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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo The site of the explosion at the hospital courtyard

FactFind: What exactly do we know - and not know - about the Gaza hospital explosion

What caused the blast, as well as the death toll, remains the subject of debate

ACCUSATIONS OF WAR crimes have been levelled against both Hamas and Israel following an explosion at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, reportedly killing hundreds.

However, who is responsible remains unproven, as does the death toll, the weapon used, and even – for a time – the exact location of the blast. Governments, media organisations and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) investigators have poured over evidence in a bid to uncover the truth of what happened.

While much remains unknown, some new information has come to light over the past few days, with an Al Jazeera video clip and a small crater at the forefront of debates over who and what caused the explosion. 

Here’s what we know.

What was hit

The explosion at the hospital happened just before 7pm (5pm Irish-time) on Tuesday, and it was caught on camera by Al Jazeera live footage. 

The video, which has been shared online, shows a bright light in the sky above Gaza which flashes twice before exploding. A much larger explosion happens moments later.  

While initial reports suggested that the al-Ahli hospital building in Gaza had been hit with a missile and possibly even destroyed, more reliable reports and footage that emerged soon afterwards show that it was a car park in the hospital complex that was hit.

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The Anglican-run al-Ahli Hospital is located in Gaza City, an area that the IDF had been encouraging civilians to evacuate “for their own safety and protection” – a move that was criticised by aid organisations. 

“The order for evacuation has been impossible to carry out given the current insecurity, critical condition of many patients, and lack of ambulances, staff, health system bed capacity, and alternative shelter for those displaced,” the World Health Organisation said in a statement condemning the attack.

At the time of the explosion, about 1,000 people were sheltering in the hospital’s courtyard, while another 600 people were inside the hospital building, according to a local Anglican leader who spoke to the BBC.

Death toll

Shortly after the explosion, the Palestinian Ministry of Health blamed the blast on Israeli bombers and said that 500 people had been killed. In the following days this number has been revised down to 471 deaths by Gaza’s health ministry. 

Israel has described the death tolls given by Palestinian sources as being “inflated” and released infrared aerial footage showing the scene after the blast. “If so many people were killed, then where were the bodies?” a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) asked.

Separately, The Palestinian Red Crescent Society has described the explosion as killing “hundreds of civilians”, while media footage of the aftermath shows that dozens, at the very least, had been hurt in the blast.

US intelligence agencies said in an intelligence assessment leaked to the media that 100-300 deaths was the most likely figure for the number of fatalities, though cautioned that this may be revised as more information comes in.

As of today, there is still no independently-verified death toll, but it would appear to be somewhere between 100 and 471, based on the lowest figure from the US intelligence assessment and the highest figure from the Gazan health ministry. 

As the US intelligent reports puts it, “This death toll still reflects a staggering loss of life.”

Who is being blamed

The IDF maintains that a rocket launched over the hospital by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group malfunctioned, dropping to the hospital car park where fuel and munitions ignited.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a militant group distinct from Hamas that operates in Gaza and has attacked Israel. 

“Intelligence from multiple sources we have in our hands indicates that Islamic Jihad is responsible for the failed rocket launch which hit the hospital in Gaza,” Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. 

Both Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas have blamed Israel for the bombing of the hospital from the start. 

Islamic Jihad has denied the allegations from Israel that it was responsible as “false and baseless”.

Israel has released audio of what it claims are two Hamas operatives speaking to each other about the explosion, with one saying it was caused by a failed Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket. However, there is no proof the audio is authentic — nor would the words of an unnamed militant be conclusive.

Footage of the explosion

The footage from an Al Jazeera livestream appears to have captured the moment of the explosion at the al-Ahli hospital – but exactly what it shows is being disputed. 

The footage has featured heavily in IDF statements, who claim that it shows a rocket launched from Gaza failing high in the air, seconds before the blast.

However, the Al Jazeera digital investigations team aligned their video with other footage showing the skies over Gaza taken from other viewpoints at the time when the explosion happened. 

While the footage does show rocket launches from Gaza, their analysis concludes that the rocket that the IDF said had failed was in fact destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system and could be seen breaking apart in the sky.

Their analysis also claims to identify four Israeli airstrikes in the area before the fatal blast at the hospital.

In other words, the IDF and Al Jazeera are using the same video footage of the incident to claim two opposing things.

A crater

crater in the hospital car park has been seen numerous times in aerial images as well as in footage and photos taken from the aftermath of the explosion.

There appears to be a consensus among open-source intelligence investigators that this is likely the impact crater.

Analysts who say that Israel was not involved have argued that the size of the crater appears to be smaller than would be expected from typical Israeli munitions. 

An analysis by investigative journalism group Bellingcat quoted one military adviser who noted that the impact crater did not appear to be consistent with the 500, 1000 or 2000-pound bombs used by Israel.

The lack of damage to the structure of the hospital, as well as nearby windows that remained intact and the large burn area have been cited to further suggest that whatever caused the blast was unlike typical Israeli airstrikes. 

However, there are alternative theories have also been put forth, such as that the weapon used was a hellfire rocket or an airburst bomb, which explodes before hitting the ground. 

Some experts have cast doubt on some of these theories too, saying that the pattern of damage doesn’t match.

What we still don’t know

Much of the analyses of the available information by respected organisations and experts fails to come down on either side.

This is in large part because there is information that is still not available.

US President Joe Biden has backed Israel’s claims, although intelligence sources that have spoken to the media have not said what evidence had brought him to that conclusion. The New York Times reported that US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, had cited infrared satellite data.

However, America’s intelligence partners have been slow to back up these claims, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who said that evidence was still being reviewed.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad also claim to have the remnants of an Israeli missile that hit the hospital grounds, Channel 4 reports, but so far have not released evidence of it.

The missing missile fragments are an important part of the jigsaw. Any wreckage from whatever caused the explosion would help to determine who and where it came from. As of now, however, that has not been made public. 

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.