BBC 2024-03-12 10:01:25

Gaza medics tell BBC that Israeli troops beat and humiliated them after hospital raid

Palestinian medical staff in Gaza have told the BBC they were blindfolded, detained, forced to strip and repeatedly beaten by Israeli troops after a raid at their hospital last month.

Ahmed Abu Sabha, a doctor at Nasser hospital, described being held for a week in detention, where, he said, muzzled dogs were set upon him and his hand was broken by an Israeli soldier.

His account closely matches those of two other medics who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

They told the BBC they were humiliated, beaten, doused with cold water, and forced to kneel in uncomfortable positions for hours. They said they were detained for days before being released.

The BBC supplied details of their allegations to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They did not respond directly to questions about these accounts, or deny specific claims of mistreatment. But they denied that medical staff were harmed during their operation.

They said that “any abuse of detainees is contrary to IDF orders and is therefore strictly prohibited”.

WARNING: Some readers may find details in this article distressing.

The IDF raided the hospital in the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis – which was one of the few in the Strip still functioning – on 15 February, saying intelligence indicated that the hospital housed Hamas operatives.

They also said Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October had been held there – and some of the hostages themselves have publicly said they were kept at Nasser. Hamas has denied that its fighters operate inside medical facilities.

Footage secretly filmed in the hospital on 16 February, the day the medics were detained, was shared with the BBC.

It shows a row of men stripped to their underwear in front of the hospital’s emergency building, kneeling with their hands behind their heads. Medical robes are lying in front of some of them.

“Anybody who tried to move his head or make any movement got hit,” the hospital’s general manager, Dr Atef Al-Hout, told the BBC. “They left them for around two hours in this shameful position.”

The IDF told the BBC: “As a rule, during the arrest process, it is often necessary for terror suspects to hand over their clothes such that their clothes can be searched and to ensure that they are not concealing explosive vests or other weaponry.

“Clothes are not immediately returned to the detainees, due to the suspicion they may conceal means that can be used for hostile purposes (such as knives). Detainees are given back their clothes when it’s possible to do so.”

Medical staff said that they were then taken into a hospital building, beaten, and then transported to a detention facility, all while undressed.

Dr Abu Sabha, the 26-year-old newly qualified doctor and volunteer medic at Nasser, described some elements of his treatment while in detention as torture, such as making detainees stand for hours without a break. He said other punishments given to detainees included being made to lie on their stomach for prolonged periods and delaying their meals.

An expert in humanitarian law said the footage and the testimony from the medical staff interviewed by the BBC was “extremely concerning”. He said some of the accounts provided to the BBC “very clearly cross over into the category of cruel and inhumane treatment”.

Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne, co-director of the Centre for International Law at the University of Bristol, said: “It goes against what has for a long time been a very fundamental idea in the law that applies in armed conflict, which is that hospitals and medical staff are protected.”

“The fact that they treat nationals of the enemy side should not in any way undermine their protection,” he said.

The BBC has been investigating the hospital’s story for several weeks, speaking to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and displaced people camping in the courtyard. We have cross-checked details in these accounts.

We were given the names of 49 Nasser medical personnel said to have been detained. Of those, 26 were named by multiple sources, including medics on the ground, the Hamas-run health ministry, international groups, and the families of those missing.

The three medics who say they were detained and later released have not given their accounts publicly before. They include Dr Abu Sabha, who we interviewed twice. His story remained consistent, and we corroborated key parts of his account independently.

Families of five other medics at the hospital have told the BBC their loved ones are missing. In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross has confirmed to the BBC that it has received dozens of phone calls from people who say family members, including medics, who were at Nasser, are now missing.

  • ‘Without painkillers, we leave patients to scream for hours’
  • WHO says Gaza hospital raided by IDF not functional
  • UN finds ‘convincing information’ of sexual violence against Israeli hostages

Medics who remained at Nasser say the IDF’s operation at the hospital left them unable to care for patients. When the IDF took control, nearly 200 patients were being treated there, many of them “bedridden”, including six inside the ICU, according to Dr Hout, the general manager.

Those staff allowed to remain have described being ordered to move seriously ill patients between buildings, being taken away from their duties to be interrogated, and assigned patients whose cases they were not trained to deal with, all as they worked in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

Multiple medics said that 13 patients died in the days after Israel’s takeover.

