Thousands Trapped as Israeli Forces Raid Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 20 Nov 2023
Raid follows days of heavy attacks on the area where thousands of displaced people and patients are sheltering.
Israel’s military said early this morning that it was carrying out an “operation against Hamas in a specified area” at al-Shifa. Calling the assault a “targeted operation” on Gaza’s largest medical facility, it said the raid was based on Israeli and United States intelligence.
Israel accuses Hamas, the group that governs Gaza, of using the hospital as a base. Hamas rejects the claim. Israel has not produced evidence to back up its assertion.
Dozens of Israeli soldiers entered the facility while tanks were stationed in the courtyard of the medical complex, Al Jazeera’s Tareq Abu Azzoum said, reporting from Khan Younis on Wednesday. According to health officials, there are about 650 patients, including 22 in intensive care and 36 premature babies, at al-Shifa Hospital, in addition to some 400 medical staff and more than 2,000 displaced people.
Dr Munir al-Bursh, the general director of hospitals in the Gaza Strip, told Al Jazeera that Israeli forces searched the basement of al-Shifa and entered the surgical and emergency buildings within the complex.
According to sources inside al-Shifa, Israeli soldiers are using loudspeakers and ordering young men to surrender themselves. About 30 people were reportedly taken out into the courtyard, stripped of their clothes, blindfolded and interrogated by Israeli soldiers. Israeli forces have also blown up a warehouse of medicine and medical devices, sources said.
Dr Ahmed El Mokhallalati, a surgeon inside the facility, said heavy gunfire and explosions could be heard in the compound.
“It’s a totally scary time; it’s a horrible time for the families, the civilians sheltering in the hospital with their kids. It’s terrible for the staff who are taking care of their patients and the patients themselves,” he told Al Jazeera.
About 700 patients remain at the hospital, including about 100 in critical condition, Mokhallalati reported. More than 1,000 medical staff are also trapped on site, but they are unable to treat patients due to a shortage of medicine and fuel.
Thousands of civilians displaced by Israel’s five-week bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 11,200 Palestinians, are also inside al-Shifa Hospital. There were no indications that any of the more than 200 people who were taken captives during Hamas’s attack on October 7, which killed some 1,200 people, were held at al-Shifa.
Mokhallalati described the fear that has taken hold among the staff, patients and displaced trapped in the facility.
“We don’t know what they will do to us. We don’t know whether they will kill people or terrorise them. We know all the propaganda is lies, and they know as well as we do that there is nothing at al-Shifa medical centre.”
‘Hospitals are not battlegrounds’
The area around al-Shifa has been battered by multiple Israeli attacks for weeks. The Israeli government has issued warnings to evacuate the facility. However, Palestinian medical officials have rejected the order, saying they cannot leave their patients behind.
Amid the raid, Palestinian Authority Health Minister Dr Mai al-Kaila said, in a statement published by the Palestinian news agency Wafa, that Israeli forces “are committing a new crime against humanity, medical staff, and patients”.
The Palestinian government holds Israeli forces “responsible for the lives of the medical staff, patients and displaced people in the al-Shifa complex,” she added.
Hamas said that it holds Israel and US President Joe Biden responsible for the implications of the raid, labelling it a “barbaric crime against a medical facility protected by the fourth Geneva Convention”.
United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by Israel’s storming of al-Shifa. “Hospitals are not battlegrounds,” he said in a post on X.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote on X that “reports of military incursion into al-Shifa Hospital are deeply concerning”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also said it was “extremely concerned about the impact on sick and wounded people, medical staff, and civilians”, and that “all measures to avoid any consequences on them must be taken”.
The US offered words of caution, with a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council saying: “We do not support striking a hospital from the air and we don’t want to see a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people trying to get medical care they deserve are caught in the crossfire.”
At the same time, the US also said it “has information” that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad use Gaza’s hospitals, including al-Shifa, “to conceal and support their military operations and to hold hostages”.
Hamas has denied it uses Gaza’s hospitals as a base and has invited the United Nations to send independent investigators to verify that Israel’s claims are “falsehoods”.
Ardi Imseis, an international law expert at Queen’s University in Canada, said Israel carries the burden to “produce evidence” and prove its claim that the hospital has been used by Hamas as a base.
“The object of the attack is a civilian object. Until such time that the Israelis provide proof that it has been converted into a military object, the civilian nature of the object does not change,” he said.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that “the Israeli government has put forward no evidence that would justify stripping hospitals of their special protections under international humanitarian law”.
Even if Israel’s justifications for attacking hospitals are taken at “face value,” Shakir said, “international humanitarian law only allows attacking hospitals if room is made for safe evacuation”.
He added: “The reality here is there is no safe place to go in Gaza.”
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