Israel Palestine Conflict

Israeli forces enter Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, raising concerns for civilians’ safety

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Israeli troops entered Gaza’s biggest hospital on Wednesday and searched its rooms and basement, witnesses said, in pursuit of Palestinian Hamas militants, an operation that has stoked global alarm over the fate of thousands of civilians trapped inside.

Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City has become the main target of the ground operation by Israeli forces, who say Hamas fighters located the “beating heart” of their operations in a headquarters in tunnels beneath it, which Hamas denies.

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Israel said its troops had uncovered unspecified weapons and “terror infrastructure” inside the hospital compound after killing militants in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there had been no fighting and no friction with civilians, patients or staff.

Israeli soldiers walk at the Al-Shifa hospital complex, amid their ground operation against Palestinian group Hamas, during what they say is a delivery of humanitarian aid to the facility in Gaza City, in this still image from handout video obtained November 15, 2023. (Handout via Reuters)
Israeli soldiers walk at the Al-Shifa hospital complex, amid their ground operation against Palestinian group Hamas, during what they say is a delivery of humanitarian aid to the facility in Gaza City, in this still image from handout video obtained November 15, 2023. (Handout via Reuters)

Hailing the entry of his forces into the hospital, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “There is no place in Gaza that we cannot reach. There are no hideouts. There is no shelter or refuge for the Hamas murderers.”

“We will reach and eliminate Hamas and we will bring back our hostages. These are two sacred missions.”

Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound described a situation that appeared calm, if tense, as Israeli troops moved between buildings carrying out searches. Sporadic shooting was heard but there were no immediate reports of anyone hurt inside the grounds.

The Israeli military released photos of a soldier standing beside cardboard boxes marked “medical supplies” and “baby food,” at a location Reuters verified was inside Al-Shifa. Other photos showed Israeli troops in tactical formation walking past makeshift tents and mattresses.

International attention has focused on the fate of hundreds of patients trapped inside without power to operate basic medical equipment, and thousands of displaced civilians who had sought shelter there. Gaza officials say that many patients including three newborn babies died in recent days as a result of Israel’s encirclement of the hospital.

“Before entering the hospital our forces were confronted by explosive devices and terrorist squads, fighting ensued in which terrorists were killed,” the Israeli military said.

“We can confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies brought by IDF tanks from Israel have successfully reached the Shifa hospital. Our medical teams and Arabic speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure that these supplies reach those in need,” it said.

Israel launched its campaign to annihilate Hamas, the militant group which controls Gaza, after fighters crossed into Israel on October 7, rampaging through towns, killing civilians and dragging hostages back to the enclave. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken in the deadliest day in its 75-year history.

Since then, Israel has put Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million under siege, pounding the crowded strip with air strikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say more than 11,000 Palestinians are confirmed killed, around 40 percent of them children, and more are buried under the rubble. Israel has ordered the entire northern half of Gaza evacuated, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.

‘Terror infrastructure’

A senior Israeli military official said soldiers had “already found weapons and other terror infrastructure” within the hospital premises. “In the last hour, we saw concrete evidence that Hamas terrorists used the Shifa hospital as a terror headquarter,” he said.

Hamas called the assertion that weapons were found “a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda through which (Israel) is trying to give justification for its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza.”

Medics look at the damages in the wards inside Al-Shifa hospital following an Israeli raid, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Gaza City, Gaza November 15, 2023. (Handout via Reuters)
Medics look at the damages in the wards inside Al-Shifa hospital following an Israeli raid, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, in Gaza City, Gaza November 15, 2023. (Handout via Reuters)

Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone on Wednesday morning that staff had hid as the fighting unfolded around the hospital overnight. As he spoke, the sound of what he described as “continuous shooting from the tanks” could be heard in the background.

“One of the big tanks entered within the hospital from the eastern main gate, and ... they just parked in the front of the hospital emergency department,” he said.

The Israelis had told the hospital administration in advance that they planned to enter, he said. By mid-morning, he and other staff had yet to receive instructions from the troops, although the soldiers were “meters away” from them.

After five days during which he said the hospital had come under repeated Israeli attack, it was a relief at least to have reached an “end point,” with troops now inside the grounds instead of outside shooting in, Mohallalati said.

He was worried about his patients’ fate but unconcerned about potential clashes in the compound, saying Israeli claims that there were fighters inside had been a “big lie.”

The Israelis had used “all kinds of weapons” and “targeted the hospital directly” during their siege, he said, describing a large hole that had been blasted through the wall of a room in an outpatient building.

‘Totally unacceptable’

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the Israeli military incursion into Al-Shifa Hospital was “totally unacceptable.”

““Hospitals are not battlegrounds,” he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the WHO had received no reports on the number of deaths and injuries in Gaza over the last three days.

Israeli soldiers patrol an area on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, November 15, 2023. (Reuters)
Israeli soldiers patrol an area on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, November 15, 2023. (Reuters)

Israel has consistently maintained that the hospital sits above a Hamas headquarters, an assertion the United States said on Tuesday was supported by its own intelligence.

Israel has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, which it says would benefit Hamas, a position backed by Washington. However, a pause in fighting has been discussed in negotiations mediated by Qatar to release some of the hostages held by Hamas.

An official briefed on the negotiations said Qatari mediators were seeking a deal that would include a three-day truce, with Hamas releasing 50 of its captives and Israel to release some women and minors from among its security detainees.

The official said Hamas had agreed to the outlines of the deal but Israel had not and was still negotiating terms.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, visiting Egypt on Wednesday, joined calls for an immediate ceasefire to allow for a “dramatic increase in aid at scale to meet the dire humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza.”

With Reuters

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