They said many of those patients had died because of the conditions at the hospital, including a lack of electricity, water, and other essentials needed to keep Nasser running. We cannot independently verify this. A doctor shared photos of bodies in bags on beds that we have confirmed were taken in a ward at the hospital.

The IDF told the BBC that it had “provided the hospital with hundreds of food rations and an alternative generator that enabled it to continue functioning and treat the patients within it”.

The “essential systems” of the hospital kept functioning during the IDF’s operation on an uninterruptible power supply system, it said.

On 18 February, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the hospital was short of food and basic medical supplies, and had ceased to function. The remaining patients were sent to other hospitals around Gaza and the medical staff who worked there left shortly afterwards.

Doctor: ‘I thought I was going to be executed’

Released detainees and other medics told the BBC that the maternity building, called Mubarak, became the place where the IDF interrogated and beat staff. Dr Abu Sabha said he was initially picked to stay with patients after the raid, but was later taken to Mubarak, which he said had become “more like a torture place”.

“They put me on a chair and it was like a gallows,” he said. “I heard sounds of ropes, so I thought I was going to be executed.

“After that they broke a bottle and it [the glass] cut my leg and they left it to bleed. Then they started bringing doctor after doctor in and started putting them next to each other. I was hearing their names and their voices.”

The IDF told the BBC it “does not and has not carried out mock executions of detainees, and rejects such claims”.

All three of the detainees the BBC spoke to said they were crammed onto military vehicles and beaten as they were transported in a large group. Soldiers beat them with sticks, hoses, rifle butts and fists, they said.

“We were naked. Just wearing boxers. They piled us on top of each other. And they took us out of Gaza,” one of the medics who wanted to remain anonymous said. “All along the way we were being hit and sworn at and humiliated. And they poured cold water on us”.

Dr Abu Sabha said that during the journey, soldiers took the detainees out of the vehicle. “They took us to a patch of ground covered in gravel, forced us to kneel down and our eyes blind-folded… There was a pit in the ground, and we thought they would execute us and bury us here. We all started prayers.”

He was then driven to a building where he and the other detainees with him would be held, he said.

The two other released detainees said that at some stage they were given medical checks but no medication. One said that instead of getting treatment for an injury, an IDF soldier hit him where he was injured.

Dr Abu Sabha told the BBC that detainees were routinely punished for perceived infractions. “At one point, the blindfold moved down a bit and my hands were handcuffed from behind and I could not fix it.

“They took me out for punishment… I was standing with my hands raised above my head and my face looking down for three hours. Then, he [a soldier] asked me to come to him. When I did, he kept hitting my hand until it was broken.”

Later that day, he was taken to the toilet, beaten, and had muzzled dogs set on him, he said.

The day after, an Israeli doctor fitted him with a cast and then soldiers drew a Star of David on it, he said. This cast was later changed by a doctor in Gaza and Ahmed was wearing a cast during his interview with the BBC.

The BBC confirmed that Dr Abu Sabha had an X-ray and sought treatment for a broken hand at a field hospital in Gaza after his detention, and that he arrived there in a cast with a Star of David drawn on it.

The IDF did not address the BBC’s questions about Dr Abu Sahba’s cast.

  • Why are Israel and Hamas fighting in Gaza?
  • Gaza Strip in maps: How life has changed
  • IDF completes road across Gaza, satellite images show

None of the three medics were made aware of any specific charges, but two said interrogations focused on whether they had seen hostages or Hamas fighters within the hospital.

They said they were also asked about their whereabouts on 7 October, when Hamas gunmen rampaged from Gaza into Israel and killed about 1,200 people, taking 253 others hostage. More than 130 hostages are still believed to be held by Hamas. Israeli officials have said at least 30 of them are dead.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says more than 31,000 people have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory air strikes and its ongoing ground offensive.

One of the released detainees said that two days after being interrogated, IDF officers told him there was no evidence and he would be released.

“I asked him, ‘Who will compensate me for all the beatings and humiliation I’ve been through, that you did to me, while I knew that I wasn’t involved in anything?’ He started muttering, ‘I don’t have anything on you. No charges.'”

Dr Abu Sabha told the BBC he was never interrogated during his eight days of detention.

The three medics we spoke to say they were transported back to Gaza blindfolded after their release.

The BBC has confirmed Dr Abu Sabha’s account that he crossed back into Gaza at the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, which is near the southernmost point of the Strip where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet.

