Israeli forces stormed Gaza’s largest hospital on Wednesday in the hope of striking what the country suspects is an underground Hamas command center operating in tunnels under Al Shifa Hospital.
Youssef Abu Rish, deputy health minister in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, is currently in hospital and told AFP he could see tanks in the compound and “numerous soldiers and commandos in the casualty unit and reception”.
The Israeli army, for its part, said the operation was carried out based on “an operational necessity” and described it as “a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specific area” of the facility.
According to the United Nations (UN), at least 2,300 patients, staff members and homeless people are trapped in the hospital at this stage due to ongoing fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hamas forces in the area.
Eyewitnesses say the conditions in the hospital are appalling with medical procedures taking place without anesthesia, families living in hospital corridors with little food or water while the stench of decomposing bodies hangs in the air.
“Bodies are scattered in the hospital complex and there is no more electricity at the morgue,” said Mohammad Abu Salmiya, director of the hospital, before the Israeli army’s operation.
Anticipating criticism, the military said evacuation routes for civilians had been provided in advance. The authorities in Gaza, which Israel says is run by Hamas, were also given 12 hours’ advance notice to cease any military operation in the hospital.
“Unfortunately, this was not done,” the Israeli army said, before calling on “all Hamas terrorists present in the hospital” to “surrender”.
According to the Israeli army, its ground teams also included medics and Arabic speakers “who underwent specific training to prepare for this complex and sensitive environment”.
Abu Rish, for his part, appealed to the international community and the UN “to intervene immediately and urgently to end the Israeli storm operation”.
A journalist in the hospital working with AFP said Israeli soldiers interrogated people on Wednesday morning, including patients and doctors.
This morning, shortly after the raid began, the White House reiterated its concerns about the safety of civilians.
“We do not support (attempts) to target a hospital from the air and we do not want to see a shooting in a hospital,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council.
The official further said that a situation must not arise in which “innocent people, helpless people, sick people who are trying to get the medical care they deserve, end up in the crossfire”.
Hamas said on Wednesday that Biden was “fully responsible” for the attack on the hospital. The Palestinian militant group and also accused Biden’s administration of giving Israel “the green light … to commit more massacres against civilians”.
However, the Israeli army maintains that its intention with the operation is to “do no harm to civilians who are used as human shields by Hamas”.
Israel also believes that the military use of the hospital jeopardizes its “protected status under international law”, a claim that many international human rights lawyers refute.