Israeli troops entered Gaza’s biggest hospital on Wednesday and searched its rooms and basement, witnesses said, in pursuit of Palestinian Hamas militants, an operation that has stoked global alarm over the fate of thousands of civilians trapped inside.
Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City has become the main target of the incursion into the territory by Israeli forces, who say Hamas fighters located the “beating heart” of their operations in a headquarters in tunnels beneath it, which Hamas denies.
Israel said its troops had uncovered unspecified weapons and “terror infrastructure” inside the hospital compound after killing militants in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there had been no fighting and no friction with civilians, patients or staff.
Hailing the entry of his forces into the hospital after days of encirclement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “There is no place in Gaza that we cannot reach. There are no hideouts. There is no shelter or refuge for the Hamas murderers.
“We will reach and eliminate Hamas and we will bring back our hostages. These are two sacred missions,” he said.
Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound described a situation that appeared calm, if tense, as Israeli troops moved between buildings carrying out searches. Sporadic shooting was heard but there were no immediate reports of anyone hurt inside the grounds.
The Israeli military released photos of a soldier standing beside cardboard boxes marked “medical supplies” and “baby food”, at a location Reuters verified was inside Al Shifa. Other photos showed Israeli troops in tactical formation walking past makeshift tents and mattresses.
International attention has focused on the fate of hundreds of patients trapped inside without electricity to operate basic medical equipment, and thousands of displaced civilians who had sought shelter there. Gaza officials say that many patients including three newborn babies died in recent days as a result of Israel’s encirclement of the hospital.
“Before entering the hospital our forces were confronted by explosive devices and terrorist squads, fighting ensued in which terrorists were killed,” the Israeli military said.
“We can confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies brought by IDF tanks from Israel have successfully reached the Shifa hospital. Our medical teams and Arabic speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure that these supplies reach those in need,” it said.
Israel launched its campaign to wipe out Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, after militants crossed into Israel on Oct. 7 and rampaged through towns, killing civilians and dragging hostages back to the enclave. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken in the deadliest day of its 75-year history.
Since then, Israel has put Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million under siege, battering the crowded strip with air strikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say more than 11,000 Palestinians are confirmed killed, around 40% of them children, and more are buried under the rubble. Israel has ordered the entire northern half of Gaza evacuated, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.
The United Nations Security Council was due to vote later on Wednesday on a draft resolution that calls for urgent and extended humanitarian pauses in the fighting as well as corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days to enable aid access, diplomats said.
Israel has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, which it says would benefit Hamas, a position backed by Washington. But a pause in fighting has been discussed in negotiations mediated by Qatar to release some of the hostages held by Hamas.
An official briefed on the negotiations said Qatari mediators were seeking a deal that would include a three-day truce, with Hamas releasing 50 of its captives and Israel to release some women and minors from among its security detainees.
The official said Hamas had agreed to the outlines of the deal but Israel had not and was still negotiating terms.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told reporters the Israeli incursion into Al Shifa Hospital was “totally unacceptable”.
“Hospitals are not battlegrounds,” he said in Geneva.
“What is happening in Gaza is a very obvious, very clear war crime that Israel is committing against those who have been treated in the hospitals,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who serves in the Palestinian Authority that exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel has consistently maintained that the hospital sits above a Hamas headquarters, an assertion the United States said on Tuesday was supported by its own intelligence.
U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths, also speaking in Geneva, implored Israel on Wednesday to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel. Aid is currently being allowed into Gaza via the Rafah crossing from Egypt but it was designed for pedestrians, not trucks.
A senior Israeli military official said soldiers had “already found weapons and other terror infrastructure” within the premises of Al Shifa – evidence, he added, that Hamas has used the hospital as “a terror headquarter”.
Hamas called the assertion that weapons were found “a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda” it said Israel was pumping out to justify “its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza”.
Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone on Wednesday morning that staff had hid as the fighting unfolded around the hospital overnight. As he spoke, the sound of what he described as “continuous shooting from the tanks” could be heard in the background.
“One of the big tanks entered within the hospital from the eastern main gate, and… they just parked in the front of the hospital emergency department,” he said.
The Israelis had told the hospital administration in advance that they planned to enter, he said. By mid-morning, he and other staff had yet to receive instructions from the troops, although the soldiers were “metres away” from them.
After five days during which he said the hospital had come under repeated Israeli attack, it was a relief at least to have reached an “end point”, with troops now inside the grounds instead of outside shooting in, Mohallalati said.