The medics’ accounts are at odds with a separate briefing given to the BBC by a senior IDF official who said that no arrests were made of medical staff at Nasser, “unless we knew that it was possible to get this or that intelligence information” from them.

“We had reasonable grounds to assume that they have information, so we took them in for questioning and interrogation, but not beyond that,” the official said.

“There were no handcuffs, we did not take them away for interrogation, nor for advanced arrest, but for the purpose of questioning and trying to obtain information about the hostages or the Hamas commanders who were in the hospital… a very simple questioning and that’s it.”

Some hostages taken from Israel on 7 October have described being brought into the Nasser hospital complex in an ambulance. One released hostage said her husband – who remains in Gaza – was covered in a sheet to look like a corpse.

They have described being kept in small rooms and being forced to knock if they needed to go to the toilet. One has described her time in captivity as “psychological warfare”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that since 7 October, Israel has suspended its detention visits, meaning it has not been able to visit any detainees.

It told the BBC it was “deeply concerned” by the reports of arrests and ongoing detention of medics.

“Wherever and whoever they may be, detainees need to be treated humanely and with dignity at all times, in accordance of international humanitarian law,” it said.

“The ICRC has continuously called for, and is ready to immediately resume, detention visits in order to monitor the treatment of detainees and the conditions of detention.”

An internal UN report seen by the BBC has described widespread abuse of Palestinians who have been captured and interrogated at makeshift Israeli detention centres since the war began, which are similar to the accounts the medics gave. The IDF has previously denied specific allegations in the UN report, including the denial of access to water, medical care and bedding.

Back at Nasser ‘hospital could barely function’

Meanwhile, in Nasser hospital, a few medics were allowed to stay and care for the remaining patients.

Some patients had been detained during the raid, according to Dr Hout, the general manager.

In one video provided to us by a Nasser eyewitness, IDF soldiers wheel two hospital beds and the occupants’ hands are hoisted above their heads, zip-tied. We have verified it is authentic.

In separate footage published by the IDF, people can be seen lying on beds in the hospital grounds with their hands zip-tied, their arms in a similar raised position. We do not know who these people are, or what happened to them after this footage.

The IDF said: “We emphasize that the hands of patients who were not suspected of involvement in terrorism were not tied.”

Medics who remained were frightened of being shot if they defied orders not to leave the building, Dr Hatim Rabaa, who also worked at Nasser, told the BBC in a phone call on 22 February, as explosions sounded in the background. But nevertheless they went down to the yard to collect water, worrying that patients would otherwise die, he said.

“People were dying of thirst. On my shoulders I carried three gallons of water so that I can make people drink. What else could I do?”

Multiple medics said that the IDF would not grant them permission to bury or even move the bodies of patients who died in the aftermath of the operation. The bodies remained inside with staff and patients as they began to decompose, the medics said.

“The smell filled the whole department,” Dr Rabaa said. “Patients were screaming ‘please remove them from here’. I was telling them ‘it isn’t in my hands’.”

Dr Rabaa was one of a small group of medics chosen to remain with patients. He said that he too had been stripped to his underwear and made to kneel in front of the emergency department – but he was then led away to the building where patients were kept.

He said he does not know what happened to his colleagues he left behind in the courtyard.

The BBC put detailed questions about the allegations to the Israeli military.

In its response, the IDF told the BBC that “about 200 terrorists and suspects of terrorist activity were detained, including some who posed as medical teams”. They said that “many weapons were found, as well as closed medicines intended for Israeli hostages”.

They said they had operated in a “precise and focused manner, creating minimal damage to the hospital’s ongoing activity, and without harming the patients or the medical staff”.

Additional reporting by Muath Al Khatib and by BBC Arabic’s Marie-Jose Al Azzi and Soha Ibrahim

Verification by Richard Irvine-Brown, Benedict Garman and Emma Pengelly, BBC Verify

Visual journalism and design by Gerry Fletcher, Lilly Huynh and Zoe Bartholomew

Related Topics

  • Middle East
  • Israel-Gaza war
  • Gaza

Ariel Henry: Haiti’s prime minister resigns as law and order collapses

Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry has agreed to resign following weeks of mounting pressure and increasing violence in the impoverished country.

It comes after regional leaders met in Jamaica on Monday to discuss a political transition in Haiti.

Mr Henry is currently stranded in Puerto Rico after being prevented by armed gangs from returning home.

