Patients, staff and displaced people leave Gaza’s largest hospital

18 November 2023, 20:24

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip
Israel Palestinians. Picture: PA

Israel’s military has been searching the hospital for traces of a Hamas command centre it alleges was located under the building, which Hamas denies.

Patients, staff and displaced people have fled Gaza’s largest hospital, with one describing a panicked and chaotic evacuation as Israeli forces searched and face-scanned men among the evacuees and took some away.

Israel’s military has been searching Shifa Hospital in Gaza City for traces of a Hamas command centre that it alleges was located under the building – a claim Hamas and the hospital staff deny.

The evacuation left behind only Israeli forces and a skeleton crew to care for those too sick to move.

“We left at gunpoint,” Mahmoud Abu Auf told The Associated Press by phone after he and his family left the crowded hospital that under Israeli encirclement had run out of supplies for newborn babies and other patients.

“Tanks and snipers were everywhere inside and outside.”

He said he saw Israeli forces detain three men.

A small number of health workers were left behind to care for those too sick to move, health officials said.

The exodus came the day internet and phone service was restored to the Gaza Strip, ending a telecommunications outage that forced the United Nations to shut down critical aid deliveries.

Elsewhere in northern Gaza, dozens of people were killed in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp when what witnesses described as an Israeli air strike hit a crowded UN shelter in the main combat zone.

It caused massive destruction in the camp’s Fakhoura school, with dozens of people seen lying motionless, said Ahmed Radwan and Yassin Sharif.

“The scenes were horrifying. Corpses of women and children were on the ground. Others were screaming for help,” Mr Radwan said by phone.

The Israeli military, which had warned Jabaliya residents and others in a social media post in Arabic to leave, had no immediate comment.

Palestinians look at destruction after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis
Palestinians look at destruction after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis (Fatima Shbair/AP)

It rarely comments on individual strikes, saying only that it targets Hamas while trying to minimise harm to civilians.

“Receiving horrifying images & footage of scores of people killed and injured in another UNRWA school sheltering thousands of displaced in the north of the Gaza Strip. These attacks cannot become commonplace, they must stop. A humanitarian ceasefire cannot wait any longer,” Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, said on X, formerly Twitter.

Attacks also continued in southern Gaza.

An Israeli air strike hit a residential building on the outskirts of the town of Khan Younis, killing at least 26 Palestinians, according to a doctor at the hospital where the bodies were taken.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant said Israel’s forces have begun operating in eastern Gaza City while continuing their mission in western areas.

“With every passing day, there are fewer places where Hamas terrorists can operate,” he said, adding that the militants would learn that in southern Gaza “in the coming days”.

His comments were the clearest indication yet that the military plans to expand its offensive to the southern areas of Gaza where Israel had told Palestinian civilians to flee early in the war.

The evacuation zone is already crammed with displaced civilians, and it was not clear where they would go if the offensive moves closer.

It was not clear how the Shifa hospital evacuation occurred.

On Saturday, the military said it had been asked by the hospital’s director to help those who would like to leave do so by a secure route.

The military said it did not order any evacuation, and that medical personnel were being allowed to remain in the hospital to support patients who cannot be moved.

But Medhat Abbas, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, said the military had ordered the facility cleared, giving the hospital an hour to get people out.

Palestinians look at destruction after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis
Damage after an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis (Fatima Shbair/AP)

After it appeared the evacuation was mostly complete, Dr Ahmed Mokhallalati, a Shifa physician, said on social media that some 120 patients remained who were unable to leave, including some in intensive care and premature babies, and that he and five other doctors were staying to care for them.

It was not immediately clear where those who left the hospital had gone, with 25 of Gaza’s hospitals non-functional due to lack of fuel, damage and other problems and the other 11 only partially operational, according to the World Health Organisation.

Israel has said hospitals in northern Gaza were a key target of its ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas, claiming they were used as militant command centres and weapons depots, which both Hamas and medical staff deny.

