TEL AVIV — The U.S. has assessed that the deadly blast at a Gaza hospital Tuesday was most likely caused by a misfired rocket from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to two U.S. officials and a congressional staffer. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.
NBC News consulted four military and munitions experts. One agreed with the U.S. assessment, which President Joe Biden hinted at during his trip to Israel on Wednesday. Three agreed the blast wasn’t from Israel. The experts were shown parts of more than a dozen videos and pictures from the incident at al-Ahli Baptist Hospital and its aftermath that have been geolocated and analyzed by NBC News; some said the marks left by the projectile aren’t consistent with the weaponry Israel has used recently.
The analysis of the experts and U.S. officials is likely to do little to stanch the anger felt across the Arab world, which gives credence to the version of events put forward by Palestinian officials and Hamas: that Israel hit the hospital and killed hundreds of civilians in a deliberate act.
It will also do little for Gaza residents like Abu Fulla Mohammed, who rushed to the scene because he knew his family members were nearby. For Mohammed, it was just the latest burst of rubble and human carnage from which there is no escape.
“It was as if I was in a scene from the Day of Resurrection, with fires everywhere,” he said, discovering that shrapnel had hit his sister in her back. “I was walking and jumping over the bodies of martyrs. I swear to God, there were corpses of children, women, elderly people.”
The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, have been pummeling Gaza from the air since the surprise Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 killed 1,400 people in kibbutzim, at a music festival and on city streets. It says it targets only Hamas positions, but thousands of people have been reported killed during its bombing campaign, which has struck other hospitals and, the United Nations said Tuesday, a school, as hundreds of thousands flee south ahead of an expected Israeli ground assault.
In the same time frame, rockets have repeatedly been fired from Gaza toward Israel, most of them intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
Verification of who is responsible for the hospital explosion is particularly difficult because it’s not possible for outside experts to enter Gaza, which is under blockade and surrounded by Israeli forces.
The explosion was broadcast live by Al Jazeera, a news organization owned by the Qatari government, whose cameras were trained on Gaza.
At 6:59 p.m. local time — just before noon ET — the pictures showed a projectile arcing through the sky and appearing to explode midair. Another live shot on the network showed two explosions on the ground, the larger of the two geolocated to the Ahli Baptist Hospital parking lot by NBC News, which compared the skyline in the video illuminated by the blast to satellite imagery of Gaza.
Another geolocated video on social media is taken from the ground in Gaza. The camera points through an ornate fence before a whooshing sound tears through the night and a large fireball plumes in the middle distance.
After the explosion, Israeli officials began to release what they said was their own intelligence indicating that Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible.
At a briefing at IDF headquarters Wednesday, its spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, blamed a barrage launched from a cemetery southwest of the hospital a minute before 7 p.m. — the same time of the video captured by Al Jazeera.
The IDF released aerial video that it said showed that the hospital buildings themselves hadn’t, in fact, been damaged and that the blast had hit a parking lot.
An analysis by Bellingcat, an independent investigative nongovernmental organization, also found that the hospital itself wasn’t hit, but rather the adjacent parking lot.
“The only location damaged is outside the hospital in the parking lot where we can see signs of burning, no cratering and no structural damage to nearby buildings,” Bellingcat director of research and training Giancarlo Fiorella said Wednesday, adding that the distance between the crater area and where people were was about 20 to 30 feet.
The parking lot analysis also appears to tally with verified photos posted on social media, including by a local journalist, Mohamed Masri, and the Reuters news agency, which released a picture showing a small crater with the spray of debris arcing in a southwesterly direction.
In the hours after the explosion, gruesome videos emerged from the hospital on social media showing dozens of mangled bodies and detached limbs lying in the grass by the hospital parking lot. Children’s backpacks could be seen beside blood-soaked blankets and bedding, suggesting the victims were sleeping outside at the time of the blast.
Archbishop Hosam Naoum, who is part of the Diocese of Jerusalem, which runs the hospital, said Palestinians across Gaza were using the hospital as a sanctuary from the constant barrage of strikes. He said the hospital had been hit three days earlier by airstrikes and had received multiple evacuation notices afterward. The World Health Organization said the hospital was operational “with patients, health and caregivers, and internally displaced people sheltering there.”
Two witnesses told NBC News they heard in recent days the hospital would be targeted and that it needed to be evacuated. “But after there were threats in the area, defenseless people came here to take shelter in the hospital building. But we were surprised while we were there that Israeli aircraft targeted the place. There were many martyrs and wounded. It was an indescribable sight,” said witness Asad Ayed.
It was unclear how he knew it was an airstrike.
Hamas — the militant group that controls Gaza and has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S., the E.U. and other countries — immediately blamed Israel for the bombing, calling it a “crime of genocide,” without offering evidence. Shortly afterward, Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour said he was “outraged by the massacre” committed “by the Israeli forces.” And Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told NBC News on Wednesday about the U.S. assessment, “Nobody is buying that narrative in this part of the world.”
The Palestinian Health Ministry spokesperson, Ashraf Al-Qudra, said hundreds were killed. Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a surgeon who was at the hospital at the time of the explosion, told NBC News that part of the operating room ceiling fell and that he estimated 300 people were killed.
National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that “while we continue to collect information, our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, is that Israel is not responsible” for the explosion.
Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a military-focused think tank in London, agreed. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I really doubt that this was an airstrike,” he said, adding that the “blast damage seen so far doesn’t fit” with the missiles Israel has been using to strike Gaza over the past week and a half.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO and an NBC News contributor, held a similar opinion. “To my eye, the damage on the ground does not look at all like what you would see from an airstrike or a precision-guided weapon,” he said. “It looks like a projectile with a lot of fuel in it hit a parking lot and created a fireball.”
Former British army Maj. Chris Cobb-Smith, a weapons and munitions expert, said the Israeli case was “pretty thorough and conclusive,” although he cautioned that he would “want to see remnants of the munition recovered from the rubble.”
“As more evidence emerges, it appears it may well be an errant Palestinian rocket,” he said. “We should not be blinkered that this may, indeed, be an error on the part of the Palestinian forces.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Twitty, a former deputy commander of U.S. European Command and an NBC News military analyst, said the trajectory from the Al Jazeera video showed it had been fired from the ground, rather than the air, but he stopped short of any further conclusions.
The scenes of carnage provoked anger across the Arab world, with governments from Turkey to Saudi Arabia blaming Israel. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah called for “a day of rage,” and Jordan canceled a meeting of Arab leaders that Biden had been set to attend Wednesday — a major setback for U.S. diplomatic efforts.
The blast overall brought more misery to the hemmed-in people of Gaza, currently in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.
Since Hamas’ terrorist attack, Israel has imposed a siege of Gaza. Clean water, food, fuel, medical supplies and electricity are dwindling or gone. Promised humanitarian aid coming across the border with Egypt hasn’t yet materialized.
“We were sitting in groups with our families and friends,” Muhammad Al-Turk told NBC News of the scene Tuesday at the hospital’s grounds, where many had gathered as they fled Israeli airstrikes and a mounting humanitarian crisis. “Suddenly, there were lights in the sky, and when we looked up, a missile fell.”
“The stones of the buildings fell on us. We saw martyrs everywhere, in hundreds,” he said. “I covered my face while friends who were close to me were martyred, my relatives were also injured.”
Abu Fulla Mohammed, whose sister was injured, said the scene will haunt him forever: “What I saw will remain in my mind until I die.”