In a video address announcing his resignation, Mr Henry urged Haitians to remain calm.

“The government that I am leading will resign immediately after the installation of [a transition] council,” Mr Henry said.

“I want to thank the Haitian people for the opportunity I had been granted. I’m asking all Haitians to remain calm and do everything they can for peace and stability to come back as fast as possible.”

Mr Henry, who had led the country supposedly on an interim basis since July 2021 following former President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination, had repeatedly postponed elections, saying security must be restored first.

Many Haitians had questioned him governing the country for this long without an elected president.

Heavily armed gangs have tightened their grip on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, and attacked the main prison to help thousands of inmates escape.

They also demanded the resignation of the unelected prime minister.

The capital Port-au-Prince and the surrounding region is under a month-long state of emergency, while a curfew has been extended.

Matthias Pierre, a former elections minister in Haiti, broke the news of Mr Henry’s resignation to the BBC’s Newsday programme before it was confirmed publicly.

He described the current situation in the country as “very precarious”.

“The police force is weak, and more than 40 police stations [are] destroyed. The army is very limited and not equipped; gang members occupy most of the [Port-au-Prince] downtown and some government headquarters.

“Very soon people will be out of food, medication and… medical support.”

Mr Pierre said the gangs were now pushing to be part of any new power-sharing deal, adding that such a political settlement was impossible without the “support” of an international armed force.

  • How gangs came to dominate Haiti
  • Where aid delivery depends on talking to 300 gangs
  • Haiti spirals to collapse as gangs tighten grip

Mr Henry had been in Kenya to sign a deal on the deployment of an international security force to help tackle violence when a coalition of gangs attacked police stations and stormed two of Haiti’s largest prisons.

A plane carrying Mr Henry was stopped from landing following sustained attacks at Haiti’s international airport.

His resignation has been expected for several days. The Caricom group of Caribbean nations had made its position clear that he was seen as an impediment to Haiti’s stability and that he would have to stand down so the move to a transitional council could begin.

The White House had initially wanted to see Mr Henry return to Haiti to oversee the transitional process, but the ferocity of fighting in the country changed minds in Washington in recent days.

Without the support of either the US state department or his neighbours, it was clear that Mr Henry had no alternative but to stand down.

Mr Henry has expressed a wish to return to Haiti but the security situation has to improve before he is able to do so, according to the US which was at the talks in Kingston on Monday.

A senior US official said Mr Henry had first made the decision to step down on Friday but he had waited for an official announcement so talks could take place.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken committed a further $100m (£78m) to the 1,000-strong UN-backed security force Kenya is expected to lead in Haiti.

The proposed US contribution to the security force now stands at $300m following Mr Blinken’s announcement, with a further $33m allocated for humanitarian aid.

Speaking following the meeting, chairman of the Caricom group and Guyana President Irfaan Ali said: “We acknowledge his resignation upon the establishment of a transitional presidential council and naming of an interim prime minister.”

President Ali said the transitional presidential council would have two observers and seven voting members, including representatives from several coalitions, the private sector and civil society, and one religious leader.

The council has been mandated to “swiftly” appoint an interim prime minister, he said, adding that anyone intending to run in Haiti’s next elections will not be able to participate.

It is hoped the council will pave the way for the first elections in Haiti since 2016.

Haiti: The basics

  • The Caribbean country shares a border with the Dominican Republic and has an estimated population of 11.5 million
  • It has a land area of 27,800 sq km, which is slightly smaller than Belgium and about the same size as the US state of Maryland
  • Chronic instability, dictatorships and natural disasters in recent decades have left Haiti the poorest nation in the Americas
  • An earthquake in 2010 killed more than 200,000 people and caused extensive damage to infrastructure and the economy
  • A UN peacekeeping force was put in place in 2004 to help stabilise the country and only withdrew in 2017
  • In July 2021, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in Port-au-Prince. Amid political stalemate, the country continues to be wracked by unrest and gang violence

Andrew Tate and brother Tristan detained in Romania over UK arrest warrant

Andrew Tate and his brother Tristan have been detained in Romania after European arrest warrants were issued by the UK, his representative has said.

The allegations, including sexual aggression, cover 2012 to 2015, his team said.

The Tate brothers “categorically reject all charges”, the statement said.

Romanian police said European arrest warrants for two men were issued by UK authorities for sexual offences on Monday.

