‘A sight that will remain . . . if I live a thousand years’: Palestinians bear witness to hospital blast

The explosion that ripped through the car park of the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza on Tuesday evening, killing a large number of the civilians sheltering there, is already seared into the mind of Samer Tarzi.

The 50-year-old was one of the volunteers who combed the bloodstained parking lot for human remains the day after the explosion.

“They were eating when the massacre happened,” said Tarzi, who lives next door to the hospital in Gaza City in the north of the besieged Palestinian territory. “We collected bodies of children and many body parts. It’s a sight that will remain in my mind even if I live a thousand years.”

The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said 471 people were killed in the hospital explosion. It has not been possible to independently verify the figure.

The Israeli military and Gaza’s militant groups have traded blame over who caused Tuesday’s huge explosion. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said data provided by the US defence department indicated Israel was not to blame for the blast. US officials said the assessment was based on “overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information”.

Later on Wednesday, the top Democrat and Republican on the US Senate’s intelligence committee said they had reviewed intelligence on the hospital explosion and were “confidant” its cause was “a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli air strike”.

Whatever the cause of the blast, the horrific deaths of civilians in the hospital has deepened anger against Israel in Arab and Islamic countries. The tragedy has also underscored the constant threat to the Palestinian families seeking safe places to flee Israel’s intense bombardment of the hemmed-in territory.

Tarzi, the volunteer, said the blast was so huge that it broke the walls of the outpatient clinic and emergency department of the hospital, describing the “stench of rotting bodies and explosives” hanging over the medical buildings.

Many Gazans seeking safety have flocked to hospitals, believing they might be safer than elsewhere. But there are no safe places in the territory, aid agencies say.

Israel has ordered the evacuation of north Gaza sending hundreds of thousands of displaced people to the south of the strip where they have sheltered in UN schools and overcrowded private homes.

Some 2.3mn people are packed in the narrow, 41km long Gaza Strip which Israel has bombarded from land, air and sea since Hamas militants attacked the Jewish state on October 7.

“This attack [on Al-Ahli Arab hospital] is unprecedented in scale,” said Richard Peeperkorn, World Health Organization representative for the West Bank and Gaza. “We have seen consistent attacks on healthcare in the occupied Palestinian territory.” He said 51 attacks had occurred against Gazan healthcare facilities since the start of Israel’s bombardment.

The multipronged Hamas attack on October 7 killed 1,500 Israeli civilians and military personnel, according to Israeli officials. The Palestinian Authority on Wednesday said 3,300 Palestinians have been killed since Israel’s military campaign began.

This aerial view shows people standing before destroyed buildings at the site of the Ahli Arab hospital in central Gaza

Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals are collapsing and unable to cope with the flood of injured, according to Palestinian officials and the UN. Israel has cut mains power, the supply of fuel, medicines, food and goods into the Palestinian territory. It has only allowed in a severely restricted supply of fresh water.

On Wednesday, it said it would allow food, water and medicines to be delivered from Egypt to south Gaza.

Despite the dire state of hospitals, thousands of families have moved to the grounds and buildings of medical facilities hoping they would not become targets.

“It was like doomsday,” said Mohamed al-Borno, one of the guards at Al-Ahli Arab hospital.

“A large number of people came here for safety, when suddenly there was a loud explosion and something huge slammed into the ground. We didn’t understand what just happened,” he said. “There were loud screams and it was a terrifying sight, hundreds of bodies and scattered human parts.”

Adnan al-Naqa, another who had sought shelter there, could not believe that he and his family had been spared, having left the car park before the explosion to buy food.

“As soon as we arrived back, the explosion took place. I saw a huge ball of fire and flames engulfed the car park,” he said.

The devastated area still held what was left of the belongings of the families who had camped out there. Burnt mattresses lay strewn on the ground, along with bloodied bags containing clothes, personal items and food.

On Wednesday, 200 aid agencies and individuals including Oxfam, Save the Children and the Arab NGO Network for Development called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza “to prioritise the preservation of human life above all else”.

“It remains our only option to avert further loss of civilian life and humanitarian catastrophe,” they said. “Anything less will forever be a stain on our collective conscience.”

Ahmed, who works for Save the Children, described his life under bombardment after air strikes damaged his house.

“In these moments, we feel that there is no difference between life and death, and that you better stay in one room with your children and wife, so that you all die together, and no one is left grieving for the others,” he said.

“What is more difficult is that every moment and with every phone call, you expect the news of the death of one of your family, friends, or acquaintances.”