More than a month after the war in Gaza broke out, the fighting has one salient symbol: Al-Shifa Hospital in the western part of Gaza City. The combination of it being the largest, most important hospital in Gaza, a fast growing refugee camp for desperate Gazans of all ages, and a tool used by Hamas – as a vast human shield above the organization’s main command center – embodies the impossible challenge it presents for Israel.
Evidence accumulating since the war’s onset indicates that Al-Shifa has become the central headquarters for the Hamas leadership’s activity. In the past week the Israeli army has been laying the groundwork for justifying an attack on the medical center, by releasing almost daily evidence of the terror activity occurring beneath and around it, framing it as a war crime by Hamas.
Two weeks ago, IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari issued a statement saying that beneath the hospital lies Hamas’ central command headquarters, from where Hamas directs the fighting against Israel and where it stores arms and ammunition. The army also revealed that entry to the underground command centers is through a number of tunnel shafts both close to the hospital and inside the hospital wards, including internal medicine, dialysis and outpatient clinics.
Officials in Israel don’t deny that Israel is considering the possibility of bombing Al-Shifa or attacking it by air, despite the presence of patients, staff, and tens of thousands of Gazans in the compound.
The army also announced that Hamas is using the hospital’s electricity supply for itself. The IDF Spokesman also publicized recordings from interrogations of terrorists, in which the terrorists describe how Hamas commanders and terrorists hide in hospitals and move people and equipment around in civilian ambulances because Hamas knows that Al-Shifa is a “safe place that won’t be bombed.”
Displaced Palestinian children, who fled their house due to Israeli strikes, sit in a makeshift shelter at Al-Shifa hospital, November 5, 2023.Credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Al-Masri
There was also a recording of a conversation with an official in the Gazan health system who admits that Hamas is keeping more than 500,000 liters of fuel underneath the hospital, and that hundreds of the terrorists who took part in the October 7 massacre and fled back into Gaza are hiding out in the hospital.
A surprising number of Israeli physicians are well-acquainted with Al-Shifa. Since 2009, a delegation of doctors from Physicians for Human Rights has been visiting Al-Shifa monthly and performing each time, together with Al-Shifa physicians, 30 to 50 surgeries, including orthopedic, thoracic, kidney and cardiac cases. The delegations to Gaza are comprised solely of Arab physicians, at the instruction of the army and the Shin Bet security service. The delegations visiting West Bank hospitals include Jewish doctors, too.
The monthly visits had a dual goal: assisting local medical staff with relatively complicated surgeries and with cases that could not be referred to hospitals in the West Bank or Egypt, and also training the Gazan doctors to perform the surgeries themselves, as if it were a residency. “For example, a senior transplant surgeon from Israel instructs the local staff and performs kidney transplants together with them. After a few rounds like this, the local doctor can perform the kidney transplant independently,” explained Salah Haj Yahya, director of PHR’s mobile clinic and medical delegations to Gaza and the West Bank.
On ordinary days, there used to be 540 doctors, of various nationalities, working at Al-Shifa, but Salah Haj Yahya said that no more than 200 doctors remain.