The alleged offences also included exploiting people in Great Britain, the Romanian police statement said.

The two men were presented to the prosecutor attached to the Bucharest Court of Appeal, who ordered their detention for 24 hours, police said.

A representative for the controversial influencer said the court will make a decision on Tuesday as to whether to “execute the mandate”.

They described the arrest warrant as a “bewildering revival of decade-old accusations” leaving the brothers “dismayed and deeply troubled”.

“They categorically reject all charges and express profound disappointment that such serious allegations are being resurrected without substantial new evidence,” the statement said.

“They are fully committed to challenging these accusations with unwavering determination and resolve.”

  • Andrew Tate wins legal challenge over seized assets
  • Andrew Tate denied request to see ill mother in UK
  • Andrew Tate: The self-proclaimed misogynist

In December, Andrew Tate, 37, and his brother Tristan, 35, who are dual UK-US nationals, were ordered by a Romanian court not to leave Romania after the brothers made a request to visit their mother in hospital in the UK.

The brothers are being investigated by Romanian authorities over separate allegations of rape, human trafficking and forming a criminal gang – charges they deny.

They are accused of exploiting women via an adult content business, which prosecutors allege operated as a criminal group.

Two female Romanian associates were also named alongside the brothers in an indictment published in June, and seven alleged victims were identified.

Mr Tate has repeatedly claimed Romanian prosecutors have no evidence against him and there is a conspiracy to silence him.

Andrew Tate is a self-described misogynist and was previously banned from social media platforms for expressing misogynistic views.

The hunt for alien life is hotting up

Forget UFOs and alien abductions, here’s how scientists are really looking for life on other worlds.

It is easy to wax lyrical about aliens. The prospect of life on other planets has shaped much of our culture and continues to inspire books, TV shows, movies – and the odd conspiracy theory of course. But amongst all the fantastical visions of little green men there is a real, actual hunt for alien life taking place right now, and it is not some fringe science or controversial idea. It is a systematic process that scientists are undertaking, with results expected in as little as a decade.

To be more exact, there are multiple hunts for alien life currently underway. On Mars, a rover is collecting samples that may determine if life ever existed on the red planet. Probes are visiting some of our solar system’s icy moons to search for signs of habitability. Astronomers are also beginning to scour the atmospheres of planets beyond our own solar system for telltale elemental cocktails that hint at alien life. And, yes, we are even keeping a beady eye out for signals from any intelligent civilisation that might purposefully – or accidentally – make contact.

“I think in 10 years we’ll have some evidence about whether there’s anything organic on some nearby planets,” says Lord Martin Rees, the UK astronomer royal. “I think we are really [on the cusp].”

Alien life, if it exists, has not made itself easily known. Early attempts to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, called Seti, began in the mid-20th Century, with astronomers looking in vain for radio signals on other planets. Mars, which was believed in the late 19th Century to have life-harbouring canals and rivers, was discovered to be a mostly dry, barren wasteland. Planets around other stars, meanwhile, were so small that finding them was difficult, let alone learning much about them.

To hunt for alien life we have had to fine-tune how we search for it, and prepare for the possibility that any initial detection is likely to be perhaps somewhat small – evidence of microbes or chemical markers in a distant atmosphere. Compared to the Hollywood vision of first contacts with extra-terrestrial life, it might seem anticlimactic, but hard evidence that life exists beyond the boundaries of our own planet will still fundamentally alter our view of our place in the Universe.

Two spacecraft are due to visit the icy moon Europa to study the extent of the ocean that exists beneath its fractured surface (Credit: Nasa)

In our solar system, Mars is arguably the most popular destination to hunt for life, at present. We know the planet was likely wet and potentially habitable billions of years ago, with seas and lakes on its surface. More recently scientists have even found tantalizing clues that there may be liquid water on Mars still, hidden beneath the planet’s southern ice cap.

Currently, Nasa’s Perseverance rover is scooping up samples from the now-dry bed of what was thought to be once a lake in a region called Jezero Crater, just to the north of the Martian equator. The goal is to collect dozens of samples and return these to Earth in the early 2030s – a mission known as Mars Sample Return – where they can be investigated in detail for signs of life. The mission is currently facing difficulties, with the return aspect struggling for funding. But if they can pull it off, there scientific riches in store.

