Airstrike reportedly hits Anglican-run Ahli hospital in Gaza, raising fear of mass casualties

By David Paulsen
Posted Oct 17, 2023
Hospital airstrike

An injured person is assisted after airstrike reportedly hit a hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17. Photo: Reuters

Editor’s note: Updates from Oct. 18 can be found in this story, including remarks from a news conference with Archbishop Hosam Naoum.

Editor’s note: Updates from Oct. 18 can be found in this story, including remarks from a news conference with Archbishop Hosam Naoum.

[Episcopal News Service] Al Ahli Arab Hospital, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem that serves patients in Gaza, was hit Oct. 17 by an apparent airstrike, fueling reports of mass casualties and adding to an already volatile situation in the Palestinian territory, as Israeli soldiers prepare for an expected ground assault on the militant group Hamas.

The Palestinian Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, put the initial death toll at 500 or more people. Since then, Palestinian and Israeli sources have disputed the cause of the destruction. After Palestinian officials blamed an Israeli airstrike, the Israeli military said it had evidence suggesting the blast was caused instead by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, a Hamas allay.

Within hours of the strike, Anglican and Episcopal leaders had issued statements condemning the latest violence for indiscriminately striking a hospital at a time when Palestinians in Gaza were desperate for a safe haven.

“Initial reports suggest the loss of countless lives, a manifestation of what can only be described as a crime against humanity,” the Anglican diocese that operates the hospital said in a written statement. “Hospitals, by the tenets of international humanitarian law, are sanctuaries, yet this assault has transgressed those sacred boundaries. … An urgent appeal resonates for the international community to fulfill its duty in protecting civilians and ensuring that such inhumane horrific acts are not replicated.”

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urged Episcopalians to pray for all those harmed or killed in the rapidly evolving conflict, and his written statement offered a personal lament for the Ahli hospital. “My heart aches when I remember visiting al-Ahli hospital in 2018 during Holy Week to meet the medical teams and all the people of that remarkable ministry,” Curry said. “They were passionately committed to anyone who had need.”

Diana Branton, a spokeswoman for the United States-based American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, or AFEDJ, told Episcopal News Service earlier in the day that the hospital’s courtyard was hit, but little other concrete information was immediately available. “We have confirmation that Ahli was struck. We do not have a confirmation of actual casualty counts,” Branton said. The hospital’s courtyard “is where many of the [Palestinian] refugees were staying.”

Israeli airstrikes have been a regular threat in the Palestinian territory since Oct. 7 in response to a surprise attack by Hamas, in which gunmen massacred hundreds of Israelis in a coordinated land, sea and air attack on Israeli soil. Hamas also has fired its own rockets into Israel.

The Ahli hospital is one of 22 hospitals in the northern region of Gaza struggling to remain open to treat patients after Israel tightened its blockade of the territory, ordered an evacuation to the southern end of the Gaza Strip and deployed soldiers to Gaza’s northern border. Gaza, with about 2.3 million people confined to about 140 square miles, is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and many of its residents had been sheltering around the hospitals seeking safety from Israeli airstrikes.

Al Ahli Arab Hospital

Al Ahli Arab Hospital has been ministering as a Christian witness in Gaza City since 1882. The institution was founded by the Church of England’s Church Mission Society and was later run as a medical mission by the Southern Baptist Conference from 1954 to 1982. It then returned to the Anglican Church. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Photos of the Ahli hospital on Oct. 17 showed its facilities engulfed in flames and scattered with broken glass and body parts, according to an Associated Press report.

“We are shocked, outraged, and devastated,” Churches for Middle East Peace said in a statement released late Oct. 17. The Episcopal Church is a founding member. “Our hearts are deeply grieved at hearing this news. We express our deepest condolences and ask that the Lord be with the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, staff, and all people affected by the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital.”

The initial Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and subsequent airstrikes by the militant group and the Israeli military reportedly have killed thousands of Israelis and Palestinians so far. The damage to the Ahli hospital occurred on a global day of prayer and fasting that was called by the heads of the 13 Christian denominations in the Holy Land, including the Anglican province that includes the Diocese of Jerusalem.

Episcopal leaders also are encouraging Episcopalians to donate to American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which supports the Ahli hospital.

The Ahli hospital sustained damages from a previous strike, which hit its cancer unit. Four staff members were injured in the Oct. 14 strike, which damaged two upper floors, according to AFEDJ. An earlier strike destroyed the house of the hospital’s medical director.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at