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Fierce fighting around Al Shifa hospital in Gaza as Israeli raid continues

Smoke rises during an Israeli raid at Al Shifa Hospital and the area around it (Reuters)
Smoke rises during an Israeli raid at Al Shifa Hospital and the area around it (Reuters)

Northern Gaza is facing the most intense fighting it has seen in months, residents say, as an Israeli raid on the territory’s largest hospital – Al Shifa – stretched into a third day.

It comes amid warnings over imminent famine in the northern parts of Gaza, which UK prime minister Rishi Sunak told parliament were “gravely concerning”. A report from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), upon whose assessments UN agencies rely, has said an estimated 70 per cent of the population faces catastrophic hunger.

“It is clear that the status quo is unsustainable and we need urgent action now to avoid a famine,” Mr Sunak said on Wednesday. “The UK is doing all it can to get more aid in and prevent a worsening crisis: 2,000 tonnes of UK-funded food aid, including flour and hot meals, is being distributed by the World Food Programme (WPF) in Gaza today as we speak, enough to feed more than 275,000 people, and we will continue to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing.”

Each food parcel is designed for a family of five and consists of canned vegetables, meat and fish, and date bars and can meet half of the daily calorie needs of the family for 15 days.

In Gaza City, residents said they were facing a bombardment similar to when Israel started its ground campaign against Hamas inside the strip. Israeli forces started in the north, and have moved steadily south. “We are living through similar dreadful conditions to when Israeli forces first raided Gaza City: sounds of explosions, Israeli bombardment of houses is non-stop,” Amal, 27, living around a kilometre from Al Shifa Hospital, told Reuters via a chat app.

Kareem al-Shawwa, living less than a mile from the hospital, said the past 24 hours had been “terrifying”, with explosions and heavy exchanges of fire. He said Israeli troops had told residents to evacuate the area, but he and his family were too afraid of getting arrested or caught in the fighting to leave their home.

Israel’s military says it launched its operation against Al Shifa because Hamas fighters regrouped there. The army claimed on Wednesday that its forces had killed 90 gunmen at the hospital and detained 350. Two Israeli soldiers were killed.

Palestinians fleeing north Gaza after Israeli troops raided Al Shifa Hospital (Reuters)
Palestinians fleeing north Gaza after Israeli troops raided Al Shifa Hospital (Reuters)

“Over the past day, the troops have eliminated terrorists and located weapons in the hospital area, while preventing harm to civilians, patients, medical teams, and medical equipment,” the military said. Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of Gaza’s Hamas-run government media office claimed no Hamas gunmen were present, acknowledging a senior police commander was killed in the hospital on Monday but denying he was part of their armed wing.

The war was triggered on 7 October when Hamas rampaged through towns in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and capturing another 250 hostages. Israel responded with an aerial bombardment of Gaza, a ground offensive and a blockade. Nearly 32,000 Palestinians have been confirmed killed since, according to Gaza health authorities.

Israel faced fierce criticism last November when troops first raided Al Shifa hospital. The troops uncovered tunnels there, which they said had been used as command and control centres by Hamas. Medical staff deny that the hospital is used for military purposes or to shelter gunmen. The hospital, which is the heart of Gaza’s health system, was severely damaged in the November assault and has only been able to resume limited operations since. Gaza health officials say that thousands of displaced people are sheltering around the hospital.

Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, said on Wednesday that it was vital for a pause in fighting to enable the release of hostages in Gaza, but a lot of conditions first needed to be met for a lasting ceasefire.

Speaking during a trip to Thailand, Lord Cameron said attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas last year and its holding of hostages were inhumane,

“Crucially what we must try to do is to turn that pause into a permanent sustainable ceasefire,” Cameron said in an interview during a visit to a Thai air force base. “We will only do that if a whole lot of conditions are fulfilled... we’ve got to get Hamas leaders out of Gaza, we have to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.”

David Cameron spoke about the conflict during a visit to Thailand (Reuters)
David Cameron spoke about the conflict during a visit to Thailand (Reuters)

Ahead of the Thai air force base visit Lord Cameron had said the UK wants Israel to increase capacity to safely distribute aid within Gaza, including by opening a land crossing in the north and issuing more visas to UN staff to deliver supplies.

Also speaking about the delivery of the latest UK aid, Lord Cameron said: “It’s crucial that we keep the flow of aid moving into Gaza to end the suffering, and that’s why this latest delivery of aid... is so vitally important.

“The IPC’s report warns of imminent famine. We need sustained humanitarian access by road to get more aid in.

“We continue to push Israel to allow more crossings to open and for longer, and for healthcare, water and sanitation to be restored.”

It comes as US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, launching a tour of the Middle East to try to secure a ceasefire in Gaza. Mr Blinken is then due in Egypt on Thursday and Israel on Friday. The State Department announced Mr Blinken’s planned stop in Israel only after he had arrived in Saudi Arabia. No explanation was immediately given for why it was omitted from the initial itinerary.

On Tuesday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed a plea from US president Joe Biden to call off plans for a ground assault of Rafah, the city on the southern edge of Gaza sheltering more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.

Mr Netanyahu said he had made it “supremely clear” to Mr Biden in a phone call “that we are determined to complete the elimination of these battalions in Rafah, and there’s no way to do that except by going in on the ground”.

On Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu added that preparations were underway for assault but that such an action “will take some time”.

Israel says Rafah is the last major holdout of Hamas. But the US, UK and a number of other nations have warned against an assault on Rafah, given the number of civilians currently sheltering there with no other place to turn.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report