Susanne Schwenzer, a planetary scientist at The Open University in the UK and a member of the Mars Sample Return science team, says the presence of past life on Mars could leave a fingerprint in the interaction of its rocks and water. “If you have life, things look very different,” she says. “If we have the samples from Mars, we can go into miniature detail to study these processes.”

It’s possible some of the samples could even contain fossilised microbes inside the rocks. “I as a scientist wouldn’t have spent my life on this if I weren’t hopeful that we have a good chance of finding something,” says Schwenzer. “I hope we will find something, but I can’t predict it.”

If we were to find life on the icy moons, we would be sure this is a different genesis of life from Earth – Susanne Schwenzer

But even if signs of life on Mars were to be detected, it would not be unequivocal proof of widespread alien life elsewhere in the universe. Mars and Earth are known to have shared material early in their history, meaning they might also have shared the genesis of life. For evidence of a true second genesis, proof that life arose for a second time independently on another world, scientists are looking to the solar system’s icy moons such as Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, thought to contain vast oceans beneath their frozen surfaces. “If we were to find life on the icy moons, we would be sure this is a different genesis of life from Earth,” says Schwenzer. (Read more about what life in alien oceans might be like.)

A Nasa spacecraft called Europa Clipper is due to launch to Europa in October, following a European spacecraft, Juice, which launched in April 2023. Set to arrive in 2030 and 2031, the two spacecraft are not likely to detect life on Europa. But they will study the extent of its ocean, and set the stage for a future mission that might try to burrow beneath the ice sheet – such as an ongoing Nasa proposal called Europa Lander that remains on the drawing board – or fly through plumes that might be ejected from the moons’ oceans into space, to look for life.

Actually getting a machine into the ocean of one of these worlds is a “100-year-problem”, says Britney Schmidt, an astronomer at Cornell University in New York, because of the difficulties of getting through the multi-kilometeres-thick ice. But “getting into the ice shell and interacting with liquids is something we could do” more near-term, she says. “That’s the kind of mission I would like to see happen. Our group is working on instruments and technologies so we know when we get there what to do.”

Recent research using radar from orbiting satellites has suggested there may be liquid water beneath the Martian southern ice cap (Credit: Getty Images)

If you aren’t quite ready to wait 100 years, then you might want to cast your gaze to other solar systems. We now know of more than 5,500 planets around other stars, known as exoplanets, and more continue to trickle in every day. With the immense power of new telescopes, most notably the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers are now beginning to probe some of these planets in exquisite detail.

In particular, they are using JWST to see if they can work out what gases are present on some rocky exoplanets similar to Earth. JWST was not initially designed to study exoplanets when it was first drawn up at the turn of the century, but it has since been re-tasked with studying these worlds, being the largest space telescope in history and thus our best machine to do so.

It cannot study Earth-like worlds around stars like our Sun. These planets are simply too dim against such bright stars for even JWST to study, and will require a more advanced telescope such as Nasa’s Habitable Worlds Observatory, set to launch in the 2040s to investigate them. But JWST can study planets around small stars called red dwarfs, and right now it is flexing its capabilities with a fascinating system called TRAPPIST-1, which contains seven Earth-sized worlds. At least three of the planets orbit in the star’s habitable zone, where liquid water – and life – could exist.

The first step is for astronomers to confirm if these planets have atmospheres. Research with JWST to make this determination is currently underway, with results expected later this year or in 2025. Initial results have shown that the innermost planet likely lacks an atmosphere required for life, but if atmospheres can be found on the other TRAPPIST-1 planets it would be a monumental discovery says Jessie Christiansen, an astrophysicist at Nasa’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in the US. “The next 20 years of exoplanet search will depend on that result,” she says. “If red dwarf planets have atmospheres, we will point every telescope on Earth at these planets to try and see something.”

If we can find those atmospheres, JWST will be used to look for signs of biosignatures in atmospheres that might hint at life. “We’ll be looking for disequilibrium chemistry,” says Christiansen. “You can make carbon dioxide, methane, and water on [any] planet. But having them in ratios where they can’t be maintained naturally, that’s where you start to say biology is involved.”

Watch: Why are some people obsessed with UFOs?

Future telescopes, like the Habitable Worlds Observatory and a European proposal called Life, will then try to perform this same analysis for true Earth-analogue planets around stars like our Sun. “The driving planetary class will be rocky planets in the habitable zone,” says Sascha Quanz, an astrophysicist at ETH Zürich in Switzerland who leads the Life program.

