KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops on Wednesday stormed into Gaza’s largest hospital, searching for traces of Hamas inside and beneath the facility, where newborns and hundreds of other patients have suffered for days without electricity and other basic necessities as fighting raged outside.
Details from the raid remained sketchy, but officials from Israel and Gaza presented different accounts of what was happening at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City: The Israeli army released video showing soldiers carrying boxes labeled as “baby food” and “medical supplies,” while health officials talked of terrified staff and patients as troops moved through the buildings.
After encircling Shifa for days, Israel faced pressure to prove its claim that Hamas had turned the hospital into a command center, using the patients, staff and civilians sheltering there to provide cover for its militants — part of Israel’s broader accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.
Hamas and Gaza health officials deny militants operate in Shifa. Palestinians and rights groups say Israel has recklessly endangered civilians as it seeks to eradicate Hamas.
The war between Israel and Hamas erupted after the militant group killed some 1,200 people and seized around 240 captives in an Oct. 7 attack that shattered Israelis’ sense of security. Israeli airstrikes have since killed thousands of Palestinians and unleashed widespread destruction in Gaza.
More than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, with most believed to be buried under the rubble. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.
As Israel tightens its hold on northern Gaza, leaders have talked of expanding the ground operation into the south to root out Hamas. Already, most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have crowded into the territory’s south, where a worsening fuel shortage Wednesday threatened to paralyze the delivery of humanitarian services and shut down mobile phone and internet service.
ISRAELI RAID INTO SHIFA
Israeli forces launched their raid into the large Shifa compound around 2 a.m. and appeared to remain there more than 15 hours later. It was not possible to independently assess the situation inside.
Munir al-Boursh, a senior official with Gaza’s Health Ministry inside the hospital, said Israeli forces ransacked the basement and other buildings, including those housing the emergency and surgery departments.
“Patients, women and children are terrified,” he said by phone to The Associated Press. Another doctor there, Adnan al-Bursh, told Al-Jazeera TV that the troops removed displaced families who had been sheltering in the basement.
Neither the Palestinians nor the military reported any clashes inside the hospital. The military said its troops killed four militants outside the hospital at the start of the operation. Throughout days of fighting in the surrounding streets, there has been no report of militants firing from inside Shifa.
The Israeli military said it was carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the hospital,” adding that it was separate from where patients and medical staff are located.
The military said the soldiers were accompanied by medical teams bringing in incubators. It shared footage of them unloading equipment inside the hospital compound.
It added that forces are searching for hostages. The plight of the captives, who include men, women and children, has galvanized Israeli support for the war. Families and supporters of the hostages are holding a protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The raid drew condemnation from Jordan and the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, which called it a violation of international law. U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the raid, saying the protection of civilians “must override all other concerns.”
At one point, tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking safety from Israeli bombardment were sheltering at the hospital, but most left in recent days as the fighting drew closer. The fate of premature babies at the hospital has drawn particular concern.
The Health Ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. Another 36 babies are at risk of dying because there is no power for incubators, according to the ministry.
Hours before Israel’s raid, the United States said its own intelligence indicated militants have used Shifa and other hospitals — and tunnels beneath them — to support military operations and hold hostages.
With its troops inside Shifa, the burden will shift to Israel to prove its claim that the facility was being used by militants and that it was a big enough military target to justify the siege against it.
Hospitals can lose their protected status if combatants use them for military purposes, but civilians must be given ample time to flee, and any attack must be proportional to the military objective.
A TRICKLE OF FUEL FOR AID WORKERS
About two thirds of the territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes — and most are now squeezed into the southern part of the narrow coastal strip.
Conditions there have been deteriorating, as bombardment continues to level buildings. Residents say bread is scarce and supermarket shelves are bare. Families cook on wood fires for lack of fuel. Central electricity and running water have been out for weeks across Gaza.
After refusing to allow fuel into Gaza since the war’s start, saying it would be diverted to Hamas, Israeli defense officials early Wednesday let in some 24,000 liters (6,340 gallons). The fuel will only be used for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, to continue bringing limited supplies of food and medicine from Egypt.
The agency is providing basic services to the more than 600,000 people sheltering in severely overcrowded U.N.-run schools and other facilities in the south.
The fuel cannot be used for hospitals in the south or to desalinate water, said Thomas White, UNRWA’s director in Gaza. The amount is equivalent of “only 9% of what we need daily to sustain lifesaving activities,” he said.
The Palestinian telecom company Paltel, meanwhile, said it was relying on batteries to keep Gaza’ mobile and internet network running, and that it expected services to halt later Wednesday. Gaza has experienced three previous mass communication outages since the ground invasion.
Israeli troops have extended their control across northern Gaza. The military says Israeli forces took control of the Shati refugee camp, a densely built district, and are moving about freely in the city as a whole.
The military says its forces have found weapons and Hamas fighters in government buildings, schools and residential buildings. Israel says it has killed several thousand fighters while 46 of its own soldiers have been killed in Gaza.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday the ground operation will eventually “include both the north and south. We will strike Hamas wherever it is.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the plans, saying Israel’s goal is “a complete victory over Hamas in the south and the return of our hostages.”
Israel told residents of northern Gaza to evacuate south, saying it wanted to get civilians out of the path of its ground assault, and hundreds of thousands fled. If Israeli troops move south, it is not clear where Gaza’s population can flee, with Egypt refusing a mass transfer onto its soil.