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Israelis deny causing deadly explosion at Anglican hospital in Gaza

17 October 2023

Archbishop of Canterbury laments ‘appalling and devastating loss of innocent lives’

The entrance to the Al Ahli Arab Hospital

The entrance to the Al Ahli Arab Hospital

AN explosion at the Anglican hospital in Gaza, Al Ahli Arab Hospital, has killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians, health authorities in Gaza said on Tuesday.

People at the hospital reported an Israeli airstrike as the cause of the explosion and fire, which early accounts said killed about 500 people and injured many more. The Israeli authorities have denied that they were responsible, and blamed a misfiring Hamas rocket.

Founded in 1882, the hospital is the oldest in Gaza and is run by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem. The Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, the Very Revd Richard Sewell, told the BBC on Tuesday that around 6000 displaced people had been sheltering in the hospital courtyard by the end of last week, though only about one thousand were left after an earlier missile-strike on the hospital.

He wrote on social media: “Disaster: our hospital, Ahli Arab hospital has taken a direct hit from an Israeli missile. Early reports say hundreds of women and children killed. This is deliberate killing of vulnerable civilians. The bombs must stop now. There can be no possible justification for this.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote: “This is an appalling and devastating loss of innocent lives. The Ahli hospital is run by the Anglican Church. I mourn with our brothers and sisters — please pray for them. I renew my appeal for civilians to be protected in this devastating war. May the Lord God have mercy.”

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, declared three days of mourning, and cancelled a visit to Jordan to meet the US President, Joe Biden.

The BBC reported a statement from a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces, which said: “A hospital is a highly sensitive building and is not an IDF target. The IDF is investigating the source of the explosion and as always is prioritising accuracy and reliability. We urge everyone to proceed with caution when reporting unverified claims of a terrorist organisation.”

At 9 p.m. the BBC quoted Mark Regev, senior adviser to the Israeli prime minister, saying that the Israeli military would not “deliberately target a hospital. My information, that I have just received from the highest authority . . . is that all indications are that this was not Israeli orders, that this was rather, a Hamas rocket that fell short.”

Shortly afterwards, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad denied Israeli suggestions that it was responsible for the blast. 

The earlier missile struck the hospital on Saturday, leaving four staff members injured and the ultrasound and mammography room damaged (News, 20 October). It prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to warn that hospitals in Gaza were “facing catastrophe. . . I appeal for the evacuation order on hospitals in northern Gaza to be reversed — and for health facilities, health workers, patients and civilians to be protected.”

The hospital’s director, Suhaila Tarazi, told the Episcopal News Service at the weekend: “At this stage, our only hope is in God for a miracle in the midst of this scenery of death. . . 

“Many necessary medicines at the hospital are at a zero balance. The hospital wards at Ahli are full with injured patients. We are trying to help as much as we can. God willing, the State of Israel will open a humanitarian corridor and allow us to save the lives of the innocent. Please keep us in your prayers.”

On Tuesday, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, wrote on social media that the WHO “strongly condemns the attack on Al Ahli 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.”

Founded by CMS, Al Ahli hospital was run for some years by the Baptist Church, but since 1982 has been run by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem, and offers care to all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation.

Located in the centre of Gaza City in the north of the enclave, it treats about 36,000 patients every year, providing both in-patient and out-patient care, including maternity care, and runs a 24-hour emergency department. It also provides free mobile clinics to villages across Gaza, with a mission to reach the most deprived communities. Challenges in normal times include electricity that is available for a maximum of ten hours a day, and shortages of medicine and medical equipment. It has been on the frontline of caring for the victims of previous conflicts with Israel (News, 8 August 2014).

The hospital is a partner of Embrace the Middle East. On Tuesday, Embrace’s chief executive, Tim Livesey, described news of the deaths as “utterly heartbreaking. Not only the immediate loss of innocent lives. But also the loss of a vital institution that provides health care for the people of Gaza regardless of background. A Christian Anglican hospital that has no connection whatever with Hamas, which Embrace has supported for decades.

“This is everything we feared. Death on an almost unimaginable scale, but also the destruction of the very institutions that maintain a vestige of hope for people in desperate need. The Christian population in Gaza is tiny. We, and for sure, they, have every reason to fear for its very survival.”

Ms Tarazi has served at the hospital for 35 years. Born in Gaza, she told an Embrace podcast of the hospital’s aim to “plant hope in the heart of the people of Gaza”.

People had asked her why she had stayed. She said. “I am in a mission. If everybody will leave the place then what do we expect? As a Christian, I believe that God has selected me to do this job and my people in Gaza are in need of the services and since I am in a mission, I have to do my job.

“I have to help those who are in need as much as I can. . . to love my neighbours and to love one another and to preach for reconciliation and tolerance. . . This is what keeps me going. . . Our role here is to build bridges between all the children of Abraham.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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