© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A satellite image shows Al-Shifa hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Gaza November 11, 2023. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops discovered a command center as well as weapons and combat equipment belonging to Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza’s largest hospital on Wednesday, the Israeli army said, as part of a ‘a campaign that has fueled global concern over the plight of civilians inside.
Al Shifa Hospital had become the main target of an incursion into Gaza City by Israeli forces, who said the “beating heart” of Hamas fighters’ operations was based in tunnels below. Hamas denied the accusation and on Wednesday called the Israeli statements “lies and cheap propaganda.”
Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops were still searching, having entered the hospital early Wednesday after days of clashes around the hospital.
The military simultaneously released a video showing some of the materials recovered from an undisclosed building on the hospital compound, including automatic weapons, grenades, ammunition and body armor.
In a hospital ward, “soldiers located an operational command center and technological means belonging to Hamas, indicating that the terrorist organization is using the hospital for terrorist purposes,” said an Israeli military statement.
Israel has always said the hospital was located above a Hamas headquarters, a claim the United States said Tuesday was supported by its own intelligence services.
Welcoming his forces’ entry into the hospital, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “There is no place in Gaza that we cannot reach. There is no hiding place.”
“We will reach and eliminate Hamas and we will bring back our hostages. These are two sacred missions,” he said.
Israel launched its campaign to eliminate the Islamist group that rules Gaza after militants went on a rampage in southern Israel on October 7. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 prisoners captured in the deadliest day in its 75-year history.
Since then, Israel has laid siege to Gaza’s population of 2.3 million, hitting the crowded strip with airstrikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say that around 11,500 Palestinians are now confirmed killed, around 40% of whom are children, and that others are buried under rubble. Israel has ordered the evacuation of the entire northern half of Gaza, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.
TENSION INSIDE THE HOSPITAL
Israel said its troops entered the hospital grounds on Wednesday after killing militants in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there was no fighting or friction with civilians, patients or staff.
Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound described a sometimes tense situation as Israeli troops moved between buildings. Sporadic gunfire was heard, but no people were injured inside the field.
The Israeli army released photos of a soldier standing next to 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 tents and makeshift mattresses.
International attention focused on the plight of hundreds of patients trapped inside, without electricity to operate basic medical equipment, and on the thousands of displaced civilians who had taken shelter there. Gaza officials say numerous patients, including three newborns, have died in recent days as Israel surrounded the hospital.
“Before entering the hospital, our forces were confronted by explosive devices and terrorist squads. Fighting took place, during which terrorists were killed,” the Israeli army said.
“We can confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies brought by IDF tanks from Israel have reached Shifa Hospital. Our medical teams and Arabic-speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure these supplies reach to those who need it,” he added.
HUMANITARIAN BREAKS Sought BY UN
The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday called for urgent and prolonged humanitarian pauses in the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants for a “sufficient number of days” to allow humanitarian aid access. He also called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas. The 15-member council broke an impasse after four attempts to take action last month.
Israel has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, which it says would benefit Hamas, a position supported by Washington. But a pause in the fighting was mooted during negotiations mediated by Qatar to free some of the hostages held by Hamas.
An official briefed on the negotiations said Qatari mediators were seeking a deal that would include a three-day truce, with Hamas releasing 50 of its prisoners and Israel freeing some women and minors among its security detainees.
The official said Hamas had accepted the broad outlines of the deal, but Israel had not and was still negotiating the terms.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told reporters that the Israeli incursion into Al Shifa Hospital was “totally unacceptable”.
“Hospitals are not battlefields,” he said in Geneva.
Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by telephone that Al Shifa staff had gone into hiding as fighting raged around the hospital overnight. As he spoke, the sound of what he described as “continuous firing from tanks” could be heard in the background.
“One of the big tanks entered the hospital through the east main gate, and… they parked in front of the hospital’s emergency department,” he said.
The Israelis had informed the hospital administration in advance of their intention to enter, he said. By mid-morning, he and other personnel had not yet received instructions from the troops, even though the soldiers were “meters” away from them.
After five days during which, he said, the hospital had suffered repeated Israeli attacks, it was at least a relief to have reached an “end point”, with troops now inside the compound instead of to shoot outside, Mohallalati said.