Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has accused Palestinian authorities of lying over the death toll caused by Tuesday’s explosion at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza that sparked a furious blame game. The Gaza Health Ministry said ‘hundreds’ of Palestinians were killed when the blast erupted at the hospital around 7pm Tuesday night, before later publishing an official figure of 471.
But Israeli spokesman Lior Haiat this morning said Israeli and US intelligence suggested the number of casualties was less than 100, putting the figure at only ‘several dozen’. It came as a European intelligence agency told AFP: ‘There wasn’t 200 or even 500 deaths, more likely between 10 and 50.’ It is the latest point of contention in a bitter war of words between Israel and Palestine, with each side accusing the other of being responsible for the blast. Israel’s Defense Forces yesterday shared a slew of evidence it claims proved that a misfiring rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) – an independent jihadist group – was behind the blast.
The proof provided by the Israeli Defense Forces included an audio clip of alleged Hamas terrorists confirming the rocket came from PIJ, a video of what appears to be the rocket in question misfiring over Gaza, and bird’s eye images of the blast site that did not have characteristics consistent with an Israeli aerial strike, according to an IDF spokesman. Meanwhile, Israel’s foes – Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah and Iran – insist the IDF was behind the devastation and vowed to take revenge. Anger sparked across the Muslim world yesterday, with protesters pouring onto the streets in cities from Tripoli to Tehran in demonstration against Israel.
Jordan’s foreign minister said: ‘No one is buying (Israel’s) narrative in this part of the world… the only way people would entertain a different narrative is if there was an independent international inquiry with impeccable evidence that it was not Israel.’ Several experts and analysts weighing in on the issue largely appeared to agree with Israel’s assessment that a misfiring rocket fired from Gaza caused the tragedy, but many warned it was too early to say with certainty.
Speaking to media on Wednesday morning, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari (pictured) showed a series of images, satellite photos and intelligence documents he said proved the damage caused at the hospital could not possibly have come from an Israeli strike. He explained the images showed there was no structural damage to buildings around the Al-Ahli hospital, no craters in the adjacent car park, and no debris consistent with an air strike, implying a direct hit from an Israeli missile would have caused far more destruction. ‘The walls stay intact. There are no craters in the parking lot. These are the characteristics that show it was not an aerial munition that hit the parking lot,’ he concluded.
He also pointed out images of what he claimed was shrapnel on the roof of nearby buildings, suggesting the rocket fell apart in the air and sprayed its detritus across a larger area. Other images shared widely on social media later showed some small craters measuring two or three feet in diameter in the car park outside the hospital. This morning, satellite images released of the scene showed damage to the hospital grounds and car park, but most structures were still standing. It came after Israeli officials yesterday released a video of the moment a rocket purportedly streaking towards Israel from Gaza appeared to suffer a problem and suddenly changed course.
The projectile is seen soaring through the air before jerking away from its original path. Seconds later the flames from its engines spark even brighter before flaming out completely. In the darkness, it is not clear whether the rocket broke apart or simply lost its trajectory. But moments later, a pair of explosions erupt in the city below – the result of what Israel claims was the rocket falling back to Earth and striking the hospital in Gaza City. Several other videos from varying distances and angles appeared to show rockets streaming over Gaza with the blast at the hospital seen lighting up the night sky. The IDF later shared a map of radar data which it said showed a salvo of rockets from a PIJ site streaking past the hospital, implying one of those rockets misfired and landed on the site. And on Wednesday afternoon, a video clip aired on Israeli Channel 12 News appeared to show a salvo of rockets being launched before explosions rocked what is believed to be the medical centre.
In the wake of the attack, a variety of experts and analysts said the evidence suggested Israel was not responsible for the strike, though they stressed they could not be sure. RUSI aerial warfare analyst Justin Bronk wrote: ‘No crater or obvious shrapnel pattern consistent with IAF JDAM/Mk80 series bombs visible. Still not conclusive but if this is the extent of the damage I’d say an airstrike looks less likely than a rocket failure causing an explosion and fuel fire.’ Joel Rayburn, director of the American Center for Levant Studies, said: ‘There is no bomb crater here and nowhere near the destruction that would be required to cause (hundreds of deaths). The initial reports of an airstrike that allegedly killed hundreds of people are not plausible given this physical scene.’
Former UN war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco concurred: ‘Whatever hit the hospital in Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike. Even the smallest JDAM leaves a 3m crater. Widespread surface damage and total lack of cratering inconsistent with an airstrike,’ he concluded. Open-source intelligence group GeoConfirmed also said the strike was likely to have been caused by ‘a missile launched by a Palestinian group [which] exploded mid-air (reason unknown) and one piece fell on the hospital causing an explosion’, based on analysis of videos and images of the scene. And Tal Hagin, an investigative analyst specialising in the Israel-Palestine conflict, said of the video footage: ‘Due to the fuel time on the rocket and the explosion, I’d assume this was most likely an R-160 (rocket used frequently by Palestinian militants)… There is a high likelihood that this rocket misfired – but its payload was not entirely destroyed, resulting in a devastating explosion. Conclusion based on current data: A misfired rocket by Hamas/PIJ was responsible for the explosion at the hospital.’
However, Israel’s opponents had no time for the IDF’s explanations. Hamas yesterday slammed what it said were ‘outrageous lies’, claiming the Israeli military evidence was fake and ‘does not deceive anyone’, hours after a spokesman for Islamic Jihad accused the IDF of ‘trying to cover for the horrifying crime and massacre they committed against civilians.’ Palestinian Islamic Jihad maintained Israel was to blame, but without producing any evidence to justify its claim. In a statement the PIJ said: ‘The Zionist enemy is trying hard to evade its responsibility for the brutal massacre he committed by bombing the Baptist Arab National Hospital in Gaza through his usual fabrication of lies, and through pointing the finger of blame at the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine. We therefore affirm that the accusations put forward by the enemy are false and baseless.’
The London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) said it was ‘deeply horrified by the horrendous air strike by Israel on the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in central Gaza, an attack that amounts to state terrorism and a war crime. ‘The strike breaches all international human rights and humanitarian laws and conventions. Thousands of Palestinians were at the hospital when the building came under bombardment. Israel continues to commit war crimes against the Palestinian people in Gaza with unprecedented support from its western allies.’ Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group based in Lebanon, called for ‘a day of unprecedented anger’ against Israel, while Libya’s foreign ministry accused the Jewish state of ‘war crimes and genocide’.
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