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Stephanie SaldañaOctober 18, 2023
Injured people are assisted after what Gaza Health Ministry said was an Israeli airstrike on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Oct. 17, 2023. Israeli Defense Forces said it was a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (OSV News photo/Mohammed Al-Masri, Reuters)

Editor's note (10/26): The Oct. 17 bombing at the al-Ahli Arab hospital at Gaza remains a hotly contested subject in the unfolding Israel-Hamas war. Up-to-date reporting on the cause of the explosion and the number of dead is available via other news outlets.  

On Oct. 17, a blast exploded in the al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. As I write this, the Palestinian Health Ministry has reported that 471 Palestinians died in the explosion, though the death toll has not yet been independently verified by any major news outlet. More will certainly die in the days to come. An untold number are wounded. Also known as Al-Ahli Anglican Episcopal Hospital, it is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, in which thousands of innocent Palestinians have been seeking refuge from war and bombardment. It is where the already wounded were waiting to be healed, the sick to be treated, the dying to die in dignity. It is where parents and grandparents and children were trying to sleep, seeking shelter from airstrikes that would not stop. It was not only a hospital. It was a sanctuary. We still do not know all of the names of the dead. We know that the dead have names.

The newspapers are saying that a “blast exploded,” as though by itself. Each side blames the other, and no one wants to take responsibility for such carnage. And yet the dead remain dead. You can recognize the children in the photos, their small legs, their feet showing out from beneath blankets.

I want to write of something that I know—of what hospitals mean in conflict zones, in Gaza or in Bethlehem or in Jerusalem. I have experienced many of them. I gave birth to two of my children in such a hospital in Bethlehem, a Catholic hospital in which most of the patients are Muslim, many of whom can afford to pay very little. My oldest son had his wounded leg stitched up in another Catholic hospital on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where women of all faiths come to give birth. In every case, we have been together, the poor and the wealthy, those of all religions and those who don’t believe, because the only thing anyone cares about in a hospital is that we are human beings who are wounded and need to be healed.

We still do not know all of the names of the dead. We know that the dead have names.

These are not only hospitals. These are refuges, places in which all of us are recognized as made in the image of God. These are, in many times, the last sane places that seem to exist during times of war. War is the opposite of a hospital. War is a loss of humanity, a destruction of life. A hospital seeks to save life.

The explosion was not the first time that the Gaza hospitals made the news in this round of violence, one in which at least 3,300 Palestinians and 1,400 Israelis have been killed. Many doctors in hospitals in evacuation zones in Gaza have said that it was not safe to move their sick patients, so they refused to abandon them, risking their own lives. Archbishop Hosam Naoum, the Anglican archbishop in the Holy Land, stressed that they are determined to keep both the hospitals and the churches open during the war. Even after yesterday’s events, he said that the al-Ahli hospital will remain functioning, a model of fidelity.

In a time of uncertainty, people are always on the lookout for a safe place. A bomb shelter. A stairwell. Yesterday, in the midst of war, Christians in the Holy Land gathered in their churches in a day of prayer and fasting for peace. Outside of our church in Bethlehem, after the prayer, one of our parishioners told me: “Don’t let your children go outside. I only leave the house to go to the church.” The church. A safe place. That is where we held Mass on the very first days of the war, and the sound of our voices singing in Bethlehem was just louder than the sound of rockets exploding nearby.

During war, people of all religions take shelter in churches, not just Christians. Father Elias, a priest at a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza that was sheltering both Christians and Muslims, recently said in an interview with al-Jazeera: “War knows no religion.” And people take sanctuary in church hospitals, too—the church of St. Philip stood inside of the al-Ahli hospital compound in Gaza. Bombs that land on you do not ask for your ID card, whether you are Muslim or Christian or Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, if you are a child or a grandparent; they simply fall, and those who suffer do so together. And they wait together. And they mourn together. And they pray together. A hospital in wartime is witness to our collective humanity. I want you to know that the explosion yesterday was on a holy place.

A hospital in wartime is witness to our collective humanity. I want you to know that the explosion yesterday was on a holy place.

That is why a statement issued by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem called the strike on their hospital “sacrilegious” and wrote that “hospitals, by the tenets of international law, are sanctuaries, yet this assault has transgressed these sacred boundaries.” The statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem called the event a “horrifying shattering of a sanctuary of compassion and healing in Gaza.” With emotion, Archbishop Hosam spoke of how children, in the day before the explosion, had gathered in the hospital courtyard to play and sing songs for peace.

So I do not only say that a blast exploded in a hospital in Gaza. I say that it was also in a home. I say that it was also on holy ground, because I feel certain that families were sleeping together and prayers were being prayed inside, all day long, even beneath the rubble as innocents were dying.

And now we wake to what remains, and the world knows that it was a fiction that families in Gaza—the majority of whom were already refugees, and half of whom are children—could escape to some safe place during this war. There is no safe place. These innocent people escaped to the place they thought was safe, and then they died there.

If I write now, it is because I recognize from other conflicts that this hospital explosion is a turning point. I have seen too many other instances when the world has turned away in the face of massive death, to terrible consequences. There must be an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian corridors opened to treat the sick and wounded, and an end to this cycle of violence, which is leading only to death and more death on both sides.

Pope Francis called for a day of fasting and prayer on Oct. 27, saying that war “erases the future.” Archbishop Hosam, speaking in a press conference, also called for people of goodwill all over the world to intervene in order to stop the war. After asking for a day of mourning for those who died in the hospital explosion, he said: “We hope that people will come to the conclusion that enough with this war. Enough with the lives that have been lost on every side.”

Updated Oct. 19, 10:19 a.m., to clarify the death toll of the blast

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