By Ilse Strauss
Forty days after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, slaughtering 1,200 people – mostly civilians – taking more than 200 hostages and unleashing a full-scale war, the Israeli Defense Forces announced that their forces had entered the center of the storm: Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital, which Lt. Col. (res.) Peter Lerner to CNN described as “possibly even the beating heart” of the terrorist group.
Shortly after 02:00 Wednesday morning local time, the Israeli army said in a statement that they were carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specific area” of Gaza’s largest hospital, where Israel claims the terrorist group’s reinforced underground command center is housed.
The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) reported that they came under fire before entering the hospital and that at least five Hamas gunmen were killed in the ensuing battle. No Israeli soldiers were injured.
The operation was still ongoing as of Wednesday morning, with the IDF claiming to have found weapons and Hamas assets inside the facility.
The army emphasized that there was no “friction” between troops, patients and medical staff. The statement explained that the “IDF is conducting a ground operation in Gaza to defeat Hamas and rescue our hostages. Israel is at war with Hamas, not with the civilians in Gaza”.
According to the army, IDF tanks transported newborn incubators, baby food and medical supplies from Israel to Shifa, while “medical teams and Arabic-speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure these supplies reach those in need” and to ensure “no damage to the civilians who are used as human shields by Hamas”.
Hospital or terror center?
Over the past few weeks, Shifa Hospital has been the focal point of Israel’s war with Hamas. Israel has made it clear from day one that their goal with the war is the destruction of the terrorist entity that has ruled the Gaza Strip with an iron fist since they kicked out the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup in 2007. With this goal in mind, it goes without saying that Hamas’ headquarters is in Israel’s sights.
However, Wednesday’s development highlights an important question: why is Israel so sure that Hamas is operating from under the 1,400-bed facility? And as with everything in the Middle East, the answer requires a look back in history.
Al-Shifa, Arabic for “healing”, is the brainchild of two Israeli architects. They designed the modern four-story medical complex during the 1980s to include extensive underground floors. The goal behind the design was maximum space in a small area. This innovative design with the elaborate labyrinth of basement rooms ultimately helped set the stage for the Hamas presence in a space meant for healing.
According to the IDF, the terrorist group moved into the underground area of Shifa shortly after driving out the Palestinian Authority. Israel announced in 2008 that their intelligence organizations claimed that Hamas had taken over the facility for command and control operations to essentially prevent any military action against the structure and turn every patient into a human shield.
However, it was not just Jerusalem that said so. Also in 2008 the New York Times Hamas accuses the terrorist group of “going through the halls and killing individuals the group says are collaborating with Israel”. Soon after, the ousted Palestinian Authority claimed that the terrorist group was using the hospital as a facility to detain and torture prisoners, while stealing medical supplies.
Six years later in 2014, the Washington Post agreed that Hamas uses Shifa as its base and described it as “a de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the corridors and offices”. And in the same year, Amnesty International issued a report accusing Hamas of using the Shifa facilities to torture and kill those who oppose the terrorist group.
After the October 7 attacks, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari provided international media with intercepted audio and video footage as proof that Hamas has several underground complexes under Shifa. Referring to Israeli intelligence sources, Hagari said that a number of tunnels lead to the underground base from outside the hospital, but that there is at least one entrance to the complex from inside one of the wards.
Washington agrees that Hamas’ headquarters is dug deep under the hospital in a large network of tunnels.
John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday: “We have information that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have used some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including Al-Shifa, and tunnels under them to hiding, supporting military operations and holding hostages”.
Citing US intelligence sources, Kirby continued: “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad members operate a command and control center from Al-Shifa in Gaza. They have stored weapons there and they are prepared to respond to an Israeli military operation against that facility.”
According to Kirby, the Shifa scenario highlights the challenges facing the Israeli military as Hamas has embedded itself among the civilian population.
Moreover, Shifa is not the only example. According to Israel, Hamas’ human shield strategy involves the use of strictly civilian spaces such as mosques, schools, amusement parks and specifically hospitals. The terrorist group allegedly purposefully uses these facilities as a storage place for weapons and rocket launchers, accommodation for militants and a base for operations.
The Rantisi Children’s Hospital in Gaza serves as an example. Yesterday, Hagari revealed during a press conference that Hamas used the basement of this medical facility to hide weapons and possibly hold hostages who were kidnapped on October 7.
As Israeli forces take their first steps into the facility, the situation inside the hospital is dire. Shifa’s fueling has been done and medical procedures are reportedly being performed without anesthesia. Patients, health workers and thousands of refugee families came to seek shelter on the hospital grounds.
Hamas denies all claims that their headquarters are buried under Shifa. Healthcare professionals agree. Time will tell who is telling the truth.
The IDF had been urging the hospital to evacuate since day one of the war, and even tried to coordinate the evacuation of seriously ill patients and premature babies.
On November 12, Israeli soldiers left 300 liters of fuel at the hospital entrance. The army then announced an evacuation route for those inside who want to go to safety. On November 13, Jerusalem sent newborn incubators from Israel to Shifa to evacuate premature babies. Still, the hospital rejected Israel’s offers of help.
Also on November 13, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Israel had offered to supply Shifa with the fuel needed to operate, an offer that was rejected. The New York Times confirmed Netanyahu’s claim by dr. Quoting Ashraf al-Qudra, Hamas’ head of its health ministry, explaining that “taking this fuel will give Israel credit for allowing fuel into Gaza”.
I am writing this article hours after the first Israeli walked into the halls of Shifa. The military has already uncovered weapons and Hamas assets inside the facility. The next few hours will reveal the secrets hidden in the underground chambers beneath Al-Shifa Hospital. And then we will know.
- Ilse lives with her husband, little daughter and three dachshunds in Jerusalem. She serves as a volunteer at Bridges for Peace, a Christian organization that builds relationships between Christians and Jews.