By Natasha Bertrand, Katie Bo Lillis and Jeremy Herb, CNN
(CNN) — The US government assesses that Israel “was not responsible” for the blast at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday, according to the National Security Council, following President Joe Biden’s comments that a Palestinian militant group was behind the strike.
A spokesperson for the NSC, Adrienne Watson, said the assessment was based on available reporting, including “intelligence, missile activity, and open source video and images of the incident.”
“While we continue to collect information, our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open-source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” Watson said in a statement on Wednesday.
The NSC followed up with an additional statement Wednesday afternoon leaning further into its assessment. “Intelligence indicates that some Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip believed that the explosion was likely caused by an errant rocket or missile launch carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The militants were still investigating what had happened,” Watson said.
Israeli officials have released audio of what they say is Hamas militants discussing the blast and attributing it to a rocket launched by PIJ.
Officials told CNN separately that the initial evidence gathered by the US intelligence community suggests that the hospital strike came from a rocket launched by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.
Among the evidence that’s been gathered is a blast analysis that suggests it was a ground explosion rather than an airstrike that hit the hospital, one of the sources said. There was no singular crater suggesting there was a bomb, but there was extensive fire damage and scattered debris that is consistent with an explosion starting from the ground level, according to the source.
That analysis is one datapoint that’s led intelligence officials to lean toward assessing that the attack on the hospital was a rocket launch gone wrong.
Still, the blast analysis is just one of the things being examined by the intelligence community, which has surged intelligence collection assets to the region. US intelligence officials have not made a final assessment and are still gathering evidence, the officials said.
In addition to the blast analysis, the initial US assessment was based on overhead imagery collected from US satellites and intelligence intercepts provided by the Israelis, according to officials.
Current and former law enforcement officials say US the assessment of the cause of the blast is being hampered because of the lack of access to the site and analysis of the bodies recovered. FBI teams can typically use samples from the scene to, within hours, identify the rocket fuel and explosives used, one former FBI official said. Without examining the scene, US officials are left to analyze signals and other intelligence that can help make a strong circumstantial assessment of the cause but is not definitive.
Biden says ‘errant rocket’ led to blast
Not long after landing in Israel on Wednesday, Biden weighed in on who was behind the strike on the hospital. “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his arrival in Israel on Wednesday.
Asked what made him confident the Israelis weren’t behind the hospital strike, Biden said: “The data I was shown by my Defense Department.”
In his remarks later on Wednesday, Biden reiterated that based on the information the US has seen, the blast appears to have been “the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.”
“The Palestinian people are suffering greatly as well – we mourn the loss of innocent Palestinian lives,” he said. “Like the entire world, I was outraged and saddened by the enormous loss of life yesterday in the hospital in Gaza. Based on the information we’ve seen to date, it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza. The United States unequivocally stands for the protection of civilian life during conflict, and I grieve, I truly grieve for the families were killed or wounded by this tragedy.”
Authorities in Gaza have said Israel was behind the deadly blast at the hospital, while the Israel Defense Forces said its intelligence showed a “failed rocket launch” by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group was responsible for the explosion.
An IDF spokesman said Wednesday that imagery following the blast showed “no cratering and no structural damage to nearby buildings.”
“There are no craters here. The walls stay intact. This shows is it not an aerial munition that hit the parking lot” of the hospital, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a news conference Wednesday. “Analysis of our aerial footage confirms that there was no direct hit of the hospital itself. The only location damaged is outside the hospital in the parking lot where we can see signs of burning.”
The US intelligence community has been reviewing different kinds of intelligence to try to reach an assessment, including overhead imagery from satellites as well as the blast analysis, the officials said.
“I’m not sure the IC is ready to make an absolutely conclusive attribution but what we’re hearing is consistent with what the president said,” Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said following a classified briefing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner of Ohio and Himes issued a joint statement Wednesday saying, based on information from the Biden administration, they believed the hospital attack “was not the result of Israeli military action.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner of Virginia and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said in a joint statement that the information they reviewed left them “confident” the strike was “the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike.”
Israel provided US with intelligence
Israel has also provided the US with intelligence it has gathered related to the explosion, according to an Israeli official and another source familiar with the matter. The Israeli official said that Israel had passed signal intelligence on the explosion to US intelligence. Signals intelligence includes intercepted communications and other forms of data collected through various means.
“I believe the US intelligence community likely has enough imagery, communications intercepts, and other data to determine where the projectile originated that stuck in the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital and what the original statements of people on the ground were as to what they believed happened,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East and retired CIA officer.
“In addition, from the video released publicly, the explosion is consistent with a rocket that still had a lot of rocket fuel at the time of impact,” Mulroy added.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN national security and military analyst, said the US military has overhead platforms that see “a missile burn when it takes off or when something explodes and comes out of the sky.”
The imagery released by the Israeli military of the explosion site was also “compelling,” Hertling said.
“It is very compelling, but when you also look at that aftermath, where’s the crater? When you’re talking about a crater from an Israeli bomb, there’s going to be a hole there,” he said.
British officials in public and private on Wednesday have not yet gone as far as the US. One official said it’s “not conclusive, but the Israeli assertion is not unfounded.”
“We’re not quite there yet,” another official said. “Not because we dispute what they’ve seen. We’re still at ‘Let’s look at all the facts.’”
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday that British intelligence services were working “rapidly” to establish the facts behind the deadly blast.
“We should not rush to judgments before we have all the facts on this awful situation,” Sunak told lawmakers in the UK parliament.
US intel surges collection in the region
Multiple officials said that the US intelligence community has surged intelligence collection assets to the region, primarily through overhead intelligence collection as well as some special operations support.
One military source described the move as “a major shift” and “lots of focus on this from across the IC,” though the source said it’s not clear how long this shift will last.
It’s not clear how helpful the additional resources will be when it comes to both hostage intelligence and Hamas planning in such a densely populated area, according to a US official – especially if most of the hostages are in the tunnels.
It might help a little bit with planning for potential ground clearance, and some of the signals intelligence collection capabilities could detect Hamas communications to help pinpoint hotspots of their activity. But the official noted that Hamas has been pretty smart about staying off communications – one of the reasons, sources say, the group was able to avoid Israeli detection during the planning of the October 7 attack in Israel.
Overhead surveillance would likely be much more helpful for keeping an eye on Hezbollah and Iran, according to two officials. The US would absolutely not want to be surprised by a Hezbollah attack, however unlikely, and could provide the Israelis with warnings and indications of any imminent operation.
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CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Evan Perez, Zachary Cohen, Oren Liebermann, DJ Judd and Niamh Kennedy contributed to this report.