And then there’s the hunt for intelligent life. Jason Wright, an astronomer at The Pennsylvania State University in the US, says much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Radio observations have shown that, within about 100 light-years of Earth, powerful beacons pointed in our direction “don’t seem to exist”, says Wright. Now, programs like Breakthrough Listen in the US are casting their gaze further afield. They are looking for directed radio signals coming from more distant planets in our galaxy, and are even starting to look for accidental communications leakage from planets like that which is emitted from Earth.

You might also like: 

  • What alien langauges might sound like
  • Why alien life might be plant life
  • Could we detect alien pollution

Upcoming telescopes, most notably a vast new radio telescope set to come online in 2028 called the Square Kilometer Array, a group of thousands of radio antennas spread across two continents, should significantly expand this search. “That’s really exciting,” says Wright. But even with modern radio telescopes a detection could come “at any moment”, says Wright.

There are at least three planets orbiting around the red dwarf TRAPPIST-1 that exist in the stars “habitable zone” where liquid water could exist (Credit: Nasa)

If we do find evidence of alien life, whether that’s in our solar system, on an exoplanet, or from an intelligent civilisation, that evidence is unlikely to be a slam-dunk. It will more likely be a gradual process to the point where life seems like the most likely explanation. “The more information you have, the more you’re in a position to rule out false positives,” says Quanz.

Thus, the discovery of alien life might not be a single defining moment. How the public reacts to that possibility is an interesting question, says Rees. “If it’s tentative, that should be made clear by the scientists,” he says. “One hopes it would be reflected in any newspaper reports.” Recent examples include the detection of phosphine on Venus and dimethyl sulfide on an exoplanet, both hotly debated hints of biology that remain extremely uncertain.

There remains the other possibility, too, that all of these searches will turn up empty. That in itself will be an interesting scientific result, telling us that alien life – if it exists at all – is not common in the Universe.  “A null result tells you something fundamentally important” about life, says Quanz. “Maybe it’s really rare.”

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Join one million Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

Bradley Cooper and other snubbed Oscar contenders

Many of the most-snubbed stars have been nominated over and over without ever taking home a trophy.

During Oscars season, certain names – hello again, Scorsese – are almost predictably in the mix year after year. But while it’s an honour just to be nominated, some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, who have many notable projects under their belts, also have long histories of being relentlessly overlooked when it comes to actually taking home the trophy. And other artists have had notably long dry runs before their name is finally called on the big night.

Nominations are, of course, chosen by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and you must be nominated to join this exclusive club. In 2019, there were around 9,000 members, and today there are about 10,500. Members vote in the categories of their own profession – so actors vote for actors, editors vote for editors – and each voter makes 10 selections in the appropriate category. Once the shortlist of nominations is formed, Academy members vote for the winner across all categories. For those outside of the Academy, it’s impossible to know exactly how the decisions are made, especially the shocking snubs.

Last night, Bradley Cooper cemented his spot on the list. The triple-threat actor, writer and director who has been nominated 12 times – four for best actor – yet never snagged a trophy, couldn’t break his snub-streak. While Cooper earned three nominations for his film Maestro – best picture, best actor, best original screenplay – he went home empty-handed. And he’s far from the only artist who has been the victim of Academy Award snubs.

Bradley Cooper has been nominated 12 times – four for best actor – yet never snagged a trophy(Credit: Getty Images)

Most notable Oscars snubs 

One star who has been snubbed over and over is Amy Adams. Having been nominated six times (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master, Vice and American Hustle) over the course of her career it’s inarguable how massive a talent she is. But somehow, she’s always been passed over on the big day. While Adams received rave reviews for her role in Arrival, it didn’t earn her a nomination from the Academy.

While Meryl Streep has a handful of golden statues, she’s also had a long history of being relentlessly snubbed. With 21 Oscar nominations to her name, some believe she should have far more wins – such as for her raved about roles in The Manchurian Candidate, The Hours or Death Becomes Her. Still, Streep is in a small club of women who have been awarded the best actress statue three times, so while the odds don’t seem in her favour, she’s not likely to complain. It’s been six years since Streep has received an Oscar nomination, for her role in The Post, marking the longest period she’s gone without since 1978’s The Deer Hunter.

