The Church of England's spiritual leader has called for “restraint” in allocating blame for the attack at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, as bishops appealed for civilians to be protected.
Thousands of displaced and wounded people were sheltering at the hospital when it was struck on Tuesday. Hamas accused Israel of bombing the facility, and killing hundreds. The Israeli military has denied this, and said the explosion was due to a failed rocket launched by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group in Gaza.
The hospital, founded in 1882, is run by the Church of England.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the event as an “atrocity”, but called on politicians and the public to wait until the facts become clear.
“This atrocity violates the sanctity and dignity of human life. It is a violation of humanitarian law, which is clear that hospitals, doctors and patients must be protected,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“For this reason, it's essential that we exercise restraint in apportioning responsibility before all the facts are clear.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum, called on the international community to protect civilians in Gaza.
“An urgent appeal resonates for the international community to fulfil its duty in protecting civilians and ensuring that such inhumane horrific acts are not replicated,” he wrote in a statement on Tuesday.
The attack on the hospital fell on the eve of St Luke's Day, when the Church traditionally prays for doctors and physicians. The Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher, wore a stole featuring Palestinian embroidery to mark the day on Wednesday.
The white stole has an embroidered red and black cross, and was given to the bishop by the Al Ahli hospital’s director, Suhaila Tarazi, during his visit to Gaza two weeks ago. The bishop had travelled to Israel and Gaza in October, and was there when the war broke out.
After returning last week, he launched an appeal to support the hospital, which he described as “of vital importance for health” in Gaza.
The Israeli military had warned hospitals in Gaza to evacuate on several occasions since the war began 12 days ago. About 3,500 Palestinians have been killed and 12,000 injured since, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Gaza's hospitals are reaching breaking point, as thousands of people have poured in seeking care or shelter from Israeli air strikes.
Electricity from Israel was cut off at the start of the war, and fuel for generators is running out. Medical staff and supplies had been targeted by Israeli air strikes, the Ambassador to the Palestinian mission to the UK, Husam Zomlot, said on Tuesday. Forty one medical personnel had been killed by Monday, he added.
Yet Israel had rejected calls to open a humanitarian corridor from the Al Rafah border crossing.
Ms Tarazi, the hospital's director, told the Associated Press that the aftermath of the blast was “unlike anything I have ever seen or could ever imagine.”
“Our hospital is a place of love and reconciliation,” she said. “We are all losers in this war. And it must end.”
Staff at Al Ahli Hospital said they could not gauge the death toll because the blast had dismembered so many bodies. Ms Tarazi could only estimate that it was “in the hundreds”.
Around 350 casualties were rushed to Gaza city’s main hospital, Al Shifa, which was already overwhelmed with the wounded from other strikes, its director Mohammed Abu Selmia said. Doctors there resorted to performing surgery on floors and in the halls, mostly without anaesthesia.
“We need equipment, we need medicine, we need beds, we need anaesthesia, we need everything,” Mr Abu Selmia said. He warned that fuel for the hospital’s generators would run out within hours, forcing a complete shutdown, unless supplies enter the Gaza Strip.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury stood outside his home, Lambeth Palace, with fellow British faith leaders Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg to call for “unity” between communities as the war between Israel and Hamas has raised tensions.