Israeli forces raid Gaza’s largest hospital, where hundreds of patients are stranded by fighting

The hospital is also at the heart of clashing narratives over who is to blame for the thousands of deaths and widespread destruction in the besieged territory

November 15, 2023 07:10 am | Updated 09:38 pm IST - Khan Younis

Palestinians injured in Israeli raids arrive at Nasser Medical Hospital on November 14, 2023 on November 13, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

Palestinians injured in Israeli raids arrive at Nasser Medical Hospital on November 14, 2023 on November 13, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Israeli forces on November 15 raided Gaza’s largest hospital, a beleaguered facility filled with hundreds of patients, including newborns, that is at the heart of clashing narratives around the war and a potent symbol of Palestinian suffering.

Israel viewed Shifa Hospital as a key target in a conflict that has killed thousands of Palestinians and unleashed widespread destruction in Gaza. The war between Israel and Hamas erupted after the militant group killed some 1,200 people and seized around 240 captives in a surprise October 7 attack.

Israel claims that Shifa is a Hamas command post nestled under civilians, without providing visual evidence — part of its broader accusation that the militants use Palestinians as human shields. Hamas and Gaza health officials deny militants operate in Shifa, and Palestinians and rights groups say Israel has recklessly endangered civilians as it seeks to eradicate Hamas.

A worsening fuel shortage, meanwhile, threatened to paralyse the delivery of humanitarian services across Gaza and shut down the mobile phone and internet network.

Also read | Israel Hamas war Day 40 updates

Israel raid into Shifa

Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Health Ministry, said Israeli forces had ransacked the basement and other buildings at Shifa, including those housing the emergency and surgery departments.

“They are still here,” he said by phone from inside the hospital, hours after the raid began. “Patients, women and children are terrified.” The Israeli military said it was carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the hospital,” adding that it was separate from where patients and medical staff are located.

It was not possible to independently assess the situation inside.

A Palestinian man, who was wounded in an Israeli strike and was staying at Al Shifa hospital, rests on the road as he flees from north Gaza to the south, as Israeli tanks roll deeper into the enclave, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in the central Gaza Strip on November 12, 2023.

A Palestinian man, who was wounded in an Israeli strike and was staying at Al Shifa hospital, rests on the road as he flees from north Gaza to the south, as Israeli tanks roll deeper into the enclave, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in the central Gaza Strip on November 12, 2023. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The military said the soldiers were accompanied by medical teams and bringing in incubators. It shared footage of them unloading equipment — as well as a couple dozen boxes labelled “medical supplies” and “baby food” in English — inside the hospital compound.

It added that forces are searching for hostages. The plight of the captives, who include men, women and children, has galvanized Israeli support for the war, and families and supporters of the hostages are holding a protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The raid drew condemnation from Jordan and the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which called it a violation of international law. UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the raid, saying the protection of civilians “must override all other concerns.” At one point, tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking safety from Israeli bombardment were sheltering at the hospital, but most left in recent days as the fighting drew closer. A few thousand remain behind, along with patients, including premature babies, whose fate has drawn particular concern.

The Health Ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. Another 36 babies are at risk of dying because there is no power for incubators, according to the ministry.

Hours before Israel’s raid, the United States said its own intelligence indicated militants have used Shifa and other hospitals — and tunnels beneath them — to support military operations and hold hostages.

With its troops inside Shifa, the burden will shift to Israel to prove its claim that the facility was being used by militants and that it was a big enough military target to justify the battle that isolated its patients for days and a fuel embargo that eventually shut down incubators and other life-saving equipment.

Hospitals can lose their protected status if combatants use them for military purposes, but civilians must be given ample time to flee, and any attack must be proportional to the military objective.

A trickle of fuel for aid workers

Most of the hundreds of thousands of people living in Gaza City and surrounding areas have fled after weeks of Israeli bombardments. Hardly any aid has been delivered to the north, which has been without power or running water for weeks.

Explained | Israel-Hamas war: What international laws apply and whether the ICC can prosecute

After refusing to allow fuel into Gaza for weeks, Israeli defense officials changed course early Wednesday to let in some 24,000 litres (6,340 gallons), but the fuel will only allow the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, to continue bringing limited supplies of food and medicine from Egypt.

The agency is providing basic services to the more than 600,000 people sheltering in severely overcrowded UN-run schools and other facilities in the south.

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment wait for treatment in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. File

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment wait for treatment in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. File | Photo Credit: AP

Thomas White, director of UNRWA in Gaza, said that under Israeli restrictions the fuel would only be used for transporting aid from Egypt. “No fuel for water or hospitals,” he said, adding that the amount is equivalent of “only 9 per cent of what we need daily to sustain lifesaving activities.” COGAT, the Israeli defence body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the decision to allow the fuel came at the request of the US Israel has barred all fuel imports since the start of the war, saying Hamas would use it for military purposes.

The Palestinian telecom company Paltel, meanwhile, said it was relying on batteries to keep Gaza’ mobile and internet network running, and that it expected services to halt later Wednesday. Gaza has experienced three previous mass communication outages since the ground invasion.

More than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. About 2,700 people have been reported missing, with most believed to be buried under the rubble. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.

Battle in Gaza city

Israeli troops, meanwhile, have extended their control across northern Gaza, capturing the territory’s legislature building and police headquarters. The military says Israeli forces have completed the takeover of Shati refugee camp, a densely built district, and are moving about freely in the city as a whole.

The military says its forces have found weapons and eliminated fighters in government buildings, schools and residential buildings. Israel says it has killed several thousand fighters, including important mid-level commanders, while 46 of its own soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli raids on November 14, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

People mourn as they collect the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli raids on November 14, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Inside some of the newly captured buildings, soldiers held up the Israeli flag and military flags in celebration.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday that Hamas had “lost control” of northern Gaza and that Israel made significant gains in Gaza City. But when asked about the timeframe for the war, he said: “We’re talking about long months, not a day or two.” 

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