UK church leader warns against assuming Israel behind Gaza hospital blast

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Church of England's spiritual head said on Sunday he had "no idea" how many people died in a blast last week at an Anglican hospital in the Gaza Strip, and that assuming Israeli culpability could be tantamount to antisemitic libel.

The Oct. 17 explosion at Al Ahli hospital has been among the most hotly disputed events of the Gaza war now in its third week.

The governing Palestinian Islamist group Hamas accused Israel of carrying out an air strike on the hospital. Israel denied that, saying the blast was caused by a Palestinian rocket falling short after being launched at Israel. The Israeli account has been supported by U.S., French and Canadian analyses.

The Gaza health ministry has put the hospital death toll at 471. An Israeli official said it appeared to be "several dozen". A U.S. intelligence report estimated the number of those killed to be "probably at the low end of the 100 to 300 spectrum".

Asked during a visit to Jerusalem if he could corroborate a figure for the fatalities, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told reporters: "I have no idea about how many civilians there were. I've heard so many numbers."

"What I have said to people, publicly, is: 'Don't assume it's Israel. You have no proof that it's Israel. Many people have made a clear case it's not. At the very best, do not start propagating another blood libel,'" he said.

"Blood libel" is a term that has historically been used for false accusations of atrocities committed by Jews that sometimes stoked violent antisemitism and were used to set off pogroms.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Nick Macfie)