If the death and destruction visited upon the heads of hundreds of medics, patients and internally displaced Palestinians at Al Ahli Arab Hospital on Tuesday evening has done one thing, it is to highlight the fact that it is civilians, not combatants, who are paying the highest price in the current war in Gaza.
Palestinians have accused Israel of bombing the hospital. As has often happened before, Israel has denied responsibility. The Israeli government is blaming Palestinian militants instead, in this case alleging that a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group was to blame. This denial has been met with scepticism in much of the Arab and Muslim world given that a relentless campaign of Israeli air strikes on Gaza has already caused immense civilian suffering. Furthermore, several hospitals have already been targeted.
The UN Relief and Works Agency says it has 23 confirmed reports of its facilities being affected by Israeli air strikes across the Palestinian enclave. UNRWA also says it has lost 14 staff members but suspects the final death toll will be higher. In addition, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that on Tuesday afternoon an UNRWA school in Al Maghazi refugee camp was hit during an Israeli air strike, leaving at least six people dead. OCHA has also said that as of Monday, 167 educational facilities had been hit by air strikes, including at least 20 UNRWA schools, two of which were used as emergency shelters by some of Gaza’s estimated one million internally displaced persons.
What is clear is that the bombing of Al Ahli Arab Hospital is shaping up to be the bloodiest single incident of the current conflict so far, given that many survivors who require medical aid will be unable to get it in the besieged and bombed enclave. The hospital blast spurred furious street protests in the West Bank, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, and led to the cancellation of US President Joe Biden’s planned summit in Amman with several Arab leaders yesterday. Instead, Mr Biden’s arrival in the Middle East yesterday has so far been confined to Israel, where, sitting beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he again proclaimed America’s unconditional support for the country and said that the hospital deaths were due to actions “by the other team,” not Israeli forces.
An already-precarious situation has been exacerbated by the deaths at Al Ahli Arab Hospital. Many Arab governments have called for civilians to be treated in line with international and humanitarian law. These calls are to be supported, and the best way to not only protect civilian lives but secure the release of hostages, avert a costly ground invasion of Gaza and a possible regional conflict is for all sides to adopt an immediate ceasefire. Israel cannot continue its operations without adding to the number of Palestinian civilian dead and armed factions in Gaza have no deterrence and no military means of defending civilians from Israeli attack.
Just over a week ago, Suhaila Tarazi, director of Al Ahli Arab Hospital, told the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem: “At this stage, our only hope is in God for a miracle in the midst of this scenery of death.” Six days later, a huge explosion at the oldest hospital in the Gaza Strip claimed hundreds of Palestinian lives. Tragically, this blast took place shortly after the heads of several Christian churches had declared a day of fasting and prayer for peace in the Middle East. The wait for a miracle, it seems, goes on.