KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops on Wednesday stormed into Gaza’s largest hospital, searching for traces of Hamas inside and beneath the facility filled with hundreds of patients, including newborns, who have gone for days without electricity and with little food as fighting raged around them.
Details from the raid remained sketchy, but officials from Israel and Gaza presented different narratives about what was happening at the hospital: The Israeli army released video showing soldiers carrying boxes labeled as “baby food” and “medical supplies,” while Gaza health officials talked of terrified staff and patients as troops moved through the buildings.
After encircling the Shifa Hospital for days, Israel faced pressure to prove its claim that Hamas had transformed it into a command base, using the patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its militants — part of Israel’s broader accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.
Hamas and Gaza health officials deny militants operate in Shifa, and Palestinians and rights groups say Israel has recklessly endangered civilians as it seeks to eradicate Hamas.
The war between Israel and Hamas erupted after the militant group killed some 1,200 people and seized around 240 captives in a surprise Oct. 7 attack. Israel has since killed thousands of Palestinians and unleashed widespread destruction in Gaza.
More than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. About 2,700 people have been reported missing, with most believed to be buried under the rubble. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.
As Israeli forces tighten their hold on northern Gaza, Israeli leaders have increasingly talked of expanding their ground operation into the south to root out Hamas. Already, most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has crowded into the territory’s south, where a worsening fuel shortage Wednesday threatened to paralyze the delivery of humanitarian services and shut down the mobile phone and internet network.
ISRAELI RAID INTO SHIFA
Israeli forces launched their raid into the large Shifa compound around 2 a.m. and appeared to remain there more than 15 hours later. It was not possible to independently assess the situation inside.
Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Health Ministry inside the hospital, said Israeli forces ransacked the basement and other buildings, including those housing the emergency and surgery departments.
“Patients, women and children are terrified,” he said by phone to The Associated Press. Another doctor there, Adnan al-Bursh, told Al-Jazeera TV that the troops removed displaced families who had been sheltering in the basement.
Neither the Palestinians nor the military reported any clashes inside the hospital during the raid. The military said its troops at the start of the operation killed four militants outside the hospital. Throughout days of fighting in the surrounding streets, there has been no report of militants firing from inside Shifa.
The Israeli military said it was carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the hospital,” adding that it was separate from where patients and medical staff are located.
The military said the soldiers were accompanied by medical teams bringing in incubators. It shared footage of them unloading equipment inside the hospital compound.
It added that forces are searching for hostages. The plight of the captives, who include men, women and children, has galvanized Israeli support for the war, and families and supporters of the hostages are holding a protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The raid drew condemnation from Jordan and the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which called it a violation of international law. U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the raid, saying the protection of civilians “must override all other concerns.”
At one point, tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking safety from Israeli bombardment were sheltering at the hospital, but most left in recent days as the fighting drew closer. A few thousand remained behind, along with patients, including premature babies, whose fate has drawn particular concern.
The Health Ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. Another 36 babies are at risk of dying because there is no power for incubators, according to the ministry.
Hours before Israel’s raid, the United States said its own intelligence indicated militants have used Shifa and other hospitals — and tunnels beneath them — to support military operations and hold hostages.
With its troops inside Shifa, the burden will shift to Israel to prove its claim that the facility was being used by militants and that it was a big enough military target to justify the battle that isolated its patients for days and a fuel embargo that eventually shut down incubators and other life-saving equipment.
Hospitals can lose their protected status if combatants use them for military purposes, but civilians must be given ample time to flee, and any attack must be proportional to the military objective.
A TRICKLE OF FUEL FOR AID WORKERS
The deteriorating conditions at Shifa reflect the broader deprivations across the besieged territory, which has been without central electricity or running water for weeks.
Hardly any aid has been delivered to the north. About two thirds of the territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes — and most are now squeezed into the southern part of the narrow coastal strip, where conditions are also deteriorating as bombardment there continues.
After refusing to allow fuel into Gaza for weeks, Israeli defense officials changed course early Wednesday to let in some 24,000 liters (6,340 gallons), but the fuel will only allow the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, to continue bringing limited supplies of food and medicine from Egypt.
The agency is providing basic services to the more than 600,000 people sheltering in severely overcrowded U.N.-run schools and other facilities in the south.
Thomas White, director of UNRWA in Gaza, said that under Israeli restrictions the fuel would only be used for transporting aid from Egypt. “No fuel for water or hospitals,” he said, adding that the amount is equivalent of “only 9% of what we need daily to sustain lifesaving activities.”
COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the decision to allow the fuel came at the request of the U.S. Israel has barred all fuel imports since the start of the war, saying Hamas would use it for military purposes.
The Palestinian telecom company Paltel, meanwhile, said it was relying on batteries to keep Gaza’ mobile and internet network running, and that it expected services to halt later Wednesday. Gaza has experienced three previous mass communication outages since the ground invasion.
BATTLE IN GAZA CITY
Israeli troops, meanwhile, have extended their control across northern Gaza, capturing the territory’s legislature building and police headquarters. The military says Israeli forces have completed the takeover of Shati refugee camp, a densely built district, and are moving about freely in the city as a whole.
The military says its forces have found weapons and eliminated fighters in government buildings, schools and residential buildings. Israel says it has killed several thousand fighters, including important mid-level commanders, while 46 of its own soldiers have been killed in Gaza.
Inside some of the newly captured buildings, soldiers held up the Israeli flag and military flags in celebration.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Tuesday that Hamas had “lost control” of northern Gaza and that Israel made significant gains in Gaza City. But when asked about the timeframe for the war, he said: “We’re talking about long months, not a day or two.”