Israel is attacking the Shifa Hospital in Gaza

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JERUSALEM – After weeks of warnings about Hamas’ connection to medical facilities, Israeli military forces swept into Gaza’s largest hospital before dawn Wednesday, all but cutting off outside communication with staff. Palestinian medical and patients trapped inside the besieged compound along with thousands of displaced families.

Israeli officials described a “detailed and targeted” mission targeting Hamas militants they accuse of operating a warren of tunnels under the al-Shifa Hospital complex, an accusation the group denies. denied. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, citing intelligence sources, said on Tuesday that Hamas and other terrorists “used some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including al-Shifa, and tunnels under them, to hide and support their military operations and to contain enemies. “

Palestinian officials called the bombing of the hospital a “crime against humanity” that leaves civilians terrified of uncertain events in a medical facility that was already running on fumes after days of heavy bombing by the forces involved.

The move drew immediate alarm from international humanitarian organizations. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the group had “again lost contact with health workers at the hospital” on Wednesday morning and were “extremely concerned” about the safety of the hospital and its patients. UN aid chief, Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the reports, saying: “Hospitals are not battlefields.”

The Biden administration said it would not comment on Israeli military moves but, in a statement immediately after the operation began, President Biden reiterated earlier this week that Gaza’s hospitals “must be protected.” “

Hamas condemned the operation and blamed the White House for what it called a “green light” to enter the hospital and put civilians at risk.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said it received a warning from the Israel Defense Forces shortly before the early morning surgery, which many saw as inevitable since Israel said Hamas operations at the hospital were a key target in the war. his against the insurgents who carried out his surprisingly deadly attack in southern Israel on October 7 that sparked the conflict.

Omar Zaqout, head of the emergency department, told Al Jazeera television that the hospital had endured a night of non-stop firing and explosions before Israeli forces “detonated” the building, sending shrapnel into buildings where patients and displaced families live.

“No one can even put a finger outside the window because of the fear of heavy fire and artillery shells,” Zaqout told the channel. “We lack the most basic necessities of life.”

An Israeli military statement said the soldiers had “encountered explosive and terrorist squads” in the fight to enter Shifa. Eyewitness reports cited by Al Jazeera said that Israeli soldiers had gone out to search the building.

By midday, there was no sign that any of the more than 240 Israeli hostages seized by Hamas and its allies on October 7 had been found at the site, according to Israel’s Army Radio, a military outlet. The report said that at least five terrorists were killed; there were no Israeli casualties. “No contact has been recorded so far between the soldiers and any of the patients or medical staff,” the report said.

Footage from the Reuters news agency showed thick smoke billowing through one section of the hospital as medical staff shivered and coughed, some pulling scrubs and masks over their mouths as they moved. through ruined halls. The video also showed patients, including one who appeared to be a child, being wheeled on stretchers through clouds of smoke.

Ahmed al-Mokhallalati, a doctor at al-Shifa Hospital, told The Washington Post by phone around 3:30 a.m. local time that “there has been continuous shooting and bombing around the hospital for the past few hours.” Explosive sounds could be heard on the call, getting louder as if they were getting closer.

Mokhallalati said he saw Israeli tanks surrounding the building about four hours earlier. He said it was too dangerous to look out the window to find out where the Israeli forces were.

“We don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “We don’t know what their plan is. “

Health Ministry video, released by Reuters, showed doctors inside the hospital saying electricity had been “completely” cut off, rendering laboratory equipment inoperable and damaging samples in its blood bank One of the doctors, Shadi Issam Radi, said he had been working in the hospital’s intensive care unit for seven years, continuing even after his wife was killed in the war three weeks ago.

“It was my duty to take the children with me, and I’m still working,” Radi said in the video, his eyes downcast and his arms around his two young sons, who were fading and watching fear

Zaqout, the head of the ER, said in a statement that Israeli forces “blow up most of the hospital’s gates” before entering. He said arrests were ongoing, with people “blindfolded and clothed” before being taken away.

With communications systems down and no access to journalists, there was no way for The Post to independently verify conditions on the ground.

Since Friday, ambulances have not been allowed to reach al-Shifa Hospital, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said on Tuesday. About 700 patients were still present at the site, along with more than 400 health workers and about 3,000 displaced people who had sought shelter there, according to the latest United Nations figures.

Speaking on a choppy line from the building early Wednesday, Qudra told the Post that only civilians were in the hospital and rejected claims to the contrary.

Israeli and US intelligence assessments claim that Hamas operates an underground command center at the base, using the wounded and displaced as human shields.

Hamas has accused the IDF of targeting health facilities to cut a lifeline to residents and to avenge the group’s brutal attack, which killed more than 1,200 Israelis. The few medical and aid workers still remaining in northern Gaza have denied allegations that terrorists are using them for cover.

The battle around Shifa is the result of weeks of poor conditions at the center and other medical facilities in Palestine, which have been overwhelmed by casualties and hampered by a lack of basic services. More than half of the hospitals in Gaza are no longer working, according to the World Health Organization.

Lack of fuel and damage to cell phone networks have led to a breakdown in communications that makes it impossible to accurately count the dead. Gaza’s leading phone and internet providers, Abundant and Jawwal, expected a total communications blackout to hit the perimeter “in the next few hours” as backup batteries run out of infrastructure.

The Ministry of Health stopped updating their tally on Friday at 11,078 but they estimate many more have died since then. There have been strikes in Jabalya refugee camp in the north and in Khan Younis in the south since the census stopped.

Human Rights Watch said Israel’s repeated attacks on medical facilities, personnel and transport “should be investigated as war crimes.” In a report on Tuesday, based in New York the group said concerns about “disproportionate attacks are heightened for hospitals.” Even the threat of an attack or minor damage can have a major life-or-death impact on patients and caregivers. “

Dadouch reported from Beirut, Allam from Cairo. Adela Suliman and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

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