[Episcopal News Service] An unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment of the deadly Oct. 17 blast at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza reportedly concluded there was “no observable damage to the main hospital building” from the explosion and “only light structural damage” in other parts of the complex, as Palestinian officials dispute Israel’s claimthat a rocket fired by Gaza militants was was responsible for the carnage in the hospital’s courtyard.
Hundreds, who had sheltered in the courtyard, are feared dead. Palestinian authorities have blamed the blast on an Israeli airstrike, while the Israeli military has countered it was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. The United States, including President Joe Biden, have sided with Israel’s version of events, citing evidence that the blast occurred amid a barrage of rockets fired by militants from within Gaza.
The Ahli hospital is a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, part of the Anglican province in the region. Archbishop Hosam Naoum, without speculating on who was to blame, said at an Oct. 18 news conference that he and other Christian leaders in the Holy Land consider the airstrike on the medical complex a “crime against humanity.”
Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Anglicans and Episcopalians have responded by mourning the thousands of lives lost in the conflict while also offering overwhelming support for the Ahli hospital and its staff, according to the United States-based group American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, or AFEDJ. The group reported that the Ahli hospital’s cancer unit had sustained damage from Oct. 14 rocket fire, and four staff members were injured. An Anglican Communion News Service article attributed that damage to an Israeli airstrike. An earlier strike in Gaza destroyed the house of the hospital’s medical director.
AFEDJ reported in an Oct. 19 email update that it had received donations totaling $300,000 to assist the diocese’s medical ministry in Gaza. “Your support is a beacon of hope during this horrific crisis,” the update said.
Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, launched its initial attack on communities in southern Israel by land, sea and air, sending its gunmen across the border and killing an estimated 1,400 Israelis while taking as many as 200 hostage. After the massacre, Israel declared war on Hamas and vowed a complete siege of Gaza, where Palestinians already had suffered for years under an Israeli blockade that had Egypt’s tacit support.
Gaza, with about 2.3 million people confined to about 140 square miles, is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and many of its residents had been sheltering around the territory’s hospitals since Oct. 7 seeking safety from Israeli airstrikes.
With a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the Palestinian territory descended further into chaos after the Israeli military on Oct. 12 ordered an evacuation of northern Gaza, including Gaza City where the Ahli hospital is located. Israeli soldiers have deployed to Gaza’s northern border for an anticipated ground attack against Hamas. The territory, along with the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, has been under Israeli occupation since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, in which Israel fended off an attack by neighboring Arab nations.
During the current siege of Gaza, Israel cut off the flow of food, water, electricity and fuel to the territory. Global leaders have called for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to provide aid to Palestinian civilians. After Biden visited Israel on Oct. 18 in a show of support for the country, Israeli leaders said they would allow Egypt to deliver supplies through Gaza’s southern border. But as of Oct. 20, the aid reportedly was still stuck on the Egypt side of the border.
“It is unconscionable that aid is being prevented from reaching children and adults who are not combatants in this war,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a written statement Oct. 18, a day before he traveled to Jerusalem for a pastoral visit to the diocese. “It is indefensible that hospitals, schools and refugee camps are being struck. It is an outrage that hostages are being held by Hamas. The bloodshed, slaughter and suffering of innocent people on all sides must stop.”
Authorities also have issued conflicting estimates of the death toll from the blast at the Ahli hospital. The Palestinian Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, initially put the number at 500 in the hours after the hospital was hit. A later revision said casualties were in the hundreds.
The unclassified U.S. assessment put the likely total between 100 and 300 people, and probably on the lower end of that estimate, according to The New York Times. It also suggested Israel was right in concluding that the airstrike that caused the blast came from within Gaza, based on civilian videos, satellite images, infrared sensors and other data, though some uncertainty about the nature of the blast remains.
Al Ahli Arab Hospital is one of 22 hospitals in northern Gaza struggling to respond to the volatile situation. The Diocese of Jerusalem operates Ahli as a charity hospital, catering to impoverished families of all faiths in Gaza, many of them Palestinian refugees. Naoum, the Anglican archbishop, told Episcopal News Service in a 2021 interview that his diocese is uniquely positioned to be a force for reconciliation in the area, partly because of ministries like the Ahli hospital.
During his recent news conference, Naoum said many Palestinians had come to the Anglican-run hospital this month seeking a safe haven from the hostilities around them. Groups were gathered Oct. 17 in the courtyard singing songs calling for peace, he said. Soon after, the space was decimated by the rocket blast.
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.