US intel, European source put Gaza hospital death toll at dozens or low hundreds

Assessment aired by CNN says 100-300 killed, backs Israeli claims that airstrike not responsible as media outlets also chided for reporting Hamas toll of 500 as credible

The scorched parking lot of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City after an overnight blast there, October 18, 2023. (Courtesy; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The scorched parking lot of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City after an overnight blast there, October 18, 2023. (Courtesy; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The US intelligence community believes that anywhere from 100-300 people were killed at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, US media reported Thursday, and a European official put the toll at 50 or less, countering Hamas claims that 10 times that number were killed in what is increasingly recognized was a blast caused by a failed Islamic Jihad rocket launch.

Hamas health authorities claimed that the hospital had been targeted by Israeli airstrikes, and put the death toll at 500, an account that was widely reported worldwide.

However, Israel has produced evidence showing that the blast was caused by a failed rocket launch from Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, an assessment endorsed by the US, which has said it has its own data to this effect. The Arab world has largely continued to blame Israel, with massive protests breaking out in several regional capitals in the wake of the incident.

A US intelligence document presented by CNN Thursday said that there was “only light structural damage at the hospital” and that Israel was not responsible for the explosion.

Pictures of the aftermath of the blast showed a parking lot with cars charred and badly damaged but surrounding buildings intact, though with signs of damage from shrapnel. Images of the hospital after the strike published by the Maxar satellite monitoring group show the hospital buildings mainly appeared to be intact.

IDF officials say their airstrikes typically leave large craters and level buildings to the ground.

People search through debris outside the site of the Ahli Arab hospital in central Gaza on October 18, 2023 in the aftermath of a blast there. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Hamas maintains that 471 people were killed. Its initial toll of 500 was cited by media outlets worldwide in the hours after the blast, despite questions of how it could have credibly arrived at the number so quickly.

A senior European intelligence source told AFP that he believed a maximum of 50 people were killed.

IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus disputed the Hamas-run ministry’s figures, asking, “Where are all the bodies?”

AFP correspondents saw dozens of bodies at the scene, with medics and civilians recovering bodies wrapped in white cloth, blankets, or black plastic bags.

People gather by wrapped bodies of victims who died in an overnight blast at the parking lot of the Ahli Arab hospital in central Gaza on October 18, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

The initial blame on Israel for the hospital explosion led to a surge in anti-Israel demonstrations and antisemitic incidents worldwide. Riots and mass protests broke out in Jordan and other countries and Hezbollah called for a global day of jihad, while Jordan canceled a scheduled Wednesday summit with US President Joe Biden, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Israel arranged evacuation flights to repatriate citizens from Turkey while issuing a travel warning of the highest threat level to the country.

Biden said on Wednesday that the previous evening’s blast had likely been the doing of a Palestinian terror group, based on a Pentagon report and Israeli intelligence. Earlier that day, in public remarks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears it was done by the other team, and not you.”

US State Department spokesperson Matt Miller on Thursday knocked media organizations for uncritically reporting the Hamas-run health ministry claim that the Israel Defense Forces was responsible for the incident.

Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari shows the press a graphic of alleged rocket launches near al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza at a press conference in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

“I don’t want to play media critic here, but I will say that I do think that this event was a reminder that everyone, and this includes government officials and everyone who watches this conflict, [that] it would be wise for all of us to take a beat and pause and collect all the information before choosing to decide what we believe and what we don’t,” Miller said during a press briefing.

“I saw a number of reports… that took Hamas’s word at face value — the word of a terrorist organization,” Miller said.

A reporter responded to Miller that much of the media’s skepticism of US and Israeli claims stems from assertions that were made after 9/11 “that took us to war in Iraq on a lie, which was defended on a very high level, including behind [Miller’s] podium.”

Miller retorted that while Israel has presented significant evidence to the public backing its claim that the Gaza hospital blast was caused by an errant Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket, Hamas has failed to do the same even as it continues to blame Israel for the incident.

As part of its evidence, the Israeli military presented an intercepted conversation between Hamas officials saying the explosion was caused by a PIJ projectile that fell short.

A blast near the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, October 17, 2023. (Via social media, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Several videos have also appeared to show the moment the rocket fell short and exploded inside the Palestinian enclave on Tuesday.

Hospitals and their grounds have been seen as safe havens for Gazans made homeless or displaced by the bombing, as they have been relatively spared from strikes. The IDF says it does not target hospitals.

Lebanese protesters wave Palestinian national flags and shout slogans in solidarity with the people of Gaza in downtown Beirut, after a blast in the parking lot of a hospital in the Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Israel has accused Islamic Jihad before of causing the deaths of Palestinians with rockets that fall short inside Gaza.

Israel has carried out a campaign of intense airstrikes since October 7, when some 2,500 terrorists blasted through the Israeli border fence, streamed into Israel via land, sea and air under a barrage of thousands of rockets, and killed some 1,400 people, the vast majority of them civilians. Terrorists also took at least 203 hostages of all ages and various nationalities into Gaza.

Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties. Hamas-run Gaza’s health officials say around 3,700 people have been killed in Israeli bombings.

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