Israel announced Tuesday that its forces raided Gaza City's largest hospital, Shifa, which it claims is being used as a shield by Hamas, operating from a vast command center that the militant group built underneath the facility.
Hospital officials deny that it is being used for anything other than doctors treating sick and injured civilians, including newborns.
The Israeli military said early Wednesday that it “raided specific areas of the sprawling Shifa Hospital complex, while trying to avoid harming civilians,” the Associated Press reported. The statement gave no further details.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), called Israel's military incursion into the hospital “totally unacceptable.”
“Hospitals are not battlegrounds,” he said Wednesday. “We're extremely worried for the safety of staff and patients. Protecting them is paramount.”
Tedros said the WHO has lost contact with health care workers at the facility, making it hard for the global health body to evaluate the conditions inside.
“But one thing is clear under international humanitarian law,” he said. “Health facilities, health workers, ambulances and patients must be safeguarded and protected against all acts of war.”
'Hospitals must be protected'
Biden administration officials said they have warned Israel not to attack hospitals that are still treating patients, but agree that Hamas is using them as “human shields.”
“The United States does not want to see firefights in hospitals, where innocent people, patients receiving medical care, are caught in the crossfire,” Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security adviser, said on CBS's Face the Nation Sunday. “And we’ve had active consultations with the Israel Defense Forces on this.”
“We don't want to see hospitals be the subject of crossfire,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said at a press briefing Monday. “We want to see the civilians who are sheltering in hospitals, the civilians who are being treated in hospitals, including babies in hospitals, be protected. Hospitals are legitimate civilian infrastructure, they should be protected. At the same time, I would say Hamas continues to use hospitals as locations for its command posts."
At the White House Monday, President Biden said he was in contact with the Israeli government about the targeting of hospitals in Gaza.
"Hospitals must be protected," Biden said.
‘Someone should stop this’
Earlier this week, Dr. Ahmed El Mokhallalati, a surgeon at Shifa, told Reuters that the hospital had been surrounded by Israeli forces and that the conditions inside were dire.
“We are under full blockade,” El Mokhallalati said. “It’s a totally civilian area. ... Someone should stop this.
“They bombed the water wells. They bombed the oxygen pump as well. They bombed everything in the hospital,” he continued. “We are hardly surviving. We tell everyone, the hospital is no more a safe place for treating patients. We are harming patients by keeping them here.”
Thousands were able to flee the hospital over the weekend as Israeli troops began to encircle it, but hundreds remain.
A spokesman for the health ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, said Monday that at least 650 patients were still inside waiting to be evacuated to another medical facility. At least 32 people, including three newborns, died at the hospital in a three-day span, the spokesman said.
Newborns taken out of incubators, wrapped in foil
Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, Shifa’s director, told CNN on Monday that desperate measures were being taken to keep premature babies in the hospital’s neonatal unit alive.
“We wrap them in foil and put hot water next to them so that we can warm them,” he said.
The hospital was already facing dire conditions amid Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and blockade of Gaza following the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. But conditions rapidly deteriorated in recent days as Israeli troops moved in.
“The situation in the hospital is catastrophic,” Abu Salmiya said.
Hospitals have become a flash point in the war
Gaza’s hospitals have emerged as a flash point in the Israel-Hamas war, with both sides accusing each other of threatening civilian lives.
Hamas has accused Israel of firing recklessly toward hospitals; Israel has accused Hamas of operating underneath them.
The Associated Press reported Monday that the Red Cross was attempting to evacuate nearly 6,000 patients, staff and displaced people from a second hospital, Al-Quds, on Monday, but its convoy had to turn back amid shelling and fighting.
The same day, Israel released a video showing what it said was a Hamas militant with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher entering the Al-Quds Hospital.
Israeli officials also recently released photos and footage showing what they described as gunmen firing from inside another hospital and the opening of a tunnel next to it. Hospital staff said the opening was the entrance to the facility's underground fuel tank.
Shifa had effectively stopped operations over the weekend, as its supplies dwindled and a lack of electricity left it no way to run incubators and other lifesaving equipment.
The AP reported Tuesday that staffers at the hospital’s morgue — which had lost the power to refrigerate bodies — dug a mass grave outside.