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Israeli forces entered al-Shifa hospital in Gaza to conduct what the military described as a “precise and targeted operation” against Hamas, hours after the US backed what it said the militant group had stockpiled weapons at medical facilities.
It came after Israeli troops surrounded the besieged Strip’s largest hospital early Wednesday morning, where patients and thousands of people have been sheltering from Israeli bombardment in the coastal area.
Fighting has raged in the streets surrounding the hospital for days between Israeli forces and Hamas militants.
Israel says al-Shifa, which was shut down over the weekend due to fuel shortages, is a significant base for Hamas operations because it sits atop the Islamist group’s underground infrastructure, which the Israeli military intends to destroy.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement on social media platform X that its operation in a “specific area” of the hospital was “based on intelligence information and operational necessity.”
Doctors at a hospital in Gaza City have repeatedly denied that it is being used for Hamas’ military operations. A government spokesman in Hamas-controlled Gaza described the Israeli advance into the hospital as a “war crime, a moral crime and a crime against humanity.”
The hospital has about 9,000 people, the spokesman said.
Hours before Israel announced the attack on al-Shifa, John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, told reporters that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a small militant group based in Gaza, had “stored weapons” and “prepared” the hospital. in response to Israeli military action against that facility”.
Kirby added that Hamas was using hospitals including Al-Shifa and the tunnels underneath them to hold hostages.
But he said Washington did not support an aerial strike on a hospital and “doesn’t want to shoot at a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are trying to get the medical care they deserve.”
The desperate situation in Gaza’s hospitals is causing tension between Israel and its Western allies, with the United States, France and other Western countries increasingly pushing Israel to exercise control over operations near medical facilities.
US President Joe Biden warned this week that hospitals “need to be protected”: “My hope and expectation is that there will be a less invasive operation compared to hospitals.”
The IDF said it had repeatedly warned publicly that Hamas’ continued military use of the Shifa hospital jeopardized its protected status under international law.
Mohamed Jagout, director general of hospitals in Gaza, told the Al Jazeera television network that he had spoken with al-Shifa’s staff: “Not a single shot was fired from inside the hospital complex.”
“There was no resistance, it’s normal because it’s a civilian hospital,” Zagout told Al Jazeera, as Israeli forces moved into a basement containing an emergency room and radiology equipment.
All but one of the other hospitals in northern Gaza have ceased operations as Israel’s military has besieged the area as part of its five-week war against Hamas.
Gaza, home to 2.3 million people, has been experiencing a deepening humanitarian crisis since Israel launched a retaliatory attack against Hamas after the Islamist militant group launched a devastating attack on October 7.
About 1,200 people were killed and about 240 hostages were taken in the Hamas attack on southern Israel, Israeli officials said.
According to Palestinian health officials, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli bombing in Gaza.
Israeli forces launched a ground offensive on the coast last month and encircled Gaza City, Hamas’ main political and military base.
More than 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes in Gaza, and thousands have sought refuge in hospitals, while the health system has collapsed.
The UN’s humanitarian arm said 32 patients – including three premature babies – had died in Al-Shifa since Saturday due to power loss and “deplorable conditions” at the hospital.
Doctors are wrapping babies in cellphones to keep them alive after incubators have stopped working due to a lack of electricity, its director Mohamed Abu Silmayeh warned on Saturday.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said on Tuesday that 170 people were buried in a mass grave in the courtyard of al-Shifa, citing “difficulty in burying them” “due to the siege imposed from all sides”.
The ministry said on Monday that more than 100 bodies had begun decomposing in Al-Shifa and the “smell of corpses” was everywhere.