Israel raids Gaza’s biggest hospital

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Israel has raided Gaza’s largest hospital, triggering gun battles around the medical complex where thousands of people have taken refuge as Israeli forces seek to prevent Hamas fighters regrouping in the besieged strip’s north.

The Israel Defense Forces said it was conducting a “precise operation in the area of the Shifa hospital” on Monday to thwart Hamas activity in the compound.

The IDF later said its forces had “eliminated” Faiq Mabhouh, a senior commander in Hamas’s internal security directorate for Gaza, as well as 20 other “terrorists” inside the medical complex from which they were allegedly operating. One Israeli soldier was killed in the operation, according to an IDF spokesperson.

Gaza’s health ministry accused Israeli forces of “committing another crime against health institutions”, saying they had trapped people inside the surgery and emergency units of one of the hospital’s buildings and caused “deaths and injuries”.

“It’s impossible to rescue anyone due to the intensity of the fire and targeting of anyone approaching the windows,” the ministry said, adding that about 30,000 people, including the wounded and displaced, were “besieged” inside the compound.

Israel previously raided al-Shifa in Gaza City in November, forcing thousands of people who had sought sanctuary at the hospital to flee. That raid drew widespread condemnation from aid agencies as Israel’s air, land and sea offensive pushed Gaza’s health system towards a state of collapse.

Israel has alleged that the al-Shifa compound sits on top of a dense network of underground tunnels housing Hamas command centres. The hospital was one of the main focuses of Israeli forces’ ferocious offensive in northern Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, triggered the war.

Hamas has denied using the hospital for military purposes. Israeli troops blew up a large tunnel complex before withdrawing from the compound in late November. The hospital suffered damage but was able to partially function.

Israeli forces have largely pulled out of Gaza’s north as they have focused their offensive on the strip’s south.

UN aid agencies and humanitarian groups last month said Gaza’s health system “continues to be systematically degraded, with catastrophic consequences” and only 12 out of 36 hospitals in the strip partially functioning. The groups said in a joint statement there had been more than 370 attacks on healthcare in Gaza since October 7.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas in Gaza has killed almost 32,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials, displaced more than 85 per cent of the 2.3mn population and wrought devastation across the strip.

The humanitarian crisis has become particularly acute in northern Gaza, which has received minimal aid despite mounting warnings about the risk of famine and outbreak of disease. Civil order has largely broken down in the north, where about 300,000 people remain.

Famine is “imminent in northern Gaza, with expectations that it would arrive between now and May”, Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, wrote on X on Monday, alluding to a new report issued by the IPC, a multi-national food security initiative.

“This man-made starvation under our watch is a stain on our collective humanity,” he added, indicating that the Israeli authorities recently denied his entry into Gaza.  

As Israel’s offensive has devastated the strip, tens of thousands of people have taken sanctuary in hospital compounds.

The IDF said its troops had been instructed on the “importance of operating cautiously” during the raid on al-Shifa, “as well as on the measures to be taken to avoid harm to the patients, civilians, medical staff and medical equipment”.

The raid comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces increasing international pressure to halt the offensive and allow more aid into the strip.

Netanyahu hit back at criticism from the US and other western allies, accusing them of seeking to orchestrate elections that would “paralyse” the country and lead to its defeat in the war against Hamas.

Netanyahu and US President Joe Biden on Monday held their first phone call in a month, after the Israeli premier had vowed to press on with plans to expand the country’s military offensive into Rafah, the southern city to which more than 1mn displaced people have fled.

“We spoke about the latest developments in the war, including Israel’s commitment to achieving all the goals of the war: the elimination of Hamas, the release of all our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” Netanyahu said in a recorded video.

The White House said the two leaders spoke about “the latest developments in Israel and Gaza, including the situation in Rafah and efforts to surge humanitarian assistance to Gaza”.

Additional reporting by Steff Chávez in Washington

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