Did Israel bomb a civilian evacuation route in Gaza?

Just a day after Israel ordered 1.1mn civilians to leave northern Gaza, two blasts on Friday destroyed multiple cars driving along one of the enclave’s main roads south.

Videos of the aftermath verified by the Financial Times show 12 bodies of men, women and children in Salah-ad-Din street, which Israel later designated a “safe route”. One of the explosions rocks an ambulance as it attempts to leave the scene with some of the injured.

Hamas pinned blame on Israel for striking a civilian convoy, claiming the attack killed more than 70 people and injured 200. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, denied the allegations, telling the Financial Times the IDF didn’t “strike any location”. “Hamas is behind this, is using the death of Palestinian civilians for its vile political purposes.”

Such disputes over civilian deaths are a regular feature of modern warfare, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To assess the competing claims, the FT has worked with Airwars, a conflict monitoring group, as well as munitions experts to shed light on the nature of the attack, its timing, aftermath and the type of explosive used.

While assertions have been made by both sides about the incident and death toll, the available evidence is less clear. However, analysis of the video footage rules out most explanations aside from an Israeli strike.

The devastation underlines the heightened risk civilians are facing as tens of thousands flee the north, on Israeli orders, during hostilities. The bodies of at least three children can be seen in multiple clips verified by the FT.

At least 1,400 Israelis have been killed, according to the government, including many women and children. At least 2,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombardment, about half of them women and below the age of 18, according to Palestinian officials.

On Saturday, Israel told Gazans that it would refrain from bombing two evacuation routes for six hours, including Salah-ad-Din street, where these explosions took place, so that civilians could continue to move south.

Blast destroys two cars on evacuation route

The earliest video obtained by the FT is filmed from the rooftop of a building overlooking Salah-ad-Din street — one of the major evacuation routes from the north to the south — and shows two cars on fire shortly after an explosion.

The lighting and shadows suggest it was filmed in the late afternoon on Friday, hours after the evacuation notice. Despite thousands attempting to follow the orders, there are few cars on the road.

The FT has verified this and the other videos by comparing them against satellite imagery, multiple accounts on social media and statements from official sources. The precise location of the explosions was first identified by open-source researchers Chris Osieck and Gabòr Friesen, which the FT has independently verified.

Subsequent footage shows at least 12 bodies on the street as the cars continue to burn. Among the vehicles damaged in the blast was a flat-bed lorry that appeared to be carrying evacuees from the north to the south. Bodies of multiple civilians, along with their blood-stained belongings, are still visible on its trailers. It is unclear whether the truck, which stopped about 40 metres from the cars at the centre of the explosion, was directly hit.

Another explosion rocks an ambulance

In another video recorded through the front windscreen of an ambulance arriving on the scene, multiple first responders rush to help as bystanders on the street wave to get their attention.

As ambulance workers treat the injured, multiple explosions can be heard in another mobile phone video recorded at the scene.

One blast violently rocks the ambulance — a near-miss while the patients and responders are inside. The person videoing the scene evacuates, leaving the ambulance behind.

Based on videos recorded just before and afterwards, a car parked on the street corner under 25 metres away from the deserted ambulance shows signs of a blast — apparently the site of that nearby explosion.

The car is undamaged when the ambulance arrives. Shortly afterwards it is left a smoking ruin, with signs of impact similar to the other cars hit. The building wall behind the vehicle also shows signs of damage from a strong blast.

Attributing the attacks

While pro-Palestinian activists and official Hamas statements blame the explosions on Israeli air strikes, it is difficult to conclusively prove whether these blasts came from an IDF strike, a potential Palestinian rocket misfire or even a car bomb.

Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army major and weapons and munitions expert, said that while it was hard to draw a definitive conclusion, the available evidence suggested the most likely cause of the blast was a missile strike.

He said that while a car bomb was a possibility, “none of the vehicles really look as if they were the device-carrying car, which would look more like an opened can”.

He also ruled out heavier bombs designed to target buildings since no crater is visible. Cobb-Smith said a targeted missile, by contrast, would have caused damage consistent with the aftermath of the blast and would have “certainly set fire to the vehicles”.

The fact that most of the bodies were intact, but killed by shrapnel, would support that conclusion, he added.

The FT sent detailed questions, including a precise location and approximate time, to Conricus, the IDF spokesman.

On Sunday, in a briefing broadcast on X, formerly Twitter, he played a video of a different explosion two miles south on Salah-ad-Din street. He said the IDF was not responsible for this attack — which he suggested was more likely to be from a roadside IED — but did not mention the blasts documented in the videos verified by the FT.

Conricus stressed that Israel’s aim was for civilians in Gaza to move south. “So it makes no sense for the IDF to have done it,” he said, referencing the explosion shown in his broadcast. 

Additional reporting by John Reed in Jerusalem. Graphics by Steven Bernard

Joe Dyke and Nikolaj Houmann from Airwars contributed to this report

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