At almost exactly 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17, an almighty explosion rocked Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. Without warning, a missile fell directly onto the courtyard of the hospital and burst into flames; the impact, and the ensuing fires — including dozens of cars that were set alight — reportedly killed hundreds among the thousands of people who were sheltering there after having been displaced from their homes in the eastern parts of the besieged enclave.
Hamas immediately declared Israel responsible for the blast; Israel quickly denied the charge, claiming that the explosion was caused by a misfired rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad — a claim echoed by President Biden in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. Even as the narrative war raged on in the international media, however, the scene on the ground was one of total devastation.
A woman who was inside one of the hospital buildings when the bomb exploded told +972 that children who just moments earlier were playing in the courtyard suddenly “fell to the ground with their blood flowing. I witnessed a complete massacre that no mind can comprehend.” Medical staff from the nearby Al-Shifa Hospital rushed to the scene after the missile hit, finding body parts scattered all around the courtyard.
Muhammad Al-Naqla, the hospital’s public relations director, explained that the hospital — which is one of the oldest in the strip, and is run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem — is not affiliated with any political faction. It provides both health and social services, and was considered a safe haven for the residents of the surrounding areas as well as those displaced from the eastern region of Gaza City.
Two days prior to the blast, Al-Naqla said, the hospital received a warning call from the Israeli army telling them to stop receiving patients. “We were not informed of the need to evacuate the hospital, which is known from previous wars to be a safe refuge for residents,” he added. After that warning, hospital staff made contact with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the U.K., head of the worldwide Anglican church, who called on Israel to protect the hospital, its patients, and its staff — after the hospital had already been targeted by Israeli airstrikes just three days earlier.
Although the blast occurred in the courtyard, Al-Naqla described significant destruction to the hospital itself. “All the buildings were damaged, and all the windows and doors were shattered,” he said. “Communication networks, water, electricity, and internet infrastructure were also damaged, along with the burns treatment department — considered one of the most important departments operating at the present time — the physical therapy department, the church and mosque.”
Al-Naqla explained that he expected a full inventory of the damage to take around two days. But while most of the displaced people sheltering there have been evacuated, the hospital continues to provide urgent care for those who need it. “Right now, there are 10 patients still in the hospital — people who had previously been operated on after their homes were targeted, and who cannot be taken out,” he said.
‘Is there a greater injustice than this?’
Muhammad Al-Dahdar is still in a state of shock. The 46-year-old from the Shuja’iya neighborhood in the east of Gaza City was sheltering at the hospital courtyard with his family when it was bombed.
“We heard the sound of a missile launched from a plane, and a second later we felt the explosion,” he said. “I flew 10 meters away from where I was sitting, sustaining several wounds throughout my body.”
Al-Dahdar explained that during the nights, the men sheltering at the hospital cleared the courtyard so that the women and children could have some privacy. That meant that while he and his son were sitting behind the hospital walls when the blast occurred, his wife and children were inside the courtyard.
“I became like a madman, calling for my son and searching for my family among the wounded,” he recalled. “It was dark and there was fire everywhere, and a smell of blood and burned meat. I felt like I was stepping on body parts. The situation was very difficult and painful.”
Minutes later, an ambulance arrived at the scene, their lights making it easier to see the devastation caused by the explosion. Al-Dahdar discovered that his wife, his son, and three of his daughters were seriously wounded, while another two were missing.
Another survivor, Abu Muhammad Al-Turkman, is unable to speak after losing his wife and five children in the bombing. According to one of his relatives, Al-Turkman could not comprehend that he was collecting the body parts of his children and his wife, incapable of distinguishing one from the other. He placed their remains in a nylon bag, before a relative prayed over them and buried them next to his home at Al-Turkman’s request.
It didn’t take long for news of the massacre to reach the rest of the Gaza Strip. In the southern city of Khan Younis, people were crying in the streets when they found out.
“When I saw the news of the targeting of Al-Ahli Hospital, I did not believe the incident at all,” said Ibrahim Odeh, 27. “Then pictures and videos began to be published on social media, and I could not bear the scenes of children scattered in pieces. Is there a greater injustice than this? I burst into tears. I could not bear it.”
Another Khan Younis resident, 30-year-old Enas Rizek, told +972: “The neighbors heard me crying from the dreadful shock. This hospital is where my friend works, and it serves citizens across the Gaza Strip.
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“Since the beginning of the war, my tears have not stopped for a moment,” she continued. “All the scenes are terrifying and we are extremely scared. There have been successive threats to target hospitals in Gaza. The silence of the world makes us feel deeply disappointed — that we have reached such times where none of us have humanity.”
Despite the bombing of Al-Ahli and Israel’s threats against hospitals across the northern Gaza Strip, doctors everywhere are refusing to leave their workplaces and abandon their duty to their patients.