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Who Bombed the al-Ahli Hospital?
The people of Palestine are, once again, paying the price
Shortly after 6:30pm in the Gaza Strip, a Telegram channel linked to Hamas’ military wing uploaded a cartoonish illustration of three missiles firing into the sky. It’s their way of announcing that a new missile barrage had been fired towards Israel.
“Blessings are coming now,” they added a minute later. And then: “A heavy missile salvo from Gaza towards Tel Aviv.” They included the rocket emoji.
The wave of missiles, they said, was retaliation for civilian deaths caused by Israel’s bombardment of north Gaza.
The account uploaded a map, showing that a roughly 12 kilometer stretch north of the Gaza Strip where the missiles were headed. Air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv. The missiles were fired, the Hamas account wrote, to disrupt a planned press conference between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Israeli which had begun earlier that hour.
At 6:44, the account declared a new barrage of missiles had been fired. Over the next fifteen minutes, the account pinpointed the missile strikes, in the towns of Ashkelon and Sderot, just outside the Gaza border. The rockets flew, according to Hamas, from central Gaza in about a 45° spread northeast.
Cameras trained on the Gaza skyline caught sight of this array of rocket rising from deep within Gaza, their propellant burning bright red. An al-Jazeera camera notices a lone rocket flying through the night and zooms in. It seems to flicker for a second before quickly flaming out into an array of sparks. The sky goes dark again, and the camera zooms out: Directly below, an explosion erupts from within Gaza. The clock at the bottom of the screen reads: 6:59.
Less than 15 minutes later, a Hamas channel is the first to report the news of an explosion near the site of the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital.
At 7:20, the Hamas account provided another update: “Occupation aircraft target the Baptist Hospital in Gaza.”
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, we try and break through the fog of war which led to the unspeakable loss at the al-Ahli hospital.
While the available evidence points to a Hamas rocket being the culprit, it is yet another sign of the total disregard for Palestinian life present on both sides. If this war continues, it will only get worse.
In 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution announcing it “strongly condemns all violations of applicable international law involving…attacks against schools or hospitals.” It further asked the UN Secretary General to begin monitoring how hospitals are used for military operations in armed conflict.
The idea that hospitals are humanitarian safe zones during conflict is not new. It has been a core part of international law for more than a century, and the Geneva Convention spells out the protected status of hospitals.
But Resolution 1998 meant there would be better monitoring of how states violate that foundational piece of international law. The findings were dire.
Earlier this year, the UN observed 114 attacks on hospitals in Israel and Palestine — of them, the overwhelming majority were committed by the Israeli Defense Forces or Israeli settlers. Just one was attributed to Hamas and other militant groups.
Israel makes no secret of its violating of international law. It contends that Hamas has consistently used hospitals and other civilian infrastructure to camouflage its military capabilities. “They're hiding rockets in hospitals; they're hiding arms in hospitals; they're shooting from hospitals. So they just don't care,” Netanyahu said in 2014. It’s a claim supported by some photographic evidence and an extensive report from Amnesty International, which concluded Hamas was responsible for war crimes.
There has been debate about the extent to which this is true. Israel, for example, alleged in 2009 that the Shifa Hospital is almost exclusively a front for Hamas. That claim has long proved controversial: While one journalist reported seeing missile launches from the hospital, the UN says they have been unable to find firm evidence for the claim.
Hamas, however, carefully denies that it uses civilian infrastructure to hide its missile stockpiles or to launch its attacks. They, however, underscores that Gaza is “one uninterrupted urban chain that Israel has turned into a war zone.” A Hamas spokesperson told the AP in 2014 that it often fires missiles from “200 or 300 meters” away from hospitals and schools — conceding, however, that there were “some mistakes made.”
No one is denying, though, that Hamas’ missile program has grown enormously. The earliest version of their al-Qassam missile could travel just a few kilometers, carrying a tiny explosive payload. The whole thing weighed just 12 pounds.
Between the 2000s and 2010s, however, Hamas — with help from Iran and Hizbollah — expanded its production capabilities, building rockets which could fly further and do more damage.
While their production has advanced considerably, it remains hobbled by the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
According to the IDF, of 4,300 rockets that were fired from Gaza in 2021, 680 misfired — a failure rate of about 15%. IDF estimates of this most recent conflict put the failure rate lower, at about 5%. While only the IDF is in a position to compile those kinds of statistics, the Palestinian health authority and Human Rights Watch have both catalogued numerous civilian deaths caused by these rocket misfires.
So Hamas is committing war crimes by using civilian infrastructure such as hospitals to store arms and launch missiles. It is committing war crimes by targeting civilian infrastructure in Israel. And it is putting Palestinian civilians in harms way by firing these error-prone rockets directly over densely-packed areas.
Using those facts as justification, Israel has repeatedly targeted civilian infrastructure with airstrikes. Palestinian media has reported that the death toll inside Gaza may be nearly 3,500, including hundreds of children. It is difficult to offer an exact number of casualties because human rights groups like Amnesty International have been denied access. While there are journalists on the ground, Israeli airstrikes and shelling have already killed more than a dozen reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Roughly a million Palestinians have been displaced.
Some remain stuck in north Gaza, where Israel is stepping up operations. While Israel has consistently warned residents to evacuate, some — including healthcare workers — are unable or unwilling to leave.
Humanitarian groups say that Israel’s demand to evacuate the area, particularly hospitals, is impossible, irresponsible, maybe even illegal.
Despite that, Israel launched an airstrike on the al-Ahli hospital on October 15, damaging the upper floors and injuring healthcare workers. Christian aid groups, which help run al-Ahli, have warned that is well over capacity, with more than 6,000 patients seeking care amid power outages and dwindling medicine supplies.