Israeli troops have encircled or entered several hospitals, while others stopped functioning because of dwindling supplies and loss of electricity.

The war, now in its seventh week, was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack in southern Israel, in which militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted some 240 men, women and children.

Fifty-two soldiers have been killed since the Israeli offensive began.

More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in the war, according to Palestinian health authorities.

Another 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble.

Palestinians transport water during the ongoing Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah
Palestinians transport water during the ongoing Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah (Hatem Ali/AP)

The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but more than two-thirds of those killed were women and children; Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that the Israeli military would have “full freedom” to operate within the territory after the war.

The comments again put him in conflict with US visions for a post-war era in Gaza.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said the US opposes an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza and envisions a unified Palestinian government in Gaza and the West Bank as a step towards a Palestinian state, long opposed by Mr Netanyahu’s government.

Gaza’s main power plant shut down early in the war, and Israel has cut off electricity.

That makes fuel necessary to power the generators needed to run the telecommunications network, water treatment plants, sanitation facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

Juliette Touma, spokeswoman for the agency for Palestinian refugees, said 120,000 litres (31,700 gallons) of fuel arrived on Saturday, meant to last for two days, after Israel agreed on Friday to allow in that amount for the UN’s use.

It is also allowing another 10,000 litres (2,642 gallons) to keep the telecommunications systems running.

The Palestinian telecommunications provider said it was able to restart its generators after the UN donated fuel.

The UN has warned that Gaza’s 2.3 million people are running critically short of food and water, and said the amount of fuel being provided is only half of the daily minimum requirement.

It was not immediately clear when UNRWA would resume the delivery of aid that was put on hold on Friday.

Gaza has received only 10% of its required food supplies each day in shipments from Egypt, according to the UN, and the water system shutdown has left most of the population drinking contaminated water, causing an outbreak of disease.

Dehydration and malnutrition are growing, with nearly all residents in need of food, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.

Family and supporters of the estimated 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza complete the final leg of a five-day solidarity rally calling for their return, from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem
Family and supporters of the estimated 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza complete the final leg of a five-day solidarity rally calling for their return, from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Thousands of marchers – including families of more than 50 hostages – were arriving in Jerusalem on the last leg of a five-day trek from Tel Aviv.

Calling on the government to do more to rescue some 240 hostages held by Hamas, they planned to rally outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s house.

A spokesperson for the families, Liat Bell Sommer, said two members of Israel’s wartime cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, had agreed to meet them.

She added it was not yet clear whether Mr Netanyahu would as well.

Many are furious with the government for refusing to tell them more about what is being done to rescue the hostages.

They have urged the cabinet to consider a ceasefire or prisoner swap in return for the hostages.

Hamas offered to exchange all hostages for some 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails, which the cabinet rejected.

The spokesman of Hamas’s military wing, Abu Obaida, said in a statement that Hamas had lost contact with some groups of fighters in charge of guarding the hostages, saying: “The fate of (some of) the prisoners and guards is still unknown.”

Israel has signalled plans to expand its offensive south, where most of Gaza’s population is now sheltering, including hundreds of thousands of people who heeded Israel’s calls to evacuate Gaza City and the north ahead of its ground offensive.

Empty streets in Sderot , southern Israel
Empty streets in Sderot , southern Israel (Ariel Schalit/AP)

People continued to move south.

Some recovered bodies of strangers along the way.

“I found these young men inside the car. The car was destroyed,” said Moemen Abu Erban, one man on the move.

The bodies had been placed on a horse cart and covered with blankets.

“Frankly, it is a difficult thing. There is complete destruction.”

Elsewhere, the Israeli military said its aircraft struck what it described as a hideout for militants in the urban refugee camp of Balata in the occupied West Bank, alleging that those targeted had planned to carry out imminent attacks on Israeli civilians and military targets.

The Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance service said five Palestinians were killed.

The deaths raised to 212 the number of Palestinians killed in West Bank violence since the war began, making it the deadliest period in the territory since the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.

By Press Association

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