At least 30 premature babies evacuated from Gaza's main hospital and will be transferred to Egypt

The fate of the newborns at Shifa Hospital had captured global attention after the release of images showing doctors trying to keep them warm

Updated - November 19, 2023 06:57 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2023 05:19 pm IST - Khan Younis

Prematurely born Palestinian babies in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on November 12, 2023.

Prematurely born Palestinian babies in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on November 12, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

At least 30 premature babies were evacuated from Gaza's main hospital on Sunday and will be transferred to facilities in Egypt, the territory's Health Ministry said, as scores of other critically wounded patients remained stranded there days after Israeli forces entered the compound.

The fate of the newborns at Shifa Hospital had captured global attention after the release of images showing doctors trying to keep them warm. A power blackout had shut down incubators and other equipment, and food, water and medical supplies ran out as Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants outside the hospital.

A World Health Organisation team that visited the hospital on Saturday said 291 patients were still there, including 32 babies in extremely critical condition, trauma patients with severely infected wounds, and others with spinal injuries who are unable to move.

Medhat Abbas, a spokesman for the ministry, confirmed the evacuation of the babies in a phone call with The Associated Press, without providing further details. There was no immediate comment from the WHO, and it was not clear if all the babies had been evacuated.

Underscoring the perils of movement inside the coastal enclave, Doctors Without Borders said a convoy of clearly marked vehicles carrying staff and their families was fired upon in Gaza City on Saturday. A relative of a staff member was killed and another person was injured, the aid group said.

Also read | Gaza’s Shifa Hospital patients, staff and displaced leave the compound as Israel strikes targets in south

About 2,500 displaced people, mobile patients and medical staff left Shifa Hospital on Saturday morning, the WHO said. It said 25 medical staff remained, along with the patients.

“Patients and health staff with whom they spoke were terrified for their safety and health, and pleaded for evacuation,” the agency said, describing Shifa as a death zone.

Israel has long alleged that Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under Shifa, part of its wider accusation that the fighters use civilians as cover. It has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end Hamas' rule in Gaza following the militant group's wide-ranging attack into southern Israel six weeks ago, which killed over 1,200 people and triggered the war.

Hamas and hospital staff deny the allegations, and critics have held up the hospital as a symbol of what they say is Israel's reckless endangerment of civilians. Thousands have been killed in Israeli strikes, and there are severe shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel in the besieged territory.

Israeli troops who have been based at the hospital and searching its grounds for days say they have found guns and other weapons, and showed reporters the entrance to a tunnel shaft. The AP couldn't independently verify Israel's findings.

Strikes in the North and South

Elsewhere in northern Gaza, dozens of people were killed on Saturday in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp when what witnesses described as an Israeli airstrike hit a crowded UN shelter.

.“The scenes were horrifying. Corpses of women and children were on the ground. Others were screaming for help,” Ahmed Radwan, who was among the wounded, said by phone. AP photos from a local hospital showed more than 20 bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets.

The Israeli military, which has repeatedly called on Palestinians to leave northern Gaza, said only that its troops were active in the area “with the aim of hitting terrorists.” It rarely comments on individual strikes.

Heavy clashes were reported in the Jabaliya camp overnight into Sunday. “There was the constant sound of gunfire and tank shelling,” Yassin Sharif, who is sheltering in a UN-run hospital in the camp, said by phone. “It was another night of horror.”

In southern Gaza, an Israeli airstrike hit a residential building near the town of Khan Younis on Saturday, killing at least 26 Palestinians, according to a doctor at the hospital where the bodies were taken.

Doctors Without Borders said staff members and their families were trying to evacuate northern Gaza in a clearly marked convoy on Saturday but turned back after shots rang out at a crowded Israeli checkpoint. On their way back, the convoy was attacked, it said, without identifying the attackers.

More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed, according to Palestinian health authorities. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants; Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.

Hostages and aid

Around 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas' October 7 attack, in which the group also dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza. The military says 52 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two hostages were found near Shifa in an area where there had been heavy fighting.

Israel, the United States and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating over a hostage release for weeks. On Saturday, a senior White House official suggested it would need to be completed before the entry of large amounts of desperately needed aid.

"A release of large number of hostages would result in a significant pause in fighting … and a massive surge of humanitarian relief," Brett McGurk, the White House's National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, said at a conference in Bahrain.

More than two-thirds of Gaza's population of 2.3 million have fled their homes. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, is providing basic services to hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in schools and other facilities.

Over the weekend, Israel allowed UNRWA to import enough fuel to continue humanitarian operations for another couple of days, and to keep internet and telephone systems running. UNRWA had been forced to put aid operations on hold Friday during a communications blackout.

Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing Gaza's sole power plant and most water treatment systems to shut down, leaving most residents without electricity or running water.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Saturday that Israel's forces were expanding operations in Gaza City. “With every passing day, there are fewer places where Hamas terrorists can operate,” he said, adding that the militants would learn that in southern Gaza “in the coming days".

His comments were the clearest indication yet that the military plans to expand its offensive to southern Gaza, where Israel had told Palestinian civilians to seek refuge. The evacuation zone is already crammed with displaced civilians, and it was not clear where they would go if the offensive moved closer.

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