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Israeli special forces raid last major hospital in southern Gaza

A surgeon inside Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis tells The Independent the situation is getting ‘worse every minute’ and the facility is in ‘chaos’ – with about 40 to 50 staff and around 100 patients left inside

Chris Stevenson,Bel Trew
Thursday 15 February 2024 16:18 GMT
Israel forces Palestinians to leave Gaza hospital

Israeli special forces have raided the last major hospital in southern Gaza, with doctors saying gunshots were ringing out around the complex.

Israel’s military described its raid on Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis as “precise and limited” and said it was based on credible information that Hamas was hiding in the facility, had kept hostages there, and that bodies of hostages may still be present. Israel has consistently accused Hamas of using hospitals to hide, which medical staff have denied.

Video footage from inside the hospital revealed chaotic scenes, with shouts and gunfire sounding in darkened corridors filled with dust and smoke. There was growing alarm over the safety of medics and patients.

Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis has been treating dozens of Palestinians daily (Getty)

Doctor Khaled al-Serr, a surgeon inside the hospital, said the situation was “getting worse every hour… every minute”. In a voice note sent to The Independent, he said that the Israeli military had directly bombed the hospital compound, injuring six patients and killing one, and that a drone quadcopter had left shrapnel in the head of a doctor. As he spoke the sound of a huge explosion interrupted the message.

In a further message, he said there were 40 or 50 medical personnel and between 100 and 120 patients who were all unable to “stand on their feet”.

“Since the early morning they [the Israeli army] have communicated with the head of the administration of the hospital, instructing him to move all the patients into one building. It was a very difficult task to do because the only patients left are those who can’t walk, so they had to be moved using one lift in the surgical building, which has four floors.

There are three buildings in the complex, with Israeli forces inside the surgical building and one other. The patients and staff are in the third. “All of these people are condensed into one department, one building and the soldiers are invading the other buildings,” Dr al-Serr said.

In another message, he said Israeli military bulldozers were now inside the hospital complex after the vast majority of the patients and displaced families seeking shelter in the hospital were forced to evacuate at gunpoint.

The Israeli military said there would be no need to forcibly evacuate remaining medics or patients. Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said one objective of the operation was to ensure the hospital could continue treating Gazan patients and “we communicated this in a number of conversations we had with the hospital staff”.

The raid came after the army called for the evacuation of thousands of displaced people who had taken shelter in the hospital grounds.

Children rest outside as Palestinian arrive in Rafah after they were evacuated from Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis (Reuters)

“They [the Israeli military] are [now] doing digging and [there is] destruction of small tents in the hospital’s yards,” Dr al-Serr said, as the buzz of Israeli drones sounded in the background.

“The situation in the hospital is in chaos, all of the patients, relatives, refugees and the medical staff are afraid of what could happen – we could not imagine they could directly bomb the hospital,” he added. Israel's military has said it seeks to avoid civilian casualties and does not target hospitals with airstrikes.

The medical charity Medicins San Frontieres said people ordered by Israel to evacuate the hospital faced an impossible choice to stay "and become a potential target" or leave "into an apocalyptic landscape" of bombings.

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed alarm on Wednesday about the the situation in Nasser Hospital, which he described as “the backbone of the health system in southern Gaza”. In a message posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, the WHO chief said civilians had been killed and the complex had been under a week-long siege.

The Israeli military later said it had apprehended a number of suspects at the hospital and that its operations there were continuing.

A Health Ministry spokesperson in Hamas-run Gaza, Ashraf al-Qidra, said Israel had launched a “massive incursion” with heavy shooting that wounded displaced people still sheltering there. He said the military had ordered medics to move all patients into an older building that was not properly equipped for their treatment.

“Many cannot evacuate, such as those with lower limb amputations, severe burns, or the elderly,” he said in an interview with the Al Jazeera network.

Palestinian patients arrive in Rafah after they were evacuated from Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis (Reuters)

It comes as Israel has faced growing international pressure to show restraint in its war inside Gaza, launched after a Hamas attack inside Israel that killed around 1,200 people and saw around another 250 taken hostage. Around half of those people are still believed to be inside the besieged enclave. The Israeli aerial bombardment, ground operations and blockade in response to the attack have killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Having focused operations on Khan Younis for weeks, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his troops to prepare for an assault on the city of Rafah, further south, at the Gaza border. The city now contains up to 1.5 million Palestinians, more than half of Gaza’s population, with many having fled other areas of the strip. Residents say they have nowhere else to turn and a number of countries, such as the US, UK and France have lined up to decry any possible assault on the city.

But Mr Netanyahu vowed to press on with a “powerful” assault, declaring that Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, must be eliminated from the southern city. “We will fight until complete victory and this includes a powerful action also in Rafah after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones,” he said. The UN said earlier this week that such a move would involve a “slaughter”.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with a ‘powerful’ assault on the city of Rafah (AP)

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, visiting Israel on Wednesday, had warned that people in Rafah with nowhere to go could not “simply vanish into thin air.”

At Nasser Hospital, health authorities said Israel had forced out displaced people and families of medical staff sheltering there, with some 2,000 arriving in the southern border city of Rafah overnight and some pushing north to Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.

Elsewhere, the civilian death toll from two Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon has risen to 10, Lebanese state media reported, making the previous day the deadliest in more than four months of cross-border exchanges, as fears grow over the conflict in Gaza spreading.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – which is allied to Hamas – has vowed to retaliate for Wednesday’s strikes, which hit the city of Nabatiyeh and a village in southern Lebanon, just hours after projectiles from Lebanon killed an Israeli soldier.

More Israeli strikes were reported in south Lebanon on Thursday. The country’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati condemned the escalation.

“At a time where we are insisting on calm and call all sides to not escalate, we find the Israeli enemy extending its aggression,” read a statement from his office.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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