April 22nd, 2024

Heavy destruction at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, as Israeli troops end a 2-week raid

By Wafaa Shurafa, Samy Magdy And Tia Goldenberg, The Associated Press on April 1, 2024.

Palestinians carry a wounded person following an Israeli airstrike near the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Sunday, March 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – The Israeli military withdrew from Gaza’s largest hospital early Monday after a two-week raid that engulfed the facility and surrounding districts in fighting. Footage showed widespread devastation, with the facility’s main buildings reduced to burned-out husks.

The military has described the raid on Shifa Hospital as a major battlefield victory in the nearly six-month war, and officials said Israeli troops killed 200 militants in the operation, though the claim that they were all militants could not be confirmed.

The raid came at a time of mounting frustration in Israel, with tens of thousands protesting Sunday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demanding that he do more to bring home dozens of hostages held in Gaza. It was the largest anti-government demonstration since the start of the war.

Elsewhere, Syrian officials and state media said an Israeli airstrike destroyed the Iran’s consulate in Syria, killing two Iranian generals and five officers.

The strike appears to signify an escalation of Israel’s targeting of Iranian military officials and their allies in Syria. The targeting has intensified since Hamas militants – who are supported by Iran – attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

While Iran’s consular building was leveled in the attack, according to Syria’s SANA state news agency, its main embassy building remained intact.

Israel, which rarely acknowledges such strikes, said it had no comment. Iran’s ambassador, Hossein Akbari, vowed revenge for the attack “at the same magnitude and harshness.”

In other developments, Netanyahu said he would shut down satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera immediately. Netanyahu vowed to close the “terror channel” after parliament passed a law Monday clearing the way for the country to halt the Qatari-owned channel from broadcasting from Israel.

Netanyahu accused Al Jazeera of harming Israeli security, participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and inciting violence against Israel.

Al Jazeera condemned his remarks, calling them “a dangerous and ridiculous lie” and saying they were Netanyahu’s justification “for the ongoing assault” on the media network and press freedom. In a statement, the network vowed to persist in its reporting with “boldness and professionalism.”

The hospital raid gutted a facility that had once been the heart of Gaza’s health care system but which doctors and staff had struggled to get even partially operating again after a previous Israeli assault in November.

Israel said it launched the latest raid on Shifa because senior Hamas operatives had regrouped there and were planning attacks. Israeli authorities identified six officials from Hamas’ military wing they said were killed inside the hospital during the raid. Israel also said it seized weapons and valuable intelligence.

In all, the military said it killed 200 militants inside and outside Shifa, though it provided no evidence all were militants.

The raid triggered days of heavy fighting for blocks around Shifa, with witnesses reporting airstrikes, the shelling of homes and troops going house to house to force residents to leave.

After the troops withdrew, hundreds of Palestinians returned to search for lost loved ones or examine the damage.

Among the dead were Ahmed Maqadma and his mother – both doctors at Shifa – and his cousin, said Dr. Ghassan Abu Sitta, a Palestinian-British doctor who volunteered at Shifa and other hospitals during the first months of the war before returning to Britain.

The fate of the three had been unknown since they talked by phone with family as they tried to leave Shifa nearly a week ago and the line suddenly went dead. On Monday, relatives found their bodies with gunshot wounds about a block from the hospital, said Abu Sitta, who is in touch with the family.

Mohammed Mahdi, who was among those who returned to the area, described a scene of “total destruction.” He said several buildings had been burned down and that he counted six bodies in the area, including two in the hospital courtyard, though it was not clear when they died.

Video footage circulating online showed the main buildings of Shifa charred and heavily damaged. Several witnesses said army bulldozers had plowed up a mass grave that had been dug in November in Shifa’s courtyard, leaving many bodies exposed.

At least 21 patients died during the raid, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus posted late Sunday on X, formerly Twitter.

He said over 100 patients were still inside the compound during the operation, including four children, 28 critical patients and many who suffered from infected wounds and dehydration.

The military denied that its forces harmed any civilians inside the compound. Israel has accused Hamas of using hospitals for military purposes and has raided many hospitals across the territory.

Critics accuse the army of recklessly endangering civilians and of decimating a health sector already overwhelmed with wounded.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the top military spokesman, said Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group established their main northern headquarters inside the hospital. He described days of close-quarters fighting and blamed Hamas for the destruction, saying some fighters barricaded themselves inside hospital wards while others launched mortar rounds at the compound.

Hagari said the troops arrested some 900 suspected militants during the raid, including more than 500 Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters, and seized over $3 million in different currencies, as well as weapons.

He said the army evacuated more than 200 of the estimated 300 to 350 patients and delivered food, water and medical supplies to the rest. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid, the military said.

The war began on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 people hostage.

Israel responded with an air, land and sea offensive that has killed at least 32,845 Palestinians, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count. The Israeli military blames the civilian toll on Palestinian militants because they fight in dense residential areas.

The war has displaced most of the territory’s population and driven a third of its residents to the brink of famine. Northern Gaza, where Shifa is located, has suffered vast destruction and has been largely isolated since October, leading to widespread hunger.

Meanwhile, a second shipment of food aid arrived by sea in the latest test of a new maritime route from the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus. One of the three boats could be seen off the coast, and Cyprus’ foreign minister said they had received permission to unload. The precise mechanism of delivery was not yet clear.

Netanyahu has vowed to keep up the offensive until Hamas is destroyed and all hostages are freed. He says Israel will soon expand ground operations to the southern city of Rafah, where some 1.4 million people – more than half of Gaza’s population – have sought refuge.

But he faces mounting pressure from Israelis who blame him for the security failures of Oct. 7 and from some families of the hostages who blame him for the failure to reach a deal despite several weeks of talks mediated by the United States, Qatar and Egypt. Allied countries, including main backer the United States, have warned him against an invasion of Rafah.

Hamas and other militants are still believed to be holding some 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others, after freeing most of the rest during a cease-fire last November in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

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Magdy reported from Cairo and Goldenberg from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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Find more of AP’s war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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