Israeli troops advance as hospital status ‘catastrophic’. Hostage talks continue. Clashes between Israel and Hezbollah escalate. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Israeli troops raid Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital

A doctor peers around a corridor, Other hospital staff stand in the darkened hallway behind him.
Medical staff inside Al-Shifa Hospital following an Israeli raid on Wednesday.
Credit: Gaza Ministry of Health / Reuters

Battle at Al-Shifa

For the past three weeks, Israeli forces have been gradually approaching the largest hospital in Gaza, Al-Shifa, where as many as 8000 residents had taken shelter.

Al-Shifa has emerged as one of the main targets of the Israeli military, which says Hamas has been operating a command centre under the hospital. Hamas denies the claim.

As Israeli troops advanced towards Al-Shifa this week, United States President Joe Biden said hospitals in Gaza “must be protected”. The White House said it did not want to see a firefight in a hospital “where innocent people, helpless people, sick people … are caught in the crossfire”.

Doctors at the hospital said the fighting had made it impossible to remove those who had died, and that about 170 bodies had been buried in the courtyard. Officials said six babies had died at the hospital in the three days to Monday.

Mohammad Abu Salmiya, the hospital director, told CNN: “There is no more water, food, milk for children and babies … the situation in the hospital is catastrophic.”

Israel said it provided a safe corridor to allow people to escape from the hospital and had left fuel at the entrance but Hamas had blocked staff from receiving it. Officials in Gaza said many patients were incapable of leaving by foot and that hospital staff were too afraid to venture out to collect the fuel.

Early on Wednesday morning, Israeli tanks and troops entered the hospital complex after a clash with Hamas outside the grounds.

According to a recording of communications between the hospital and Israeli forces obtained by Al Jazeera, a doctor, Munir al-Barsh, told the troops: “You being inside the hospital will create a state of fear and hysteria among the patients here.”

Israel’s initial raid lasted about 24 hours and was focused on one section of the hospital. On Wednesday night, Israel released photographs and footage it said showed weapons, grenades and uniforms alongside the hospital’s MRI machines and medical equipment. Hamas dismissed the images as “lies and cheap propaganda … to give justification for [Israel’s] crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza”.

Hospitals on the frontline

Hospitals across northern Gaza ceased operating this week as Israeli air strikes and gunfights with Hamas in surrounding streets left staff and patients trapped without access to food or fuel.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general, said on Monday hospitals in Gaza were being “transformed into scenes of death, devastation and despair”. He said Al-Shifa “is not functioning as a hospital anymore”.

The ground fighting in Gaza centred on neighbourhoods around hospitals in the north of the strip, although Israeli air strikes continued to hit areas in the north and south. Israel ordered residents to evacuate to the south, but several hundred thousand are believed to remain in the north.

Kefaia Abu Asser, a 24-year-old resident of northern Gaza, told the BBC she and her family had fled to the south while she was heavily pregnant. She said they finally made it to a hospital that was full and then went to another, where a shortage of medical supplies meant she gave birth without painkillers.

“It was very hard because the number of women giving birth was huge,” she said. “They were coming from all parts of Gaza, from the north to the south and everywhere in between.”

Israel has committed to toppling Hamas after about 3000 Hamas militants conducted a massacre across southern Israel on October 7, killing at least 1200 people. About 240 people were taken hostage.

In response, Israel launched a massive bombardment across the strip and then staged a ground invasion from late October, mainly focused on Gaza City, in the north of the densely populated strip that has about 2.3 million residents. As of Wednesday, 11,240 people in Gaza had been killed, including 4630 children.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council backed a resolution calling for “extended humanitarian pauses” in Gaza. The resolution did not mention a ceasefire, or the Hamas attack on October 7, but marked the first show of global unity since the start of the conflict. Twelve members voted for it, and the US, Britain and Russia abstained.

Hostage talks

Israel and Hamas were reportedly close to reaching a deal to release Israeli hostages in Gaza this week, in return for Israel committing to a temporary truce.

Abu Ubaida, a Hamas spokesperson, said in an audio recording on the Telegram app it would release up to 70 women and children held in Gaza in return for a five-day truce and the release of 200 Palestinian children and 75 women from prisons in Israel.

“The truce should include a complete ceasefire and allow aid and humanitarian relief everywhere in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

An Israeli official told The Washington Post the deal, brokered by Qatar, would involve the release by Hamas of most of the Israeli women and children kidnapped on October 7. The hostages would be released in small groups, simultaneously with the release of groups of Palestinians.

Hamas holds most of the hostages in Gaza, but about 35 are being held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Iran-backed group, and some are held by smaller militant groups. Hamas is reportedly negotiating on behalf of all these groups.

Israel has repeatedly rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying it would not consider such a move until Hamas and other militants in Gaza released the hostages.

Israel–Hezbollah clashes

Clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group in Lebanon, escalated this week, adding to fears that war could spread across the Middle East.

Hezbollah launched attacks using rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortar shells and drones, killing about 10 Israeli soldiers and civilians and prompting a mass evacuation of northern Israel. In response, Israel launched strikes across southern Lebanon, killing at least 70 Hezbollah fighters and 11 civilians. Israel also launched attacks aimed at Hezbollah’s operations in Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Analysts believe neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants a full-scale war. Hezbollah is believed to want to stretch the Israeli military but does not want to risk a conflict that could lead to it suffering heavy losses and having its position in Lebanon weakened, particularly as it may face a domestic backlash for drawing Lebanon into a destructive war. Israel is believed to want to avoid a war that would leave it fighting on two fronts and could prove much costlier than that against Hamas.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, which has a much greater military capability than Hamas, said in a speech last week the group was extending its fighting against Israel and had introduced new weapons and struck new targets. He has signalled he is open to launching a war if Hamas is at risk of defeat in Gaza.

“This front will remain active,” he said. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Israeli troops raid Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital".

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