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What we know about the origins of the explosion at a Gaza hospital

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israelis and Palestinians are trading blame over who is responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a hospital yesterday in Gaza City. The Palestinians say it was an Israeli airstrike. The Israelis are blaming a Palestinian faction, saying a rocket directed at Israel misfired and hit the hospital grounds instead. To sort through the conflicting claims, we are joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hi, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: All right, Greg, I'm going to start with you. Summarize - just give us a little more detail on what Palestinians and Israelis are both saying.

MYRE: So the Palestinians have maintained from the very beginning that this was an Israeli airstrike, part of this bombing campaign that's hitting virtually every part of the Gaza Strip. And they say the casualty toll at the al-Ahli Hospital was so high - in the hundreds - because the hospital was not only filled with wounded people. Many civilians had come to the hospital grounds hoping it would be a safe place to shelter.

KELLY: Yeah.

MYRE: Now, the Israelis say the military - the Israeli military - was not operating in this area at the time of the explosion. They say a militant Palestinian faction, Islamic Jihad, fired 10 rockets at Israel. One of them misfired, fell short, hit the parking lot just outside the hospital and ignited a huge fire.

KELLY: So Israel is saying Islamic Jihad - different group from Hamas. Geoff Brumfiel, that's what they're saying. What is the evidence? Just briefly sum up the publicly available evidence.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So I mean, I want to be clear. It's absolutely clear that a catastrophe has unfolded at this hospital, there's no doubt about that. As we heard from Ruth Sherlock just a moment ago, Fadel Naim, a doctor at the hospital, was there at the time of the strike. He told her that people had sought refuge in the hospital's courtyard when suddenly there was this huge explosion. He rushed out and saw just a huge number of grievously injured people.

Now, Naim's account is corroborated by video from Al Jazeera, which shows the moment the blast occurred. So basically, this happened last night, local time. Something burst into flames in the air above the hospital, and that's followed immediately by a huge fireball in that courtyard where people have gathered. And photos from today show burned out cars and abandoned backpacks and belongings of the people who were huddled in that tiny space, hoping it would be safe.

KELLY: Well, and as experts and analysts examine the video, the photos, all of the evidence that must be coming out, what are they saying?

BRUMFIEL: I tried to talk to a few experts, including Marc Garlasco. He's a former targeting officer in the U.S. military who now works for a Dutch nonprofit called PAX. He told me that based on the video of the explosion and the photos of the aftermath, it's not really consistent with standard Israeli munitions.

MARC GARLASCO: Looking at the visual evidence from this strike, it's very clear to me that it was not an airstrike.

BRUMFIEL: And that's because Israeli bombs typically leave craters. They spew shrapnel everywhere. They create a shockwave that would have caused more damage to the buildings surrounding this courtyard. But Garlasco and other experts I spoke to don't want to go much further than saying what it's not. Could it have been a Palestinian rocket that fell? Maybe. Some sort of non-standard Israeli weapon? Perhaps. A missile intercept? There's just not enough to go on.

KELLY: Well, is there additional evidence that we would want to see to try to clarify what happened?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, of course. Yeah, but this is very difficult to sort out. It happened at night in an area that's been cut off from the world. And, you know, most of the data on what happened is held by the combatants. The Israeli military has radar data and such. But, you know, they have a stake in saying what happened, controlling the narrative.

KELLY: Greg, President Biden has weighed into this. He made headlines worldwide today. What did he say?

MYRE: So Biden was in Tel Aviv, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And here's what the president said afterward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Based on the information we've seen today, it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.

MYRE: So we don't know what information he's seen. But the National Security Council said in a brief statement that this current assessment - not final, but working assessment - was, quote, "based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts, and open-source information."

KELLY: I just want to point out, you've covered the Middle East for a long time, Greg. You've reported on all kinds of controversies like this. When you look at this, what do you see? Just give us a little context.

MYRE: Yeah. Mary Louise, I've seen the Israelis and the Palestinians make terrible, deadly mistakes - both of them. Way back in 1996 in southern Lebanon, Israel fired artillery at what it thought was a Hezbollah position. Instead, it hit a group of Lebanese civilians taking shelter, killing more than a hundred. In Gaza in 2005, Hamas held a street parade to celebrate the departure of the Israeli military from the territory. Hamas had live rockets in those trucks. At least one went off, killing 15 people and wounding dozens. Hamas claimed it was an Israeli airstrike even though hundreds of witnesses knew that this wasn't true.

KELLY: That was NPR's Greg Myre and Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you to you both.

MYRE: Sure thing, Mary Louise.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.

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