• Eyewitnesses describe Palestinian men being stripped
• US distances itself from incursion into Al-Shifa
GAZA: An Israeli army operation in Gaza’s biggest medical facility on Wednesday set off a wave of international condemnation, with even Tel Aviv’s staunchest supporters criticising the move, as the World Health Oragnisation said it had lost contact with staff at the hospital.
Israeli forces pushed into Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital — a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards — in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Israel claimed the action was a “precise and targeted” operation against Hamas, but since the raid, the military was yet to produce any evidence to back their claim of Hamas running a command centre beneath the hospital.
The UN estimates there are at least 2,300 people inside Al-Shifa. The hospital was caring for 36 babies as of Tuesday, according to medical staff there.
Late on Wednesday night, a journalist trapped inside the hospital told AFP that Israeli troops had withdrawn from the building after entering it overnight, and had redeployed around its outskirts.
During the operation, Israeli troops interrogated dozens of civilians, many of whom were stripped to their underwear, but they were released when the troops withdrew, said the journalist in contact with AFP.
“All men 16 years and above, raise your hands,” a soldier shouted in accented Arabic through a loudspeaker at those sheltering inside the hospital.
“Exit the building towards the courtyard and surrender,” the soldier ordered, according to the journalist who visited the embattled hospital several days ago for interviews and was trapped inside by intense fighting.
About 1,000 Palestinian men, their hands above their heads, were soon led into the vast hospital courtyard, some of them stripped naked by Israeli soldiers checking them for weapons or explosives, the journalist told AFP.
“Bombardment. Shooting around the hospital and within the hospital. It’s really horrible you can feel that it’s very near to the hospital. And then we realised that the tanks are moving around the hospital,” Doctor Ahmed El Mokhallalati told Reuters by phone from Al-Shifa hospital.
“They just parked in front of the hospital emergency department. All kinds of weapons were used around the hospital,” and staff avoided being near the windows.
He said he felt relief when troops finally entered the complex, despite concerns among staff, as the fear of being bombarded from outside had been immense.
“A number of partners including the WHO are urgently exploring the possibility for evacuating patients and medical staff in Al Shifa Hospital,” said Richard Peeperkorn, WHO representative in the occupied Palestinian territories, on Wednesday.
“Hospitals and patients must be protected,” the White House said as it voiced concerns for the safety of civilians shortly after the raid began, saying that it did not give Israel any kind of green light for its raid on Gaza’s main hospital.
“We do not support striking a hospital from the air and we don’t want to see a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people trying to get medical care they deserve are caught in the crossfire,” a National Security Council spokesperson said.
The French foreign ministry said that France was deeply concerned about Israel’s military operations at Al Shifa and “reiterates the absolute need for Israel to comply with international humanitarian law”.
“The Palestinian population should not be made to pay for Hamas’s crimes, even less so the vulnerable, injured or sick and the humanitarian workers who courageously continue their work in extremely dangerous conditions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
Before the raid, on Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said: “The world is witnessing this killing of women, of children, of babies. This has to stop.”
“That’s going too far and cannot be accepted”, said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide in an email to AFP.
“It aggravates an already horrible humanitarian situation in Gaza.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations humanitarian chief demanded immediate action to “rein in the carnage”.
“As the carnage in Gaza reaches new levels of horror every day, the world continues to watch in shock as hospitals come under fire, premature babies die…”
“An entire population is deprived of the basic means of survival. This cannot be allowed to continue,” said Martin Griffiths.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “extremely concerned about the impact on sick and wounded people, medical staff, and civilians”.
Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency was “extremely worried for [staff] and patients’ safety” after they lost touch again with personnel at the hospital. “Hospitals are not battlegrounds,” he said.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2023