What happened on October 17?
The first images from the explosion at al-Ahli began to stream in shortly before 7:30pm, local time.
Photos showed a fire raging outside of the hospital, in the parking lot. In videos from the scene, bodies are strewn on the ground. Distraught voices can be heard surveying the scene, looking desperately for survivors. Initial estimates put the death toll at the hospital between 200 and 300 dead, though Hamas sources would later claim that more than 500 had been killed. The hospital appeared to have been using the parking lot as an overflow area for the over-capacity hospital. That’s where the explosion occurred.
Hamas sources immediately identified Israel as the culprit. Palestinian figures called the attack a “genocide.” The terror group put the call out to hold “anger marches” across the Arab world and in refugee camps. They fired more rockets towards Israel. Scholz’s flight was grounded, and the German leader was forced to take cover on the tarmac after missiles headed towards Ben Gurion Airport.
The Israeli Defense Forces, for their part, did not initially refute the story, saying it would require further investigation. The IDF noted their call to evacuate the hospital. They would quickly clarify that the Israeli Air Force was not in the area at the time.
Quickly, Arab leaders denounced Israeli’s purported strike on the hospital. A proposed summit between the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and the United States was cancelled. Protests erupted in Jordan, the West Bank, and further afield.
Over the next two hours, however, evidence would emerge that the explosion was not the result of an Israeli airstrike but, instead, devastation caused by an errant missile fired from within Gaza.
Stitching together video1 from multiple sources — which show a nearly-identical scene, albeit with some conflicting timestamps2 — show essentially the same story. A barrage of missiles was fired from central Gaza, mostly north-east, into Israel. One rocket appears to have malfunctioned mid-flight, over Gaza City. Its fuel source burned out as the rest of the rocket fell to earth: A massive explosion occurred, just before 7pm. Word of the explosion at al-Ahli was first posted at 7:11pm. There is no mention of Israeli jets or airstrikes until the first images from the damage at the hospital are posted at 7:24pm.
Even as information first began to emerge of the damage at al-Ahli, Hamas continued to boast of its strikes in Israel. One map shows approximately 20 points — ostensibly, successful missile landings or interceptions — spread out around the area northeast of Gaza.
Multiple channels shared a collection of videos and images showing the damage caused in Sderot, Israel. One of those photos, however, actually showed the fire at the al-Ahli hospital. In other words, just 30 minutes after the explosion, Hamas mistakenly took credit for the al-Ahli bombing.
We can cobble together this explanation of what happened without relying on the IDF at all. The video evidence is very compelling. Overlaid with Hamas’ own communications and their accounting of the missile strikes, it’s hard to refute.
Looking at the IDF’s explanation just confirms it. In particular, they identify the likely launch site for the missile barrages, approximately 5km southwest of the hospital. That puts the hospital directly between the launch site and Sderot. The IDF says those missiles, in particular, were fired by Islamic Palestinian Jihad, a terror group both affiliated and in competition with Hamas.
What’s more, the IDF released an intercepted phone which, they say, proves Hamas knew it was their missile which caused the explosion at al-Ahli.
This is not to say that it is impossible that Israel was responsible for the explosion. But the possible explanations are shaky, at best.
One Hamas channel reported “violent shelling” in a neighborhood closer to the Israeli border, about ten minutes before the al-Ahli explosion. Video footage of the explosion, however, suggests the explosive fell from a significant height, meaning it is unlikely to have been fired by artillery. And this fails to explain the video evidence showing the missile from the sky.
Some have speculated that the explosion was caused by the missile being intercepted by Israeli aircraft or air defence. This seems even more unlikely, however, as the Iron Dome functions by intercepting the incoming missiles inside Israeli airspace, not from their point of origin. Footage from that evening shows the Iron Dome working over the skies of Tel Aviv and elsewhere, whereas there is no such visual evidence over Gaza.
Others have grabbed onto small pieces of data, like the ‘whistling’ sound made by the explosive just before impact — proof, apparently, that it had to have been an airstrike. But that is little more than guesswork, and ignores the fact that missiles often do make an eerie whistling noise when heading towards earth.
All told, the evidence is considerable that Hamas — and its affiliate, Islamic Palestinian Jihad — was responsible for the explosion at the al-Ahli hospital. Though it was not intentional, it was the result of Hamas’ dangerous bombing campaign.
It is critical we get this stuff right.
Even 24 hours after the explosion at the hospital, major international news outlets continued to report as fact that Israel was responsible for this bombing. Given how much distrust currently exists for the international coverage of the conflict — much of it earned — mistakes like that are incredibly damaging.
While it was reasonable to conclude that Israel was responsible for the strike initially, given it had hit this hospital on at least one occasion in the previous weeks, reporting that claim without caveat was irresponsible. Continuing to report it is negligent.
Hamas’ culpability for this destruction does not absolve Israel of responsibility for the damage already inflicted on Gaza, nor for the damage that is likely to come. It should only remind us that both parties are culpable for enormous losses of innocent life in Gaza — and that Hamas is simultaneously trying to kill as many civilians in Israel as possible.
Hamas’ refusal to observe the laws of war should make it more imperative that Israel do so, not less. As I wrote last week, Hamas’ strategy turns on Israel delegitimizing itself, pushing even more Palestinians into despair and desperation. It is a miserable one that Israel would do well not to play into.
That’s it for this extra dispatch.
This was not the dispatch I had planned for this week, but I wanted to hustle to get this out because of the misinformation spreading online.
Expect another — considerably less heartbreaking — dispatch soon.
There are many videos floating around out there. Some are clearly from different days, even different years. This analysis is limited to the few videos that can be adequately timestamped or confirmed as legit.
Incorrect timestamps on non-networked cameras isn’t terribly uncommon.