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Outrage in Middle East over Gaza hospital blast

October 18, 2023

Israel's neighbors are expressing shock after a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital. The exact death toll cannot be verified. There were violent protests and the situation in the region remains volatile.

Protesters lift Palestinian flags and a portrait of Mohammed Deif chief of Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, during rally at the entrance of the French embassy complex in Beirut early on October 18, 2023
Lebanese protesters rally at the French Embassy after the deadly attack on a hospitalImage: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

Even as Israel continues to deny blame for the deadly blast on Gaza's Al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday — the exact death toll of which is disputed and cannot be independently verified— the incident has led to new outrage and condemnation of the Israeli military across the Middle East and North Africa.

"The situation is incredibly volatile, and the pictures of the suffering and the destruction of the Al-Ahli hospital are upsetting to the whole region," Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, associate professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told DW.

Fuchs said some reactions to the attack by regional leaders were likely strategic. "Arab politicians who work closely with Western states are under extreme pressure, which is why they immediately condemned the incident and blamed Israel."

Egypt, for example, has been under increasing international pressure to open its Rafah border crossing with Gaza to allow aid in and refugees to flee. Immediately after the explosion at the hospital, Egypt's Foreign Ministry blamed Israel for the attack, accusing the country of a "deliberate bombardment of civilians."

Woman cries amid debris at site of the Ahli Arab hospital in central Gaza on October 18
Footage of suffering civilians has sparked anger and condemnation after the blastImage: AFP

Days of airstrikes

Israel has bombarded the Gaza Strip as a direct response to an assault by the Hamas group, which is classified as a terror organization by the EU, the US, Germany and other governments, that killed about 1,400 people. The militant Islamists also took scores of hostages back to Gaza.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, says the hospital was destroyed in a strike by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). However, Israeli officials say the blast was caused by a rocket misfired within Gaza by the radical group Islamic Jihad. The organization, which collaborates with Hamas, immediately rejected any responsibility.

Saying he had reviewed video and audio material presented by the Pentagon, US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Wednesday that "based on what I've seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you." 

However, Biden added that "a lot of people out there" weren't sure what caused the blast.

US President Joe Biden embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Biden said he did not believe that Israel was responsible for the attack on the hospitalImage: Evan Vucci/AP/picture alliance

An 'appalling crime'

On Tuesday, Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, canceled a planned four-way summit with Biden, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.

"War is pushing the region to the brink," Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi said in a statement broadcast on national television. "Jordan will continue to work with everyone so that, when this summit is held, it will be able to achieve what is required of it, which is to stop the war, deliver humanitarian support to the people of Gaza, and put an end to this crisis," Al-Safadi said.

Abbas spoke of an "appalling crime, a genocide," and said countries that support Israel were responsible.

Even as Abbas condemned the blast, West Bank demonstrators called for his resignation during a protest in Ramallah Tuesday night.

According to current opinion polls, if elections were held now, Abbas would lose to Ismail Haniyeh, the Qatar-based political leader of Hamas. "In the past week, it has become clear that the Palestinian Authority has become irrelevant," Steven Höfner, head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation's office in Ramallah, told DW earlier this week.

Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in the front yard of the al-Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip.
Grief for the nearly 500 people killed in the hospital is dominating for now, observers sayImage: Abed Khaled/AP Photo/picture alliance

Calls for restraint

Despite the regional turmoil, Fuchs said there was cautious optimism that Tuesday's incident could lead to the calling off of Israel's looming ground offensive into Gaza — "or enable negotiations on a cease-fire and possibly also a release of the hostages."

Pleas for a change in tactics are also coming from Israeli allies beyond the region. "It makes sense to notice that EU officials, as well as American officials, are now moving from an unconditional support for Israel to calling for some restraint and prevent further violence and perhaps spillovers of the conflict in the region," Cinzia Bianco, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Fuchs said, however, that the outrage would likely continue long after the combat had concluded. "There are many people, especially on social media, who say even if we now came to a cease-fire, we will simply not forget what happened in the last few days, and the attack on the hospital is only the tip of the iceberg," Fuchs said.

Israel, Palestinians trade blame for Gaza hospital strike

Edited by: M. Gagnon

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East