Also on the snub-list is 49-year-old actor Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who has had an incredibly successful career. While high-earning films like Titanic may have catapulted him to mega stardom, his Academy Award nominations started much earlier. He was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a nod that kicked off a lengthy snub-streak. The actor was later nominated for The Aviator, Blood Diamond, and The Wolf of Wall Street, but didn’t take home a trophy until his role as Hugh Glass in 2016’s The Revenant. DiCaprio was nominated again for 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but went home without an Oscar.

Somewhat astonishingly, Glenn Close has never won an Oscar, but has more nominations without a win than any actor in history. She’s had eight nods for her roles in The World According to Garp, The Big Chill, The Natural, and Hillbilly Elegy, as well as Fatal Attraction, among others. But while the star has never taken home an Oscar, she’s said it doesn’t bother her. “First of all, I don’t think I’m a loser,” she told the Associated Press of her snub streak in 2021. “Who in that category is a loser? You’re there, you’re five people honoured for the work that you’ve done by your peers. What’s better than that?”

Iconic directorial snubs

It’s not just actors who get snubbed – some of the most successful directors have run through surprising Oscars losing streaks. Martin Scorsese directed legendary films like Taxi Driver, GoodFellas and The Aviator, all of which were snubbed at the Oscars. In fact, while the director has been making films since the ’70s and has achieved a whopping 16 nominations, he’s only ever received one Academy Award: for 2006’s The Departed. Scorsese has also earned more Oscar nominations for best director than anyone alive, surpassing Steven Spielberg’s nine. This year, Scorcese was passed over once again for his work on Killers of the Flower Moon, which was nominated for best picture, but lost to Oppenheimer. Fans have theorised the Academy overlooks the director’s work because it deals with more diverse narratives and often features languages other than English.

Samuel L. Jackson – the actor with the greatest total box office gross of all time at over £21bn – has only ever been nominated for one Academy Award (Credit: Getty Images)

Artists of colour overlooked at the Oscars

A historic lack of recognition for actors of colour makes some snubs less surprising than others. Still, it’s fairly stunning that Samuel L Jackson – whose body of work has one of the highest total box office gross of all time, at over £21bn ($27bn) – has only ever been nominated for one Academy Award, 1995’s Pulp Fiction. The actor has spoken openly about his snubs, too. In a 2023 interview with Vulture, he opened up about the feeling that a nomination for A Time To Kill was stolen from him by the way the film was edited. 

Even though the actor has had dozens of memorable performances and snagged six People’s Choice Awards, the 73-year-old has never won an Oscar for any of his performances. In 2022, recognising that Jackson had somehow been overlooked during his decades- long career, the Academy gave him an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement at the Governors Awards, which was presented by Denzel Washington.

Angela Bassett, another accomplished black actor who has been nominated for her role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It, and for her role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, was snubbed both times. While in 2023, she made history as the first actor to earn an Oscar nomination for a Marvel film as Queen Ramonda in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, she lost the award to Jamie Lee Curtis. In January 2024, she was awarded an honourary Oscar.

Of course, there are a lot of dynamics involved in who gets nominated and who wins. And those dynamics are ever-shifting, thanks to efforts towards diversity at the awards. Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder and CEO of The Ready Set, a consulting and strategy firm that works with entertainment organisations and clients to help improve their efforts towards inclusivity, says that while there has been progress at Oscars in recent years, it’s not enough. When it comes to actors of colour, snubs aren’t just a result of who the Academy deems worthy, but also a result of who is being given opportunities for work. 

“There’s been some progress, but still a feeling that there’s a limit to what that progress is,” she tells BBC Culture. She says that for actors of colour, opportunities also come with added pressure. “I know that actors and creators still have this fear that they get one shot, that even though there’s been improvement there’s a scarcity” of roles and opportunities. 

Perhaps one prime example of that is Lily Gladstone losing to Emma Stone for best actress on Sunday. “While Emma Stone is really beloved, there were a lot of people rooting for Lily Gladstone to be recognised,” Angela Andaloro, a culture critic at People Magazine tells BBC Culture. 

“Stone”, Andaloro explains, “while clearly grateful for the honour and gracious to mention the other nominated actresses in her acceptance, will almost certainly have other opportunities – and that didn’t hinge on the outcome of last night’s ceremony.”

“A win for Lily”, on the other hand, who was the first Native American woman to have ever been nominated in an acting category, would have been really poignant and opened the possibility for more of that representation,” Andaloro concludes.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.