Row over Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital as IDF yet to prove Hamas’ headquarters lie in tunnels beneath

Body of Hamas hostage found in building close to al-Shifa hospital, Israel’s military says

Tara Cobham
Thursday 16 November 2023 21:21 GMT
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Medics evacuate patients from al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City hours before Israeli raid

Israel’s military said it found the body of a Hamas hostage in a building close to the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza – but it has yet to produce evidence proving its claims that the militant group’s headquarters lie in tunnels beneath the health facility.

Yehudit Weiss, 64, was one of around 240 hostages taken by Hamas gunmen when they stormed into southern Israel on October 7. She was suffering from breast cancer.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said her body had been identified by forensic examiners and taken to Israel, and the family had been informed.

Yehudit Weiss was among the hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October

“In the structure in which Yehudit was located, military equipment including Kalashnikov rifles and RPG’s were also found,” it said.

The IDF has justified focusing on the hospital by alleging that the “beating heart” of Hamas operations lies in and under the facility. It stormed the hospital early on Wednesday in what it called a “precise and targeted operation”.

Medics evacuate patients from al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City hours before the Israeli raid

The Israeli military displayed guns it said had been found hidden in one building – but it is still yet to release proof of its claims that Hamas has a sophisticated command centre underneath al-Shifa and uses connected tunnels to conceal military operations and to hold hostages.

On Thursday, the US insisted it was confident in its intelligence assessment that Hamas was using the hospital as a command centre and possibly as a shortage facility.

But the raids drew criticism from UN aid chief Martin Griffiths who said he was “appalled”. The hospital has become the focus of Israel’s war on Hamas, launched in retaliation for the militants’ bloody 7 October massacre, as fears have grown for the thousands of patients, displaced people and medical staff trapped.

A cache of weapons the IDF says were found in a closet at the MRI center at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City

Details from the raid remain vague, and officials from Israel and Gaza have presented different narratives about what was happening at the hospital.

The Israeli military said soldiers killed several Hamas militants at the outset of their operation as they were confronted “by explosive devices and terrorist squads”.

In footage that could not be independently verified, the IDF also released video from inside Shifa showing three duffel bags it said it found hidden around an MRI lab, each containing an assault rifle, grenades and Hamas uniforms, as well as a closet that contained a number of assault rifles without ammunition clips.

“These weapons have absolutely no business being inside a hospital,” Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson said, adding that he believed the material was “just the top of the iceberg” as troops continued to search for traces of the militants inside and beneath the facility.

Earlier, Israeli army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner claimed to CNN that the hospital and compound were for Hamas “a central hub of their operations, perhaps even the beating heart and maybe even a centre of gravity”.

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment wait for treatment in Shifa Hospital in Gaza City

All communication services across Gaza are now down due to a lack of fuel, Palestinian telecoms provider Paltel said, cutting off the besieged territory from the outside world.

But earlier on Thursday, Medical Aid Palestinians received its final message from a colleague, an Irish-Palestinian surgeon at al-Shifa, before the blackout. The Independent was told by the charity that Dr Ahmed El Mokhallalati said he had seen tanks break through into the hospital compound and that the buildings had been shot at. Those inside are avoiding going near windows, he added.

Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry inside the hospital, said Israeli troops ransacked the basement and other buildings, and questioned and scanned the faces of patients, staff and people sheltering in the facility. The Health Ministry said Israeli troops also detained technicians responsible for running the hospital’s equipment.

After encircling al-Shifa for days, Israel faces pressure to prove its claim that Hamas used the patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its militants. The allegation is part of Israel's broader accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.

Israeli soldiers carrying out operations inside Al-Shifa hospital

Hamas and Gaza health officials have denied militants operate in Shifa – a hospital that employs some 1,500 people and has more than 500 beds. Palestinians and rights groups have accused Israel of recklessly endangering civilians.

Hamas has said 650 patients and 5,000 to 7,000 other civilians have been trapped inside the hospital grounds, under constant fire from Israeli snipers and drones. Amid shortages of fuel, water and supplies, it said 40 patients have died in recent days.

Smoke billows following an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip on Thursday

Thirty-six babies are left from the neo-natal ward after three died. Without fuel for generators to power incubators, the babies were being kept as warm as possible, lined up eight to a bed.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday cautioned that hospitals have special protections under international humanitarian law. “Hospitals only lose those protections if it can be shown that harmful acts have been carried out from the premises,” the watchdog’s UN director Louis Charbonneau told Reuters. “The Israeli government hasn't provided any evidence of that.”

The World Health Organisation said it was trying to arrange a medical evacuation of patients from al-Shifa, but was hindered by security concerns and the inability to communicate with anyone there.

Palestinians look at destruction after Israeli strikes on Rafah, Gaza Strip on Wednesday

All hospitals in northern Gaza have effectively been shut down by Israeli forces.

It comes as Israel ordered civilians to leave four towns in southern Gaza, raising fears war could spread to areas where it had told people they would be safe. Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement that Israeli forces had cleared the entire western part of Gaza City and that the “next stage has begun”.

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