Middle East

Why Gaza’s largest hospital has become the ‘epicenter’ of Israel’s war on Hamas

By Nadeen Ebrahim and Jessie Yeung, CNN

CNN  — 

Israeli forces launched a raid Wednesday on Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, after accusing Hamas of operating from tunnels beneath the vast complex – a claim denied by the militant group and hospital officials.

Thousands of Palestinians are believed to be sheltering in and around the hospital, which the UN said had become the “epicenter” of fighting in the area, trapping vulnerable patients, staff and displaced Palestinians as they run out of medical supplies and fuel.

The hospital’s main building has effectively ceased functioning, with doctors working by candlelight and wrapping premature babies in foil to keep them alive – with some warning the situation inside has become “catastrophic.”

The hospital’s main building has effectively ceased functioning, with doctors working by candlelight and wrapping premature babies in foil to keep them alive – with some warning the situation inside has become “catastrophic.”

In recent days, the hospital has become a microcosm of the wider war and the rhetoric around it. Palestinians hold up the fighting around Al-Shifa as proof of Israel’s wanton disregard for civilian life in Gaza, while Israel points to the hospital as an example of Hamas’ use of civilians as human shields.

But the decision by Israeli forces to enter the hospital marks a potential escalatory moment in the conflict which began on October 7, when Hamas militants entered Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking over 200 others hostage – the largest such attack on Israel since the country’s founding in 1948.

A satellite image shows Al-Shifa hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Gaza November 7, 2023. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MUST NOT OBSCURE LOGO.

More than 11,000 have since been killed by retaliatory Israeli strikes in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which draws figures from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Here’s what we know so far about Al-Shifa and the Wednesday raid.

What happened on Wednesday?

On early Wednesday morning local time, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it was “carrying out a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa Hospital” in Gaza.

Khaled Abu Samra, a doctor at the hospital, told CNN they were given 30 minutes’ warning before the Israeli operation on the complex began in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“We were asked to stay clear of the windows and the balconies. We can hear the armored vehicles, they are very close to the entrance of the complex,” he said.

Khader Al Za’anoun, a journalist inside the hospital, told CNN on Wednesday morning Israeli tanks and military vehicles were in the hospital courtyard. He added Israeli soldiers were “in the buildings and departments are conducting search and interrogation operations with the young men amidst intense and violent gunfire inside the hospital,” and were using megaphones to ask young men in the hospital to “raise their hands, come out, and surrender themselves.”

CNN cannot independently verify Israel’s claims that Hamas is operating from the hospital.

Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner told CNN on Wednesday that the IDF had informed hospital administrators, patients and civilians inside to take cover “because we intend on conducting our military operation in order to differentiate and distinguish between the civilians and the terrorists.”

Ambulances carrying victims of Israeli strikes crowd the entrance to the emergency ward of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on October 15, 2023. Israel embarked on a withering air campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza after they carried out a brutal attack on Israel on October 7 that left more than 1,400 people killed in Israel. (Photo by Dawood NEMER / AFP) (Photo by DAWOOD NEMER/AFP via Getty Images)

What is Israel claiming?

Israel has repeatedly claimed Hamas is using the hospital complex for military purposes. In a presentation to the media last month, Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari accused Hamas of directing rocket attacks and commanding operations from bunkers underneath the hospital building, which he said was linked to the network of tunnels that Hamas has dug underneath Gaza city.

Hagari at the time offered only one piece of evidence: a phone call purporting to be between two Gazans discussing the presence of Hamas’s headquarters at the Al-Shifa hospital. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the recording.

The IDF also published an “intelligence-based” illustrated video of what it claims the Hamas headquarter under Al-Shifa looks like. The video shows a 3D diagram of the hospital, which moves to show an animated network of purported tunnels and operation rooms.

Other hospitals inside Gaza were also being used by Hamas in similar ways, Hagari claimed during the presentation, which included aerial photos, graphics and voice recordings.

Israel has made other efforts to publicize what it says is proof of Hamas’ operations under hospitals. On Monday, the IDF invited news media to visit the Al Rantisi children’s hospital in Gaza City, where Hagari alleged parts of the basement had been a Hamas “command and control center” and may have been used to hold hostages.

An aerial view shows the compound of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 7, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by Bashar TALEB / AFP) (Photo by BASHAR TALEB/AFP via Getty Images)

A CNN team embedded with the IDF and was shown guns and explosives in one room located beneath the hospital, which Hagari termed an “armory.”

The director of hospitals at the Hamas-controlled ministry of health on Tuesday dismissed Israel’s accusations, saying the basement of the Rantisi hospital was used to shelter women and children, not store Hamas weaponry and hold hostages.

How have Palestinians responded?

Hamas, Palestinian health officials and medical workers have also vehemently denied Israel’s claims about Al-Shifa, and condemned Wednesday’s raid.

The director general of the Gaza health ministry, Dr. Medhat Abbas, told CNN that Gaza’s hospitals “are used to treat patients only” and are not being used “to hide anyone.”

After the raid began, Palestinian Authority Health Minister Dr. Mai Al-Kaila said it represented “a new crime against humanity, medical staff, and patients,” and warned it could have “catastrophic consequences” for patients and medical staff.

In a statement Wednesday, Hamas blamed both Israel and the US for the raid, claiming that the US had given Israel “a green light … to commit more massacres against civilians” by using Israel’s “false narrative” of Al-Shifa being used as a command center.

The statement also accused the United Nations of failing to defend Palestinians.

Wounded Palestinians sit in al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, after arriving from al-Ahli hospital following an explosion there, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. The Hamas-run Health Ministry says an Israeli airstrike caused the explosion that killed hundreds at al-Ahli, but the Israeli military says it was a misfired Palestinian rocket. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled)

What has the United States said?

The White House has backed Israel’s claims, saying Tuesday that Hamas was storing weapons and operating a command node from the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, citing US intelligence.

“Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PIJ, members operate a command-and-control node from al-Shifa in Gaza City. They have stored weapons there and they are prepared to respond to an Israeli military operation against that facility,” John Kirby, a US National Security Council spokesman, told reporters traveling with President Joe Biden. Kirby presented no evidence to back up his statement.

But Biden also said Monday that hospitals in Gaza “must be protected” and that his “hope and expectation is that there will be less intrusive action” around them.

Why is Al-Shifa so important?

The sprawling medical facility of Al-Shifa, which sits in the western part of Gaza City, was built in 1946 when Gaza was still under British rule. It has long been seen as the backbone of medical services across the besieged Gaza Strip, and has been hit in previous Hamas-Israel conflicts.

As early as Israel’s first war with Hamas in 2008-2009 – almost a year after the militant group seized control of the enclave – Israel had been claiming that Hamas fighters were sheltering in mosques, hospitals and other civilian places to avoid Israeli attacks.

Former Minister of Internal Security and Shin Bet director, Avi Dichter, said in in 2009 that it was “an open secret” among Palestinians living in Gaza that Hamas uses Al-Shifa for its operations, a claim that Hamas repeatedly denied.

The hospital was struck nine years ago during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, which was strongly condemned by aid and medical organizations. Palestinians blamed the 2014 attack on Israel, while Israel said it was the result of a failed rocket launch by Hamas.

The hospital made headlines a year later, when human rights group Amnesty International published a damning report on Hamas, including allegations that Hamas militants interrogated and tortured people at a clinic in Al-Shifa.

CNN’s Tamar Michaelis, Jo Shelley, Abeer Salman, Andrew Carey, Nic Robertson, Kareem Khadder, Celine Alkhaldi, Manveena Suri and Aimee Look contributed to this report

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