Israeli troops found an operational command centre and assets belonging to Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza’s biggest hospital, Israel’s military said on Wednesday, during a campaign that has stoked global alarm over the fate of civilians inside.
Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City has become the main target of the incursion into the territory by Israeli forces, who say the “beating heart” of the Hamas fighters’ operations is headquartered in tunnels beneath it, something Hamas denies.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the troops, who entered the hospital earlier on Wednesday after encircling it for days, had found weapons, combat gear and technological equipment there and were continuing their search.
The military also released a video they said showed some of the materials recovered from an undisclosed building in the hospital compound, including automatic weapons, grenades, ammunition and flak jackets.
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.
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,” he said.
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Israel said its troops had entered the hospital compound on Wednesday after killing militants in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there had been no fighting and no friction with civilians, patients or staff.
Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound described a seemingly calm but tense situation, as Israeli troops moved between buildings conducting searches. Sporadic shooting was heard but there were no 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 electricity 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 wipe out Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, after militants rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken in the deadliest day of its 75-year history.
Since then, Israel has put Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million under siege, battering the crowded strip with air strikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say about 11,500 Palestinians are now confirmed killed, around 40 per cent of them children, and more are buried under the rubble. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.
Israel has ordered the entire northern half of Gaza evacuated, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.
As Israel tightens its hold on northern Gaza, leaders have talked of expanding the ground operation into the south to root out Hamas. Already, most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have crowded into the territory’s south, where a worsening fuel shortage Wednesday threatened to paralyze the delivery of humanitarian services and shut down mobile phone and internet service.
The Associated Press reported that earlier on Wednesday, a senior Israeli military official said soldiers had “already found weapons and other terror infrastructure” on the premises of Al-Shifa – proof, he added, that Hamas has used the hospital as “a terror headquarter”.
Hamas called the assertion that weapons were found “a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda” it said Israel was pumping out to justify “its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza”.
Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone 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 “metres away” from them, according to the Associated Press.
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.
Israeli forces launched their raid into the large Al-Shifa compound around 2 a.m. local time, the Associated Press reported.
Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Health Ministry inside the hospital, said Israeli forces ransacked the basement and other buildings, including those housing the emergency and surgery departments.
“Patients, women and children are terrified,” he said by phone to The Associated Press.
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, there has been no report of militants firing from inside Al-Shifa.
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.
The military said the soldiers were accompanied by medical teams bringing in incubators. It shared footage of them unloading equipment 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 conflict. Families and supporters of the hostages are holding a protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The raid drew condemnation from Jordan and the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, which called it a violation of international law. U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the raid, saying the protection of civilians “must override all other concerns.”
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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. The fate of premature babies at the hospital has drawn particular concern.
The health ministry said 40 patients, including the three babies, have died since Al-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 Al-Shifa and other hospitals — and tunnels beneath them — to support military operations and hold hostages.
With its troops inside Al-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 siege against it.
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
About two thirds of the territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes — and most are now squeezed into the southern part of the narrow coastal strip.
Conditions there 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 conflict’s start, saying it would be diverted to Hamas, Israeli defence officials early Wednesday let in some 24,000 liters. 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.
The agency is providing basic services to the more than 600,000 people sheltering in severely overcrowded U.N.-run schools and other facilities in the south.
The fuel cannot be used for hospitals in the south or to desalinate water, said Thomas White, UNRWA’s director in Gaza. The amount is equivalent of “only nine per cent 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.
Israeli troops have extended their control across northern Gaza. The military says Israeli forces took control of the Al-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 Hamas fighters in government buildings, schools and residential buildings. Israel says it has killed several thousand fighters while 46 of its own soldiers have been killed in 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.”
Israel told residents of northern Gaza to evacuate south, saying it wanted to get civilians out of the path of its ground assault, and hundreds of thousands fled. If Israeli troops move south, it is not clear where Gaza’s population can flee, with Egypt refusing a mass transfer onto its soil.
with files from The Associated Press’ Najib Jobain, Jack Jeffery And Samy Magdy