PARIS: Was Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza hit by Israeli fire? Or did it become the victim of a misfired Palestinian rocket? How many civilians were killed?
Israelis and Palestinians have traded blame for the deadly strike on the Christian-run hospital this week.
AFP analysed verified images and interviewed analysts and weapons experts who did not definitively rule out any scenario.
WHAT DO AVAILABLE IMAGES SHOW?
A video from Gaza produced by the Al Jazeera news channel, which AFP was able to verify, shows the exact moment of an explosion at Ahli Arab hospital at 6.59pm (11.59pm Singapore time) Tuesday (Oct 17). Videos from surveillance cameras on the Israeli side also captured the same scene.
The video, which has gone viral, shows a projectile flying into the sky before suddenly disappearing in mid-flight into a flash.
Less than 10 seconds later, two explosions occurred on the ground, including one on the premises of the hospital located in the north of Gaza, as AFP was able to verify using geolocation tools.
Other videos, broadcast online after the explosion and verified by AFP, show several cars burning in a parking lot in the centre of the hospital, a pile of debris as well as a number of bodies lying on the ground, including those of several children.
Videos shot by AFP at the hospital the next day show charred cars in the parking lot.
Next to the parking lot, a lawn could be seen strewn with clothes and personal belongings and stained with blood, an apparent sign that people were there.
Many windows in the surrounding buildings are broken.
On the ground, apparent impact marks could be seen, including at least one small crater.
According to Gaza authorities, the site housed hundreds of wounded and sick people, and civilians who had sought refuge.
“We were operating, there was a strong explosion and the ceiling collapsed in the operating room. It’s a massacre,” said Dr Ghassan Abu Sittah of Medecins Sans Frontieres.
“People were scattered outside in the gardens and under the trees. Suddenly everything went black, with bodies and blood everywhere,” Gaza resident Mohammed Qriq told AFP.
“For fear of bombing we came here,” Waleed, another resident, said, referring to the hospital.
“We felt like a rocket hit it, the whole place was bombed. We headed to other places nearby. The bodies were in pieces, old people, children, women.”
On social networks, commentators have clashed over the possible cause of the explosion. Some back Israeli authorities, who have pinned the blame on a misfired rocket aimed at Israeli territory by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad from near the hospital. Others wonder if a strike by the Israeli air force was possible.
Analysts interviewed by AFP remained cautious, preferring not to rule out any scenario.
However, analysts say that a regular Israeli strike might be unlikely, pointing to the limited damage to the buildings surrounding the parking lot and the absence of a large crater that some Israeli weapons can leave.
“It is difficult to make a link between the strong explosion on the ground (seen in the Al-Jazeera video) and the minor damage observed at the hospital,” said Heloise Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations.
“It seems that the hospital itself has not been affected,” said Fayet. She pointed out that the blast mostly affected the parking lot, the nearby lawns and the facades of the buildings.
Few images show the interior of the buildings.
The researcher said that a rocket hitting gas tanks of several cars at the hospital was “the most likely hypothesis”.
The visible damage “is consistent with the hypothesis of engine pieces, for example, of a rocket, which fall in a ballistic alignment, projecting debris, flaming materials, and creating a blast effect”, said Joseph Henrotin, editor-in-chief of the journal Defense and International Security (DSI).
“There is damage to the buildings,” he said, pointing to torn tiles, broken windows and impact marks on the walls.
However “no building has been hit directly”, he said.
“If you target a building with the ammunition and targeting capabilities available to the Israelis, normally you hit this building,” he added.
Henrotin pointed to “very small craters”.
“What blew up there is not huge,” he said, adding that the damage was not consistent with the weapons used by Israel.
France’s DRM military intelligence agency said Friday that there was no evidence that an Israeli strike had caused the explosion.
“The most probable hypothesis is that a Palestinian rocket exploded with a charge of about five kilos” on Tuesday, the Directorate of Military Intelligence said, adding there was “nothing to indicate … an Israeli strike”.
The DRM decided to make its analysis public at the request of the French presidency in the interests of transparency, it said.
A senior European intelligence official, speaking to AFP on Wednesday evening, said “quite a few rockets” have firing incidents.
“Israel probably did not do this,” said the official, citing “serious intelligence leads”.
Xavier Tytelman, an aerodefence consultant who also works for magazine Air&Cosmos, struck a similar note.
“Military-grade equipment would have done infinitely more damage,” he said. “We see it when Israel bombs, they destroy buildings in a single strike.”
Could the hospital’s parking lot have been the target of an unintentional strike by the Israeli army?
“Even if it was a mistake and they had targeted that place by mistake, there is no Israeli bomb that does that,” said Tytelman.
He said that the effect of laser-equipped JDAM bombs was “incomparable with what we saw there”.
Could a smaller ammunition have been used? A micro-munition dropped by drone, a cannon shot from an aircraft or a missile shot from a helicopter?
Analysts interviewed by AFP did not completely rule out such scenarios, but said they were incompatible with available images and therefore unlikely.
Palestinians and Israelis have blamed each other.
“There was no IDF (Israeli army) fire by land, sea or air that hit the hospital,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters.
He released maps and an audio recording that he claimed was a conversation between two Hamas members putting the blame on Islamic Jihad.
On X (formerly Twitter), an Israeli influencer said to be close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wrote shortly after the incident: “Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza” before later deleting the message and saying it had been based on incorrect media reports.
An Israeli army spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, also said that footage from the site showed too little damage to nearby buildings and too small an impact crater for an Israeli strike.
Islamic Jihad called accusations against them “false and baseless”, saying it was a bomb dropped by an Israeli military plane.
Hamas said Israel “is directly responsible for this horrific massacre which was carried out … with American weapons only the occupation possesses”.
UNCERTAIN NUMBER OF VICTIMS
AFP photos and videos show dozens of bodies in sheets, blankets or body bags at the scene.
According to Hamas, the explosion killed at least 471 people displaced by the conflict who were sheltering within the hospital grounds.
A senior European intelligence official told AFP that their estimate put the death toll at 50 at most.
An American intelligence note, extracts of which were seen by AFP on Thursday, put the toll at the “low end of the 100-to-300 spectrum”.