GAZA/JERUSALEM – Palestinian doctors said Thursday they increasingly fear for the lives of hundreds of patients and medical staff at Gaza’s largest hospital, cut off from all communications with the outside world for more than a day after Israeli forces entered.
Gaza’s health ministry said Israeli soldiers removed bodies from the grounds of Al Shifa Hospital and destroyed cars parked there, but did not allow staff or patients to leave the hospital.
Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said there was no water, food or milk for babies in Shifa, which has 650 patients and about 7,000 people displaced after weeks of Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardments.
“Medical teams, patients and displaced people are struggling to cope with death due to lack of basic necessities. Occupation forces are currently present in the complex but have failed to provide the hospital with the fuel to continue its operations,” he said in a statement.
“We demand that the occupation forces leave the Al Shifa compound so that it can return to work.”
Medics have previously said that dozens of patients, including three premature babies, died from lack of fuel and basic supplies during the day-long siege that culminated with Israeli forces entering the hospital early Wednesday morning.
Israel said Thursday that its soldiers were still there, but declined to provide further details beyond reports from the previous day, when it circulated photos of soldiers unloading boxes labeled “medical aid” and “baby food” and said they had found weapons.
Reuters journalists who had contact with a surgeon and another eyewitness at the compound during the first hours of the Israeli operation were unable to contact anyone at the facility for more than 24 hours.
Israeli forces brought a BBC film crew to the hospital overnight and showed them several rifles they said were found there, but the British broadcaster said the Israeli escort banned the team from contact with patients and staff.
Dr. Nahed Abu Taaema, director of Nasser Hospital in the main southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, told Reuters that all contact with Shifa colleagues had been severed since Wednesday.
“The situation in Al Shifa is very dangerous and disastrous. Now our ICU patients and premature babies are at risk.”
He said some have died in recent days and more may die in the coming days.
The World Health Organization said it was trying to organize a medical evacuation of Shifa patients, but was hampered by security concerns, logistical constraints and the inability to communicate with anyone. WHO officials understood that about 600 patients were still inside, including 27 in critical condition.
“Our options are rather limited, but we hope that we will have better news in the next 24 hours,” WHO regional emergencies director Rick Brennan told Reuters.
All hospitals in northern Gaza were effectively closed by Israeli forces, who ordered the evacuation of the entire northern part of the enclave, home to more than half of its 2.3 million people. The area around Al Shifa in Gaza City was the main target of the Israeli ground offensive that began in late October.
Israel maintains that Hamas fighters operated a command headquarters in a tunnel complex beneath the hospital, a claim confirmed by Washington. However, more than 24 hours after entering it, Israel has yet to provide evidence of the existence of such a facility.
She posted a video of a soldier giving a tour of the hospital building, showing three bags of weapons and bulletproof vests he said were found, as well as several other rifles in a closet and a laptop, but there is no tunnel complex. Officials said Hamas would have time to cleanse itself.
“Israel will have to come up with much more than a handful of grab-and-go rifles to justify closing hospitals in northern Gaza, at enormous cost to civilians with urgent medical needs.” -Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch , who currently works as a visiting professor at Princeton, said on X’s social media platform.
Hamas said the Israeli video was staged. Other Palestinians said it was nothing like the sprawling complex of underground militant headquarters that Israel said justified treating the hospital as a legitimate military target.
“These are weak excuses. There is nothing for resistance in medical facilities,” said Taaema, director of Nasser Hospital.
ISRAEL ORDERS EVACUATION OF SOUTHERN CITIES
Elsewhere, Israel ordered civilians to leave four towns in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday, raising fears that the war could spread to areas where people were told they would be safe.
Leaflets dropped from planes overnight ordered civilians to leave Bani Shuhaila, Khuzaa, Abassan and Qarara on the eastern edge of Khan Younis. Cities that collectively housed more than 100,000 people in peacetime now shelter tens of thousands more who have fled other areas.
“The activities of the Hamas terrorist group require the defense forces to take action against them in your areas of residence,” the leaflets said. “For your own safety, you should immediately evacuate your residences and go to known shelters.”
Residents say the area was subjected to heavy bombardment overnight.
The United Nations says about two-thirds of Gaza’s population has been made homeless, with most of them taking shelter in southern cities, since Israel began retaliating against Hamas for its deadly rampage in southern Israeli cities.
Hamas fighters broke through the fence around Gaza on October 7 in an attack that Israel says killed 1,200 people in the deadliest day in its history. About 240 hostages were dragged back to Gaza.
Since then, Israel has bombarded Gaza with airstrikes and cut off food and fuel. Health authorities in the Gaza Strip, considered credible by the United Nations, say more than 11,000 people have been confirmed dead, including more than 40% of them children, with many others trapped under the rubble of bombed houses.
Attention returned to Israel’s future plans for the Gaza Strip on Thursday after its president Isaac Herzog told Britain’s Financial Times newspaper that a “very strong force” may need to remain there in the near future to prevent the militant group from reemerging Hamas after the war.
US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that occupying Gaza would be a “big mistake” for Israel.
Gaza, ruled by Hamas since 2007, is part of the territory claimed by the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited autonomy in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as a future Palestinian state.
Violence in the West Bank has also escalated since October 7 and has already intensified this year before the Hamas attacks. On Thursday, in an unusually strongly worded statement, France said violence against Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli settlers constituted a “policy of terror.”