AP

Israel searches for traces of Hamas in raid of key Gaza hospital packed with patients

Nov 15, 2023, 1:07 PM | Updated: 9:18 pm

This image provided by Maxar Technologies shows al-Shifa hospital and surroundings in Gaza City, Sa...

This image provided by Maxar Technologies shows al-Shifa hospital and surroundings in Gaza City, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops on Wednesday stormed into Gaza’s largest hospital, searching for traces of Hamas inside and beneath the facility, where newborns and hundreds of other patients have suffered for days without electricity and other basic necessities. The forces also pressed on with their wider ground offensive.

Details from the daylong raid remained sketchy, but officials from Israel and Gaza presented different accounts of what was happening at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City: The Israeli army released video showing soldiers carrying boxes labeled as “baby food” and “medical supplies,” while health officials talked of terrified staff and patients as troops moved through the buildings.

After encircling Shifa for days, Israel faced pressure to prove its claim that Hamas had turned the hospital into a command center and used patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its militants. The allegation is part of Israel’s broader accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. Israel released video late Wednesday of weapons it said it found in one building, but so far its search showed no signs of tunnels or a sophisticated command center.

Hamas and Gaza health officials deny militants operate in Shifa — a hospital that employs some 1,500 people and has more than 500 beds, according to the Palestinian news agency. Palestinians and rights groups say Israel has recklessly endangered civilians as it seeks to eradicate Hamas.

As Israel tightens its hold on northern Gaza, leaders have talked of expanding the ground operation into the south to root out Hamas. Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have already crowded into the territory’s south, where a worsening fuel shortage threatens to paralyze the delivery of humanitarian services and shut down mobile phone and internet service.

The war between Israel and Hamas erupted after the militant group killed some 1,200 people and seized around 240 captives in an Oct. 7 attack that shattered Israelis’ sense of security.

Israeli airstrikes have since killed more than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah, which coordinates with the ministry branch in Hamas-ruled Gaza. Another 2,700 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.

ISRAELI RAID INTO SHIFA

Israeli forces launched their raid into the large Shifa compound around 2 a.m. and remained on the grounds after nightfall Wednesday, with tanks stationed outside and snipers on nearby buildings, Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Health Ministry inside the hospital, told The Associated Press. It was not possible to independently assess the situation inside.

Al-Boursh said that for hours, the troops ransacked the basement and other buildings, including those housing the emergency and surgery departments, and searched the grounds for tunnels. Troops questioned and face-screened patients, staff and people sheltering in the facility, he said, adding that he did not know if any were detained.

“Patients, women and children are terrified,” he told the AP by phone.

Neither the Palestinians nor the military reported any clashes inside the hospital. The military said its troops killed four militants outside the hospital at the start of the operation. Throughout days of fighting in the surrounding streets in previous days, there were no reports of militants firing from inside Shifa.

The Israeli military said it was carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the hospital,” and that its soldiers were accompanied by medical teams bringing in incubators and other supplies.

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

The video released by the military from inside Shifa showed three duffel bags it said it found hidden around an MRI lab, each containing an assault rifle, grenades and Hamas uniforms, as well as a closet that contained a number of assault rifles without ammunition clips. A laptop was also discovered and taken for study. The AP could not independently verify the Israeli claims that the weapons were found inside the hospital.

“These weapons have absolutely no business being inside a hospital,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said in the video, adding that he believed the material was “just the top of the iceberg.” The military said the search was continuing, but it did not immediately show any sign of tunnels or an extensive military center.

The raid drew condemnation from the U.N., Jordan and the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, which called it a violation of international law. Separately, the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution calling for “humanitarian pauses and corridors” throughout Gaza after four failed attempts to respond to the Israel-Hamas war.

In other developments, U.S. President Joe Biden said he believes the war will stop only when Hamas’ ability to kill and injure Israelis is degraded. He also said he urged Israel to exercise caution in its military operations at the hospital.

“I think it’s going to stop when Hamas no longer maintains the capacity to murder,” Biden said after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference in California.

Biden said he discussed with Israelis their need to “be incredibly careful” as they worked to clear the hospital.

At one point, tens of thousands of Palestinians fleeing Israeli bombardment were sheltering at the hospital, but most left in recent days as the fighting drew closer. The fate of premature babies at the hospital 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.

There was no immediate word on the condition of another 36 babies the ministry said earlier were at risk of dying because there is no power for incubators.

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.

Under international humanitarian law, 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 — putting the burden on Israel to show it was a big enough military target to justify the siege against it.

A TRICKLE OF FUEL FOR AID WORKERS

Conditions in southern Gaza have been deteriorating as bombardment continues to level buildings. Residents say bread is scarce and supermarket shelves are bare. Families cook on wood fires for lack of fuel. Central electricity and running water have been out for weeks across Gaza.

After refusing to allow fuel into Gaza since the war’s start, saying it would be diverted to Hamas, Israeli defense officials early Wednesday let in some 24,000 liters (6,340 gallons).

The fuel will only be used for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, to continue bringing limited supplies of food and medicine from Egypt for the more than 600,000 people sheltering in U.N.-run schools and other facilities in the south.

The fuel cannot be used for hospitals or to desalinate water, said Thomas White, UNRWA’s director in Gaza. The amount is the equivalent of “only 9% of what we need daily to sustain lifesaving activities,” he said.

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.

LOOKING SOUTH

Israeli troops have extended their control across northern Gaza. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday the ground operation will eventually “include both the north and south. We will strike Hamas wherever it is.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the plans, saying Israel’s goal is “a complete victory over Hamas in the south and the return of our hostages.”

If Israeli troops move south, it is not clear where Gaza’s population can flee, as Egypt refuses to allow a mass transfer onto its soil.

___

Magdy and Jeffery reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Dair al-Balah, Gaza, and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.

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Israel searches for traces of Hamas in raid of key Gaza hospital packed with patients