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Israeli forces entered al-Shifa hospital in Gaza to conduct what the military described as a “precise and targeted operation” against Hamas, hours after the US backed its claims that the militant group stored weapons in the medical complex.
The raid by Israeli troops in the early hours of Wednesday came after they surrounded the besieged strip’s largest hospital, which is home to patients and thousands of people who have sought shelter from Israel’s bombardment of the coastal enclave.
Fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants has raged for days in the streets around the hospital, leading UN agencies to call for an end to attacks on medical facilities.
Israel claims al-Shifa, which stopped functioning due a lack of fuel at the weekend, is a significant site for Hamas’s operations because it sits on top of the Islamist group’s underground infrastructure, which the Israeli military intends to destroy.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement on social media platform X that its operation in a “specified area” of the hospital was “based on intelligence information and an operational necessity”.
Doctors at the hospital in Gaza City have repeatedly denied that it is being used for Hamas’s military operations. A government spokesperson in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, described the Israeli advance into the hospital as a “war crime, a moral crime and a crime against humanity”.
The spokesperson said there were about 9,000 people in the hospital.
Hours before Israel announced the raid on al-Shifa, John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told reporters that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant faction based in Gaza, “stored weapons” in the hospital and were “prepared to respond to an Israeli military operation against that facility”.
Kirby added that Hamas was using hospitals, including al-Shifa, and the tunnels underneath them to hold hostages.
But he said Washington did not support striking a hospital from the air and did not want “a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are simply trying to get the medical care they deserve”.
The desperate situation in Gaza’s hospitals has been a source of tension between Israel and its western allies, with the US, France and other western nations increasingly pushing Israel to exercise restraint in operations near medical facilities.
US President Joe Biden warned this week that hospitals “must be protected,” saying: “My hope and expectation is that there will be less intrusive action relative to hospitals.”
The IDF said it had “publicly warned time and again that Hamas’s continued military use of the Shifa hospital jeopardises its protected status under international law”.
Mohamed Zaqout, director-general of hospitals in Gaza, told the Al Jazeera television network that he had spoken with staff at al-Shifa who said: “There wasn’t a single shot fired from inside the hospital complex.”
“There was no resistance, which is normal because this is a civilian hospital,” Zaqout told Al Jazeera, adding that Israeli forces went into the emergency department and a basement that contained radiology equipment.
All but one of the other hospitals in northern Gaza have stopped functioning, according to the UN, as Israel’s military has laid siege to the strip as part of its more than five-week war against Hamas.
Gaza, home to 2.3mn people, has been enduring a deepening humanitarian crisis since Israel launched a retaliatory offensive against Hamas after the Islamist militant group launched a devastating attack on October 7.
Hamas’s assault on southern Israel killed about 1,200 people, and approximately 240 hostages were taken, according to Israeli officials.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s bombardment of the strip, according to Palestinian health officials.
Israel’s forces last month launched a land offensive in the coastal enclave and surrounded Gaza City, Hamas’s main political and military base in the strip.
More than 1.5mn people in Gaza have been forced from their homes, and thousands of people have sought sanctuary at hospitals, while the health system has been pushed into a state of collapse.
The UN’s humanitarian arm said 32 patients — including three premature babies — had died at al-Shifa since Saturday as a result of power loss and “dire conditions” at the hospital.
Mohamed Abu Silmeyeh, its director, warned on Saturday that medics were resorting to wrapping babies in cellophane to keep them alive after incubators stopped working due to the lack of electricity.
The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said on Tuesday that 170 people had been buried in a mass grave in the courtyard of al-Shifa as a result of the “difficulty of burying them” elsewhere “because of the siege imposed on it from all sides”.
The ministry on Monday said more than 100 bodies at al-Shifa were beginning to decompose and that “the smell of corpses” was everywhere.