Ghassan Abu-Sittah is a British-Palestinian surgeon who went to Gaza last week to help its people cope with the latest Israeli onslaught. This is how he described the scenes in the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital last night:
I heard the screech of two missiles and then a loud explosion. The false ceiling in the OR [operating room] fell. As I walked towards the side entrance of the OR department, I saw that the hospital itself was on fire and that it was directly hit. The wounded started stumbling towards us. I then ran to the emergency room where there were hundreds of very severely wounded and dead.
In an update on his Facebook page, Abu-Sittah blamed Israel for the mass killing at al-Ahli: “The Israeli government has been openly saying it was going to target hospitals for the last week and the world just stood by and did nothing.” Yet there has been no pause in the Israeli air offensive against Gaza, he reported: “This morning the bombing continued.”
In the wake of the massive bloodshed, UN secretary-general António Guterres called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Middle East to ease the epic human suffering.” But Israel’s Western allies are doing their best to ensure that the war on the people of Gaza will continue.
As the news came through last night, Western politicians who have supported Israel’s war declared themselves to be “saddened” (European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen) or “horrified” (German chancellor Olaf Scholz), while taking care to avoid so much as a hint that the Israeli military might be responsible. Scholz merely called for “a thorough investigation” while Von der Leyen insisted that “all facts need to be established.”
Similar statements came from the French president Emmanuel Macron and the British foreign secretary James Cleverly. Cleverly included a finger-wagging lecture for people who had supposedly “jumped to conclusions around the tragic loss of life at Al Ahli hospital,” and claimed that “Getting this wrong would put even more lives at risk.”
Cleverly would know all about putting lives at risk. Just four days ago, the Conservative politician strongly implied that hospitals and schools in Gaza could be legitimate military targets for Israel:
Hamas is the greatest threat to the Palestinian people. They hide in hospitals and schools, using women and children as human shields. The death of any civilian is a tragedy. Palestinian or Israeli — Hamas is the cause of this loss.
US president Joe Biden went one step further when he arrived in Israel this morning to show his support for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking alongside Netanyahu, Biden claimed that a Palestinian group was responsible for the hospital bombing: “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”
Along with the trivializing language, which made it sound as if he was discussing a baseball match rather than a war, Biden delivered this sound bite while mumbling and looking down at his notes. He subsequently claimed to have relied upon “the data I was shown by my Defense Department.”
We shouldn’t accept for a moment the idea that the US government is an impartial adjudicator that can be trusted to determine whether or not the Israeli military bombed al-Ahli hospital. It is Israel’s strongest ally on the world stage, as Biden’s visit is meant to underline, and has every reason to provide Netanyahu’s government with political cover after the greatest single loss of life in this war to date.
Muddying the Waters
Israel itself has claimed that a misfiring Islamic Jihad rocket was responsible for the carnage at the hospital. Two Israeli government accounts on social media posted a video clip last night that purported to show what had happened. They later deleted the clip without explanation after journalists pointed out the time stamp, which showed that the recording was made after the explosion took place.
The Israeli military couldn’t explain why official government accounts had promoted false information when it staged a press conference today. The main purpose of the press conference was to play an audio clip to journalists that was supposed to back up the Israeli version of events. According to Israeli officials, the clip featured a discussion between two Hamas members, one of whom stated that Islamic Jihad was to blame.
Just over a week ago, Israel’s intelligence apparatus was unable to provide advance warning of an attack involving thousands of Hamas fighters that had been planned for more than a year. Now it claims to have located this precious nugget of information at short notice in the midst of a chaotic, densely populated warzone. There has been no independent verification of the clip. According to Alex Thomson of Britain’s Channel 4 News, several experts that he consulted told him it was a fake: “They say the tone, syntax, accent and idiom are absurd.”
The Israeli authorities have a confirmed track record of lying after controversial episodes. On Monday of this week, a UN commission of inquiry published its report on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May 2022. Israel claimed at the time that she was killed by gunfire from Palestinian militants. The commission found on the contrary that Israeli soldiers were responsible for her death, having used “lethal force without justification.”
In 2014, Israeli forces shelled seven schools in Gaza where people were taking shelter, resulting in forty-four deaths and 227 injuries. Chris Gunness was the chief spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the time. Speaking today, he recalled the line that was being pushed by Israeli diplomats like Mark Regev at the time:
In 2014, Mark Regev and the rest of the Israeli spin doctors wasted no time in putting out all sorts of disinformation about UNRWA. They put out a video live on American TV telling the world that there were militants firing rockets from UNRWA schools. These were all investigated by the UN and other agencies and they were all found to be complete nonsense.
Further back in time, there was a similar pattern of deceit after Israel bombed a UN compound in southern Lebanon in 1996, killing more than a hundred refugees. Quite simply, it is standard practice for Israeli officials to lie at moments like this, in the hope of muddying the waters until the controversy has died down. Donald Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon poetically described this propaganda technique as “flooding the zone with shit.”
The picture leading up to the hospital bloodbath is clear. Israel has been intensively bombing Gaza for more than a week, dropping thousands of bombs and killing thousands of people, including hundreds of children. It has demolished countless buildings and reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble. Last Friday, it ordered more than a million civilians to leave their homes at short notice, even though there is no safe location elsewhere in Gaza for them to go.
Israeli government ministers have repeatedly used dehumanizing rhetoric to justify their actions against the people of Gaza. Yesterday Netanyahu’s official Twitter/X account posted the following message: “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” The message was later deleted, but the Manichean thinking behind it has been evident in the conduct of Israel’s war.
The Israeli military also issued specific orders to twenty-two hospitals in northern Gaza to evacuate their patients. The World Health Organization strongly condemned those orders on Saturday:
The forced evacuation of patients and health workers will further worsen the current humanitarian and public health catastrophe . . .
Health facilities in northern Gaza continue to receive an influx of injured patients and are struggling to operate beyond maximum capacity. Some patients are being treated in corridors and outdoors in surrounding streets due to a lack of hospital beds.
Forcing more than 2000 patients to relocate to southern Gaza, where health facilities are already running at maximum capacity and unable to absorb a dramatic rise in the number of patients, could be tantamount to a death sentence.
According to Hosam Naoum, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Al-Ahli hospital received three evacuation orders and was hit twice by Israeli missiles before yesterday’s explosion.
There are two possible scenarios for what happened at Al-Ahli last night. The one that holds Israel responsible is fully consistent with its actions and its rhetoric over the past week. The scenario promoted by Israel and the United States requires us to believe that a single Palestinian rocket could inflict the kind of damage that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have never previously been able to inflict upon Israeli targets despite firing thousands of rockets over the past fifteen years.
Government officials from the United States and Europe have started to recalibrate their language in the past couple of days after giving Netanyahu’s government a green light to do as it pleases in Gaza. There has been more talk about the need to protect civilians and comply with international law. But this does not reflect any belated humanitarian concern for the Palestinian people. Having egged Netanyahu on, his allies now want plausible deniability as it becomes difficult to conceal the horrors that are unfolding in Gaza.
There is only one demand that matters now: the call for an immediate ceasefire. If the war continues, there will be more atrocities like al-Ahli, and Israel’s Western backers will bear responsibility for the slaughter.