Gazan health authorities said hundreds of people were killed in a blast on Tuesday at a hospital in Gaza City where thousands of civilians had been sheltering — an overwhelming loss of civilian life that immediately inflamed the region. The authorities blamed an Israeli airstrike, but the assertion was disputed by the Israel Defense Forces, which blamed an errant rocket fired by an armed Palestinian faction.
In video clips verified by The New York Times, scores of Palestinian bodies were filmed strewn across the courtyard of the Ahli Arab Hospital, some bloodied, charred, mangled or in pieces.
“There were so many bodies I couldn’t even photograph,” said Ali Jadallah, a photographer for the Anadolu Agency who witnessed some of the first victims arriving at Al-Shifa Hospital, another health facility nearby.
Early reports of the explosion and its attribution to Israel set off unrest in parts of the Middle East and drew furious condemnation from Arab leaders.
The reported scale of the attack heightened fears that the Israel-Hamas 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 explosion at the 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. The group later denied responsibility and an Israeli government account deleted video that it had posted as evidence of the military’s claim.
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. After the hospital explosion, however, Mr. Abbas decided to leave 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.
The high death toll drew swift condemnation from Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, which had been involved in talks with the Biden administration on normalizing its relationship with Israel.
The Saudi foreign ministry released a statement blaming the catastrophe at the hospital squarely on “the forces of the Israeli occupation,” calling it a “barbaric attack” that was a “flagrant violation of international law and norms.”
Egypt also 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 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.
Video of the aftermath verified by The Times showed bodies scattered across the ground, surrounded by blankets, backpacks and mattresses. Hundreds of families had fled to the hospital in search of refuge after 11 days of Israeli strikes elsewhere in Gaza.
In one video posted on social media, a woman runs through the rubble. “They bombed us,” she said as she filmed the flames. “Where am I supposed to go?”
Mr. Jadallah, the photographer who saw some of the first victims arriving at a nearby hospital for treatment, said the hospital quickly became overwhelmed.
“Suddenly, the injured started coming in the dozens, then in the hundreds,” Mr. Jadallah said in a voice message.
“There was no space for us and the medics to be in the same place,” he added. “There was no space for the wounded.”
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.
Doctors Without Borders, an international medical aid group that operates in Gaza, said one of its doctors, Ghassan Abu-Sitta, was working at the hospital during the attack.
“We were operating in the hospital, there was a strong explosion and the ceiling fell on the operating room,” Dr. Abu-Sitta said in a statement distributed by the group. “This is a massacre,” he added.
Ahmed Hijazi, another journalist, said he witnessed the initial waves of victims arriving at the nearby hospital for treatment.
“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, in the Zeitoun neighborhood in the southern part of Gaza City, is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which oversees Anglican worship in much of the Middle East. 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; Haley Willis in Berkeley, Calif.; Euan Ward from Beirut, Lebanon; and Yousur Al-Hlou and Iyad Abu Hweila from Cairo.