Hundreds likely dead in Gaza hospital blast, as Israeli blockade cripples medical response

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Palestinian officials say hundreds were killed by a massive blast at a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, as humanitarian concerns mount over Israel’s deprivation of food, fuel and electricity to the enclave’s population.

Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital was sheltering thousands of displaced people when it was bombed Tuesday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said in a statement. Many victims are still under the rubble, it added.

Palestinian officials blamed ongoing Israeli airstrikes for the lethal incident. But the Israel Defense Forces has “categorically” denied any involvement in the hospital attack, blaming instead a “failed rocket launch” by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, a rival Islamist militant group in Gaza.

Gaza has been under siege by Israel for more than a week, in response to the deadly incursion by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the coastal enclave, home to 2.2 million people. Hospitals meanwhile are struggling to tend to the wounded across the territory, operating with shortages of electricity and water.

Vital humanitarian aid is meanwhile piling up at Gaza’s shuttered border, despite diplomatic efforts to open a corridor from Egypt. The United Nations and other officials have said they need assurance of safe passage for any potential aid convoys.

Amid growing international pressure to address the crisis, US President Joe Biden will travel to Israel on Wednesday, an extraordinary wartime visit that follows intense efforts by Secretary of State Antony Blinken across the Middle East.

Biden was also due to attend a summit scheduled in Amman, the capital of Jordan, with several Arab leaders. However, the summit was canceled in the wake of the hospital blast.

Instead of the planned meeting, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would travel back to Ramallah for an urgent meeting of the Palestinian leadership.

The Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in the center of Gaza City was sheltering thousands of people who had been forcibly evacuated, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Hamas, which controls the enclave, said more than 500 people were killed by the bombing. The Palestinian Health Ministry earlier said preliminary estimates indicate that between 200 to 300 people died in the attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed the “barbaric terrorists in Gaza” for “attacking” the hospital on Tuesday.

“Whoever brutally murdered our children is also murdering their children,” he added.

As Israeli and Gazan officials blame the other for the hospital tragedy, protests have sprung up in a number of Middle Eastern cities including Amman, where protesters attempted to storm the US embassy.

Hospitals under siege

More than a week of Israeli bombardment has killed at least 3,000 people, including 1,032 girls and 940 boys, and wounded 12,500 in Gaza, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said Tuesday. Casualties in Gaza over the past 10 days have now surpassed the number of those killed during the 51-day Gaza-Israel conflict in 2014.

While the IDF has said it does not target hospitals, the UN and Doctors Without Borders say Israeli airstrikes have struck medical facilities, including hospitals and ambulances.

On Tuesday, Israeli warplanes hit two densely populated refugee camps and an UNRWA school housing displaced people in central Gaza killed at least 18 people and injured scores, Palestinian officials said.

The IDF said that high-level Hamas commander Ayman Nofal was killed in the airstrikes in Gaza on Tuesday.

In the occupied West Bank at least 61 people have been killed, the Palestinian Ministry of Health said on Tuesday. At least 20 humanitarian workers from the UN, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent have been killed in Gaza, the UN said.

Meanwhile, health services within Gaza are on the brink and food and water supplies are running low. Twenty out of 23 hospitals were offering partial services because fuel reserves are “almost totally depleted,” the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warned on Tuesday.

UN agencies have warned that shops are less than a week away from running out of available food stocks and that that Gaza’s last seawater desalination plant had shut down, bringing the risk of further deaths, dehydration and waterborne diseases.

The Palestinian Interior Ministry said Israeli airstrikes had killed at least 49 people in strikes on the southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis.

Closed crossing

Urgent calls for help are growing on both sides of the crossing as aid amasses on the Egyptian side of the border.

Blinken on Tuesday said the the United States and Israel “have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organizations to reach civilians in Gaza.”

“Until now, there is no safe passage that has been granted” as they do not “have any authorization or clear, secure routes for those convoys to be able to enter safely and without any possibility of their being targeted,” he said.

He added that the crossing was bombed four times in the past few days.

Beyond the border crossing, moving aid to those in need is extremely complex in Gaza, where Israeli airstrikes have repeatedly hit UN facilities in the past week.

“The last thing you would want to see is creating distribution points where people receive that aid are not safe.”

On Tuesday, Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said the only things that should be entering Gaza “are hundreds of tons of explosives from the Air Force, not an ounce of humanitarian aid” until Hamas releases hostages, he wrote on Telegram.

On the Gaza side, large numbers of evacuees have gathered by the crossing, part of the mass displacement that has seen at least 1 million people flee their homes in the past week alone, according to UNRWA.

One family of five Palestinian-Americans, all US citizens, drove to Rafah on Monday after hearing the borders would be opened but to no avail, said Haifa Kaoud, whose husband Hesham is among the five stuck in Gaza.

Satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies show four 30-foot (9-meter) craters blocking the roadway at the border crossing closest to the Egyptian gate, along with concrete slabs.

Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to ease the conflict. On Monday, the UN Security Council rejected a Russian resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire after it failed to get enough votes.

Several countries including the US, the United Kingdom and France voted against it because the draft did not condemn Hamas for the October 7 attack, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said killed at least 1,400 people with scores taken hostage.

This includes French-Israeli woman, Mia Schem, who was shown in the first hostage video released by Hamas. Her mother, Keren Scharf Schem implored world leaders “to bring my baby back home” when speaking to reporters Tuesday.

Fears of regional conflict

Regional leaders raised concerns of fighting between Israel and Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah in the north, and Syria, as strikes at the border become a flashpoint for wider conflict.

The IDF said on Tuesday shots were fired towards several locations on the security fence between Israel and Lebanon.

At the same time, Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, warned if the “atrocities” against Gaza persist, “Muslims and resistance forces could lose patience,” and no-one would be able to prevent their actions.

After Hamas’ incursion on October 7, militants fired shots from Lebanon that were intercepted by Israel, leading to a deadly exchange of fire.

On Friday evening local time an Israeli strike killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah who was also from south Lebanon. The assault wounded at least six other reporters.

And on Tuesday, Israeli strikes killed at least four people in Alma al-Shaab, in southern Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross said.

Two Hezbollah fighters were killed in confrontations on Tuesday, the militant group said. It is unclear whether they are part of the death toll reported by the Red Cross.

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