Thursday, April 25

In Gaza, witnesses describe fear and deprivation at besieged Al-Shifa Hospital

Seven days after the Israeli army launched a raid on the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, a picture of the sustained assault on the complex and its surroundings is emerging in fragments.

Nearby residents described a relentless daily soundtrack of gunfire, airstrikes and explosions. A surgeon spoke of doctors and patients crowded together in the emergency department as Israeli forces took control of the complex outside. A Palestinian teenager who spent four days in the hospital described the bodies she saw piled up outside the entrance.

“They had put the bodies aside and threw blankets over them,” said Alaa Abu Al-Kaaf, 18, who said she and her family were in Al-Shifa for several days before leaving on Thursday. It is not clear when or how the bodies were transported there.

The humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières (also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières), said on social media on Sunday that heavy fighting continued around the hospital, “endangering patients, medical staff and those trapped inside with very few supplies.”

Interviews with other witnesses at the hospital, residents in or near the facility, and Gaza authorities in recent days, as well as others who left the compound over the past week, described a situation of fear and deprivation, interrogations and detentions of Palestinians. men by Israeli forces and a persistent lack of food and water.

The assault on Al-Shifa, one of the longest Israeli raids on hospitals in the Gaza war, began last Monday with tanks, bulldozers and airstrikes. The army said it was targeting senior figures from Hamas, the armed group that carried out an attack in southern Israel on October 7. Israel launched a war on Gaza in response to this attack, with intense aerial bombardments and a ground offensive.

In recent weeks, mediators have stepped up efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, holding indirect talks between the two sides in Doha. Qatar, a key mediator, has expressed cautious optimism but says negotiations have not yet been concluded.

Israeli leaders have said that, regardless of reaching a ceasefire agreement, they intend to launch a ground operation in the southern city of Rafah to eliminate remaining Israeli forces. Hamas. The prospect has sparked international concern over the fate of more than a million Palestinians who have gathered in the area to seek refuge.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III recently “raised the need to consider alternatives to a major ground operation at Rafah” in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant. Mr Gallant will travel to Washington on Sunday to meet Mr Austin and other senior US officials, his office said.

The raid on Al-Shifa also focused international attention on the dire situation facing hospitals and the patients housed there, according to local authorities. Many of the 30,000 Palestinians who the Gaza Health Ministry said had taken refuge in Al-Shifa were once again displaced by the raid.

Gaza authorities said at least 13 patients died following the raid, because they were denied medicine and care, or because their ventilators stopped working after the Israelis cut off the electricity. . These claims could not be verified.

Gaza’s health ministry said Saturday that patients still in Al-Shifa were in critical condition, with maggots beginning to infect wounds.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, published a report on social networks Friday by a doctor from Al-Shifa, relayed by a UN colleague.

Two patients on life support died because of the lack of electricity and there were no medicines or basic medical supplies, he wrote. Many patients in critical condition were lying on the ground.

In one building, 50 medical workers and more than 140 patients have been detained since the second day of the raid, with extremely limited food and water and non-functional toilets, Dr. Tedros wrote.

“Health workers are worried about their own safety and that of their patients. » Dr Tedros wrote. “These conditions are absolutely inhumane. “We are calling for an immediate end to the siege and safe access to ensure patients receive the care they need. »

Dr. Tayseer al-Tanna, 54, a vascular surgeon, said he finally fled Al-Shifa on Thursday after hearing gunshots for days outside the ward where he was. Dr Al-Tanna said Israeli forces herded doctors and patients into the compound’s emergency room while they swept outside.

“The Israeli army did not treat us with violence,” Dr. Al-Tanna said. “But we had almost no food or water” during the raid, he added.

He declined to say whether Palestinian fighters had fortified themselves in the medical complex.

The press office of the territory’s Hamas-run government said in a statement Saturday that the Israeli army was threatening medical staff and people sheltering there with leaving the hospital — and risking interrogation. , tortured or executed – or force them to leave the hospital. the military would bomb and destroy the buildings above their heads. The media office said it was in contact with people inside the complex.

The Israeli military did not respond to specific questions about whether it had threatened people inside the medical complex. But on Saturday it said it was operating in the hospital area “while avoiding harm to civilians, patients, medical teams and medical equipment.”

The army said it killed more than 170 fighters in the hospital area and arrested and interrogated more than 800 people.

The New York Times was unable to verify either Hamas’s or the Israeli army’s accounts.

Israel, which has long accused Hamas of using Al-Shifa and other Gaza hospitals for military purposes, struggled to substantiate its initial claims that the group maintained a command and control center under the establishment. Hamas and hospital administrators have previously denied the accusation.

Evidence reviewed by The New York Times suggests that Hamas used the hospital for cover, stored weapons there and maintained a reinforced tunnel beneath the compound that was supplied with water, electricity and air conditioning.

US officials said their intelligence included evidence that Hamas had used Al-Shifa to hold at least some hostages since October 7.

In a statement on Sunday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli forces were “besieging” two other hospitals in the southern city of Khan Younis, Al-Amal and Nasser.

The Israeli army targeted Al-Amal with smoke bombs and military vehicles barricaded the entrances to the complex, the Red Crescent said.

The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry said the Israeli attack on the Nasser hospital was “violent and bloody” and accused the army of trying to neutralize all hospitals in Gaza.

The Israeli army said in a statement on Sunday that it had launched an operation in the Al-Amal neighborhood of Khan Younis overnight. When asked if Israeli troops were currently surrounding Al-Amal and Nasser hospitals, the army responded that it was “operating throughout the Al Amal area” and “not currently operating in the hospitals.” .

In its statements regarding the Al-Shifa raid, Hamas confirmed that its fighters were engaged in clashes with Israeli forces near the hospital. In a statement released on Saturday, Hamas said members of its Qassam brigades fired mortar shells at Israeli forces near Al-Shifa.

Ms. Al-Kaaf and other Palestinians who left the compound last week also described scenes in which groups of men were arrested, stripped naked and interrogated by Israeli soldiers. The women and children were separated from the men, Ms. Al-Kaaf said, and the others – including hospital medical staff, doctors and nurses – were locked in a large pit, sitting on the ground . Some were blindfolded and handcuffed.

The Israeli military said that “individuals suspected of being involved in terrorist activities” were detained and interrogated in accordance with international law and released if they “did not participate in terrorist activities.” He adds: “It is often necessary for terrorism suspects to hand over their clothing so that it can be searched and to ensure that they are not hiding explosive vests or other weapons. »

In Al-Rimal, the neighborhood surrounding Al-Shifa, the hospital siege has trapped residents in their homes. Several said snipers fired into surrounding streets; Residents feared being taken from their homes by Israeli forces, stripped naked and interrogated, as they said dozens had been in the past week.

“The situation is really bad,” said Mohammed Haddad, 25, who lives about 800 meters from the hospital. “For more than five days, we have not been able to go out and move around. We could not get water or food. And it’s Ramadan,” he said, referring to the holy month of Muslim fasting.

Airstrikes and random cannon fire hit several houses in the immediate vicinity, demolishing them, Mr. Haddad said.

“There are snipers, bombings, surveillance drones and armed drones,” he added, the buzz of a drone audible as he spoke on the phone.

Israeli forces appeared to be destroying the entire area, he said, “not just the hospital.”

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad And Aaron Boxerman reports contributed.