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The devastation after the Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds of people

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We begin this hour with reports of a catastrophic explosion at a Gaza hospital that threatens to be a major turning point in the Hamas-Israel war. The World Health Organization says many hundreds of people were killed in the explosion. The Israeli army says it was misfire from another Palestinian militant group in Gaza. It would be one of the deadliest single days in all five wars Hamas and Israel have fought in the last couple decades. President Biden is heading into this storm. He'll be here in Tel Aviv tomorrow. NPR's Daniel Estrin is sitting here with me now in Tel Aviv. And, Daniel, update us on what happened at this hospital in Gaza.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It took place on the Al-Ahli Hospital. This is a hospital in Gaza City. It's a Christian-affiliated hospital, Ari. It's where eyewitnesses told us that thousands of Palestinians have been sheltering because hospitals have long been considered off-limits for military targets in Gaza. People feel safe sheltering there. But videos on social media are showing a massive wall of fire rising up, bodies strewn over the grass of the hospital grounds. An eyewitness spoke to Al Jazeera and said men, women, children were among the victims. Now, the Israeli military is saying that according to its intelligence sources, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group - that's another militant group. It's slightly smaller than Hamas, operates in Gaza. They're saying that that group misfired a rocket barrage as it was firing toward Israel and that it hit the hospital. We do know from past wars there have been Palestinian rockets that have fallen short inside Gaza. But, you know, this very same hospital said it was struck by Israeli rocket fire just a few days ago.

SHAPIRO: And even before this massive explosion at the hospital, bombings have been going on all day. I know you've been reporting on this with our colleagues in Gaza, who are working under extreme conditions. Tell us about what you two have been discussing today.

ESTRIN: Yeah, and I've been speaking with our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, all day. And he told me what he saw in very graphic detail. His morning began at 4:30 a.m. He woke up in southern Gaza to the sound of an Israeli airstrike that reportedly killed a family.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: We woke up to the explosion. And after that, we couldn't get back to sleep.

ESTRIN: At 8:30 a.m., Baba and his family fled the home they'd been sheltering in because a nearby high rise got an Israeli military warning to escape ahead of a bombing. His family went to go stay with relatives, and he went out to report.

BABA: We've reached the first family house that got bombed. We were informed that at least seven people died here. Everything in the house was flattened to the ground. All of the neighbors were just, like, still under the shock.

ESTRIN: Says there is no help to dig out the rubble. He said the family must have kept chickens because there were a lot of feathers in the rubble.

BABA: And...

ESTRIN: And he smelled burnt blood.

BABA: ...Smelled just burnt blood.

ESTRIN: He visited a second bombed house and then a third. And he saw a woman in the street screaming, I need a ride to the hospital. She had an injured son there. So he drove her to the hospital. Her name is Umm Ali Abu Jazzar.

UMM ALI ABU JAZZAR: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: And she said, "we were sitting at home normally, cooking. Suddenly the window broke on my head in an airstrike. My daughter - I found her face all bloodied under her room. All the kids were playing there, all the kids. They're all under the rubble. We don't know who's come out alive, who's come out dead, who is in body parts. Their blood is all black in every spot. The smell of death is everywhere. The smell of death is everywhere."

BABA: So I went to the Al-Najjar Hospital around 11.

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: So he arrives at the hospital, and he finds another woman whose father was killed in one of those bombings. And he filmed her. You see her crouched on the floor. Her hand is on her father's body. And then suddenly...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BOOMING)

BABA: A huge explosion.

ESTRIN: ...An explosion.

BABA: All of the hospital started to scream together, Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.

ESTRIN: "God is greatest. God is greatest." So he gets into the car to see what happened, and he's driving behind the ambulances.

BABA: Huge dust. It's like a cloud of dust all over two blocks. We were driving without understanding where are we going. The only thing indicating to us where to go is the red color of the ambulance siren. We were following him.

ESTRIN: He drove guided by the red sirens.

BABA: The first thing I saw - a man is driving and another man behind him holding two girls. And those were - they were beheaded, without a head. I get closer to find a woman with a full dust and sand clothing - that you cannot even see her. She was like a ghost with all gray, dust, like, covering her face, her skin, everything, screaming in the street, they killed the children. They killed the children.

ESTRIN: He says he saw the bodies of children being carried out. He saw a baby girl crushed.

BABA: There is nothing of her bone structure - totally crushed.

ESTRIN: Gaza health officials are saying that more than a hundred people were killed in just those few bombings. And they took place in southern Gaza, which is the area that Israel ordered Palestinians to flee to for their own safety. There was one moment today when Anas Baba was in the field, and rescue workers called him over to try to help them lift a large concrete block.

BABA: We just told each other, maybe the one under the rubble is still alive, and we can save him.

ESTRIN: But underneath was just more rubble.

SHAPIRO: Daniel is still here with us in Tel Aviv with that powerful reporting about strikes in southern Gaza. And, of course, we're looking at this explosion at this hospital in northern Gaza. I said at the beginning that this explosion at the hospital tonight could be a turning point in the war. Daniel, how so?

ESTRIN: Well, it's already disrupting President Biden's visit tomorrow. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he's going to boycott that meeting with Biden in protest of this explosion at the hospital. We're already seeing protests in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. There are reports of protests in Jordan near the Israeli embassy. Israel is calling on its own citizens to immediately leave Turkey due to threats. And then today we saw more cross-border fire between Lebanon and Israel. Israeli civilians have evacuated their homes on the border - of course, all of this as Israelis are still identifying their dead, mourning, grieving, burying their dead from the initial Hamas attacks. And so, Ari, this is confirming the fears that U.S. and Israeli officials have had all throughout this war that this Hamas-Israel conflict could expand into a wider regional war.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin with me here in Tel Aviv, Israel, bringing us reporting from our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, Ari. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Anas Baba