Hundreds of people were reported killed by a strike at a hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday night where thousands of civilians had been sheltering. The Gazan health authorities said the blast had been caused by an Israeli airstrike; the Israel Defense Forces said it was caused by a rocket fired by a Palestinian armed group that malfunctioned after launching.
The reported scale of the attack heightened fears that the Gaza war will soon expand to other fronts including southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militia, has already been exchanging fire with Israel in recent days. The strike — on the Ahli Arab Hospital — came a day after Iran warned that “other multiple fronts will open” if Israeli attacks continued to kill civilians in Gaza.
Photographs distributed by news agencies showed clusters of injured and dead people at the hospital. A spokeswoman for the Gazan health ministry, which is overseen by Hamas, the armed group that runs the Gaza Strip and led the recent terrorist attacks against Israel, said that the death toll was expected to rise as bodies were pulled from the rubble.
After a two-hour review, the Israeli military said that the blast was caused by a rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group in Gaza that participated in the terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed at least 1,400 people.
In the past, rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups, including Islamic Jihad, have occasionally malfunctioned and hit civilian neighborhoods.
The disaster at the hospital will now overshadow President Biden’s visit on Wednesday to Israel and Jordan, where he was set to meet King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas, however, is leaving Jordan for an emergency meeting with Palestinian officials, according to an aide, and it was not clear if he would return in time for the meeting.
Mr. Biden’s visit had been interpreted as a strong show of support for Israel, which is preparing to invade Gaza in response to Hamas terrorist attacks. But the initial reports of an extremely high death toll at the hospital, coupled with an immediate and furious reaction from the Arab world, is likely to heighten pressure on Mr. Biden to moderate Israel’s response.
Egypt immediately blamed Israel for the attack and strongly condemned what it said were Israel’s “deliberate strikes on civilian facilities and targets.”
Schools and universities across Lebanon will be closed on Wednesday in the wake of the hospital strike, the country’s minister of education said in a statement.
Mr. Abbas declared three days of mourning across the Israeli-occupied West Bank for the victims of the strike, according to WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency. News of the devastating strike quickly spread among Palestinians, and solidarity marches swept several cities across the West Bank.
In a statement, Hamas described the attack as “a horrific massacre” and “a crime of genocide.” The group called on Palestinians across the West Bank and Israel as well as the international community to “rally and take to the streets” following the strike.
lyad Zagout, a Gazan health official, said the hospital was packed with many displaced Gazans who fled their homes, believing it would be safe to stay there.
“Where should people go to protect their children from bombs?” he said by phone.
Ahmed Hijazi, a journalist, was at a nearby hospital that treated many of the initial victims of the attack.
“I’ve never in my life seen this many people,” Mr. Hijazi said in a voice message. “There is no space. There are hundreds of injuries. Martyrs are everywhere. There are so many, their bodies are now in the courtyard. The morgue freezer is full, the morgue extension is full, and now they are storing the bodies in the area designated for journalists.”
The hospital is located in the Zeitoun neighborhood in the southern part of Gaza City and is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. It houses 80 beds, according to the diocese’s website, which described it as “a haven of peace in the middle of one of the world’s most troubled places.”
On Friday, Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, including hospitals. The order covered some 1.1 million people in the north, where Hamas is embedded.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said that Ahli Arab Hospital was also struck on Sunday. The damage from that strike appeared to be small, and four hospital staff were wounded, according to a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, condemned the attack and called “for the immediate protection of civilians and health care” in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Reporting was contributed by Abu Bakr Bashir from London; Aaron Boxerman in Jerusalem; Euan Ward in Beirut, Lebanon; and Yousur Al-Hlou and Iyad Abu Hweila.