward that specific area at that time.
Munitions experts dismissed Hamas’s claim that the munition had completely disintegrated on impact.
“One would expect remnants to be recoverable in all but the most extreme circumstances, and the available imagery of the hospital site suggests something ought to be identifiable on the ground,” said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy based in Australia.
Burned cars litter the parking lot of the hospital. Credit…Abed Khaled/Associated Press
For Palestinians, the debate over who is responsible for the hospital blast obscures a broader context in which Israeli strikes have devastated whole neighborhoods, displaced hundreds of thousands of Gazans and killed thousands of others.
“You ignore all the other massacres,” said Mr. Hamad, the Hamas official.
Israel has cut almost all supply of electricity, food, water and fuel, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in the enclave and leaving hospitals short of power and even baby formula. Scores of public institutions in northern Gaza, including hospitals like the Ahli Arab hospital, were warned by Israel to evacuate.
The World Health Organization reported on Saturday that at least 19 hospitals had been damaged since the war broke out on Oct. 7. Last week, the organization said that three hospitals had “sustained heavy damages to the point that they are no longer functioning.” At least 16 health care workers have been killed and 28 injured, according to the WHO.
“We’ve never lived through a war this intense,” said Motasem Mortaja, a Palestinian journalist who documented the aftermath of the hospital strike.
Israeli officials say their attacks are aimed at members of armed Palestinian groups and their military infrastructure, and that Hamas and its allies are to blame for civilian deaths because they construct many of their bases and rocket launchers in residential areas.
Israel also disputes the Palestinian death toll, saying that the number of people killed at the Ahli Arab hospital is lower than reported, without elaborating. American intelligence agencies have assessed that the blast killed 100 to 300 people.
The Gazan authorities declined to name any of the people killed in the blast, saying that many bodies still had yet to be identified.
The Rev. Fadi Diab, deputy chairman of the hospital’s board, said it was hard to confirm the death toll. Father Diab said the hospital administration in Gaza had told him there were between 450 and 500 displaced Gazans sheltering at the hospital site before the blast, but that it was unclear how many of them were in the parking lot when the explosion occurred.
“Could the numbers be exaggerated? It’s possible. But could the numbers also be correct? That’s also possible,” Father Diab said in a phone call. “No one is currently able to do verification,” he added.
Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in Gaza. Hamas would not provide evidence of the death toll. Credit…Abed Khaled/Associated Press
Yousur Al-Hlou contributed reporting from Cairo.