Israel on Wednesday conducted an hours-long raid on al-Shifa — Gaza’s largest hospital housing around 600 patients and sheltering thousands of others — prompting alarm from human rights advocates. The Israel Defense Forces claim that Hamas runs a command center underneath the hospital, an allegation supported by the U.S. and denied by the militant group and Palestinian health officials.
Witnesses who spoke with Reuters during the raid that began at 3 a.m. local time described the atmosphere as seemingly calm but tense. “Sporadic shooting” was heard but there were no immediate reports of anyone hurt inside the building.
The IDF said that while they did not encounter Hamas fighters inside the hospital, they uncovered weapons in the facility, a claim that Hamas has called a “blatant lie.” The IDF later released photos showing a handful of guns that were said to have been found during the raid.
Clashes between the IDF and Hamas fighters have raged on for days outside at least five hospitals near Gaza City. Over the weekend, two premature babies died from a power outage in the neonatal intensive care unit at al-Shifa, against what witnesses described to be a backdrop of “relentless gunfire, air raids, and artillery fire.”
U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the White House did not give Israel “an OK” for the al-Shifa raid, adding that the U.S. was not involved in Israel’s military operations. He reiterated that the U.S. did not encourage air raids on hospitals or “see innocent civilians, patients, medical staff become victims of crossfire between Hamas and Israeli Defense Forces.”
A top UN official said he was “appalled” by the al-Shifa raid, saying, “Hospitals are not battlegrounds.”
Hamas’ operations in al-Shifa are an “open secret,” with evidence of the militant group’s presence in the facility dating back to 2006, when a PBS documentary showed fighters controlling access to the hospital and intimidating staff, Jonathan Schanzer wrote in an October piece for the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary. He argued that a ground raid of the hospital would slow the IDF down and that given a choice, Israel would “almost certainly” choose to destroy it by air. Schanzer argued that Israel’s invasion of al-Shifa to root out Hamas leaders from within is “a drama that should play out in front of the entire world” and that Israel should emerge from the medical compound with photos, videos, captured weapons, and other evidence of Hamas military activities that took place under the hospital.”
A surgeon affiliated with Doctors Without Borders working at al-Shifa Hospital described “inhuman” conditions at the facility. According to the organization, the doctor said that there was no water, food, or electricity at the hospital and that “people will die in a few hours without functioning ventilators.” Images provided by al-Shifa doctors showed dozens of babies crowded together on beds and wrapped in aluminum foil and blankets to keep them warm after they were left without incubators over the weekend during a power outage.
Israel’s foreign minister Eli Cohen said the shift in the world media’s coverage from Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to focus on Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has given Israel a window of only two to three weeks before international pressure for a ceasefire intensifies. However, he told Haaretz that the pressure would not stop Israel from completing its war goals. But globally, opinions are already shifting. A new survey showed that 38% of Americans believe that Israel’s response to Hamas has been “too much” — up from 26% in the week following the October attack. Invoking the deaths of Palestinian women, children, and babies, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Israel to “exercise maximum restraint” and French President Emmanuel Macron said there was “no justification” for the killing of women and children in Gaza.