17 Nov 2023

Medics fear for patients inside main Gaza hospital as healthcare disintegrates

11:34 am on 17 November 2023

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose for Reuters

Patients and medics are pictured at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Heavy fighting was raging near Al-Shifa hospital, with Israel saying it had killed dozens of militants and destroyed tunnels that are key to Hamas's capacity to fight. Israel launched an offensive in Gaza after Hamas fighters poured across the heavily militarised border on October 7, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 240 hostages. - NB Reuters report death toll 1200

File pic. Patients and medics are pictured at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Photo: AFP

Palestinian medics said on Thursday they are increasingly afraid for the lives of hundreds of patients and medical staff at Gaza's biggest hospital, cut off from all links to the outside world for more than a day after Israeli forces entered.

Israel said its commandos were still searching through Al-Shifa hospital on Thursday, more than a day after they entered its grounds as part of an offensive Israel says aims to wipe out Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave.

"The operation is shaped by our understanding that there is well-hidden terrorist infrastructure in the complex," an Israeli official said, declining to be identified.

The Israeli military said the body of an Israeli woman, Yehudit Weiss, one of around 240 hostages taken by Hamas gunmen when they stormed into southern Israel on 7 October, was recovered by troops in a building near the hospital.

It said the body had been identified by forensic examiners and the family had been informed.

Israel has so far released pictures of what it says were rifles and flak jackets found on the premises, but no evidence of a vast underground Hamas command headquarters it said was operating in tunnels beneath it. Human Rights Watch 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."

Al-Shifa Complex director Muhammad Abu Salamiya said the hospital was "under occupation authority for 48 hours and every minute that passes" more patients will die.

"We are waiting for slow death," he told Al Jazeera TV.

The compound of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 7 November 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and Palestinian group Hamas.

The compound of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 7 November 2023. Photo: BASHAR TALEB

Israeli forces brought a BBC film crew into the hospital overnight and showed it some rifles they said were found there, but the broadcaster said Israeli escorts had barred its team from interacting with patients or staff.

Gaza's health ministry said Israeli soldiers had removed bodies from the hospital grounds and destroyed cars parked there, but they were not letting staff or patients leave.

Ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra said there was no water, food or baby milk in Shifa, which was packed with 650 patients and about 7000 people displaced by weeks of Israeli air strikes and artillery bombardments.

"Medical teams, patients and displaced people are fighting death due to the lack of any basic life necessities. The occupation forces are now present in the complex, but they did not provide any fuel for the hospital to continue work," he said in a statement.

He demanded that the Israeli troops leave. Medics have previously said dozens of patients including three premature babies had died from of a lack of fuel and basic supplies during a days-long siege.

UNRWA operations 'strangled'

Humanitarian bodies issued some of their most dire warnings about the harm Israel's military campaign in Gaza was causing to civilians since it began retaliation against Hamas for a deadly 7 October rampage in southern Israeli towns.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said the Gaza Strip faced widespread hunger, with supplies of food and water almost exhausted.

"With winter fast approaching, unsafe and overcrowded shelters, and the lack of clean water, civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation," said WFP executive director Cindy McCain.

The head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) said he believed there was a deliberate attempt

to "strangle" its humanitarian work in Gaza, warning the agency may have to entirely suspend its operations due to a lack of fuel.

Israel refuses to allow fuel imports, saying they could be used by Hamas for military purposes.

"If the fuel does not come in, people will start to die because of the lack of fuel. Exactly as from when, I don't know. But it will be sooner rather than later," said UNRWA commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini.

Gaza's main telecommunications companies, Paltel and Jawwal, said all telecom services in Gaza had gone down, as all energy sources supplying the network had run out.

Intelligence assessment

Reuters journalists have been unable to reach anyone inside Shifa hospital for more than 24 hours.

This handout picture released by the Israeli army on November 15, 2023, reportedly shows Israeli soldiers carrying out operations inside Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, amid continuing battles betweeen Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (Photo by Israeli Army / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / ISRAELI ARMY " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

Israeli soldiers inside Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 15 November 2023. Photo: AFP / Israeli Army

The World Health Organisation said it was trying to arrange a medical evacuation of patients from Shifa, but was hindered by security concerns and the inability to communicate with anyone there. WHO officials understood around 600 patients were still inside, including 27 in critical condition.

All hospitals in northern Gaza have effectively been shut down by Israeli forces, who have ordered the evacuation of the entire northern part of the enclave, home to more than half its 2.3 million people.

At the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza, about 45 patients who need urgent surgery have been left in the reception area, hospital chief Atef al-Kahlout told Al Jazeera. Israel maintains that Hamas fighters were operating a command headquarters in a complex of tunnels under Shifa, a claim backed by Washington.

On Wednesday Israel released a video in which a soldier toured a hospital building, showing three bags with guns and flak jackets he said had been found stashed there, as well as several other rifles in a closet and a laptop computer, but no tunnels.

"Israel will have to come up with a lot more than a handful of 'grab and go' rifles to justify shutting down northern Gaza's hospitals with its enormous cost for a civilian population with urgent medical needs," Kenneth Roth, a former head of Human Rights Watch who now works as a visiting professor at Princeton, said on social media platform X.

Hamas said the Israeli video was staged.

Elsewhere, Israel ordered civilians to leave four towns in the southern part of the Gaza Strip on Thursday, 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 Israeli forces had cleared the entire west part of Gaza City and that the "next stage has begun".

The United Nations says around two-thirds of Gaza's population have been made homeless, most of them sheltering in towns in the south.

Hamas militants burst through the fence around Gaza on 7 October in an assault that Israel says killed 1200 people in the deadliest day in its history. Around 240 hostages were taken back to Gaza.

Israel has pounded Gaza with air strikes and cut off food and fuel. Gaza health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations say more than 11,000 people have been confirmed killed, more than 40 percent of them children.

- Reuters

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