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Israel forces storm Shifa Hospital in Gaza

JERUSALEM — After weeks of warning about Hamas ties to medical facilities, Israeli military forces swept into Gaza’s largest hospital before dawn Wednesday, all but severing outside communication to the Palestinian medical staff and patients who were trapped inside the besieged compound along with thousands of displaced families.

Israeli officials described a “precise and targeted” mission aimed at the Hamas militants they accuse of operating a warren of tunnels beneath the al-Shifa Hospital complex, a charge the group denies. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, citing intelligence sources, said Tuesday that Hamas and other militants “used some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including al-Shifa, and tunnels underneath them, to conceal and support their military operations and to hold hostages.”

Palestinian officials called the storming of the hospital a “crime against humanity” that leaves terrified civilians to uncertain fates in a medical facility that already was running on fumes after days of intense bombardment by the encroaching forces.

The move immediately drew alarm from international humanitarian groups. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the agency had “lost touch again with health personnel at the hospital” Wednesday morning and was “extremely worried” for the safety of the hospital and its patients. U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “appalled” by the reports, adding: “Hospitals are not battlegrounds.”

The Biden administration said it would not comment on Israel’s military maneuvers but, in a statement just after the operation began, repeated President Biden’s remarks earlier this week that Gaza’s hospitals “must be protected.”

Hamas criticized the operation and blamed the White House for what it called a “green light” to enter the hospital and endanger civilians.

The Gaza Health Ministry said it received a warning from the Israel Defense Forces shortly before the early-morning operation, which many had viewed as inevitable since Israel said Hamas activity at the hospital was a top target in its war against the militants who carried out a deadly surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 that triggered the conflict.

Omar Zaqout, head of the emergency department, told Al Jazeera television that the hospital had endured a night of nonstop shooting and explosions before Israeli forces “blasted” into the compound, sending shrapnel into buildings where patients and displaced families were being housed.

“No one can even dangle a finger outside the window from the fear of the heavy shooting and the artillery shells,” Zaqout told the channel. “We lack the most basic of life necessities.”

An Israeli military statement said troops “encountered explosives and terrorist squads” in the fight for entry into Shifa. Witness reports cited by Al Jazeera said Israeli soldiers had fanned out to search the compound.

By midday, there was no sign that any of the more than 240 Israeli hostages seized by Hamas and its allies on Oct. 7 had been found at the site, according to Israeli Army Radio, a military-run outlet. The report said at least five militants had been killed; there were no Israeli casualties. “No friction has been recorded so far between the troops and any of the patients or medical staff,” the report said.

Footage from the Reuters news agency showed thick smoke wafting through one section of the hospital as medical workers wheezed and coughed, some of them pulling scrubs and masks over their mouths as they moved through damaged hallways. The video also showed patients, including one who appeared to be a child, being wheeled on stretchers through clouds of smoke.

Ahmed al-Mokhallalati, a doctor at al-Shifa Hospital, told The Washington Post by phone about 3:30 a.m. local time that for the past few hours, there had been “continuous shootings and bombings around the hospital.” Sounds of explosions could be heard on the call, increasingly loud as if coming closer.

Mokhallalati said he saw Israeli tanks surrounding the complex about four hours earlier. He said it was too dangerous to look out the window to determine the precise location of Israeli forces.

“We don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “We don’t know what their plan is.”

A video from the Health Ministry, published by Reuters, showed doctors inside the hospital saying that electricity had been cut off “completely,” making laboratory equipment inoperable and spoiling samples in the blood bank. One of the doctors, Shadi Issam Radi, said he had worked in the hospital’s intensive care unit for seven years, continuing even after his wife was killed in the war three weeks ago.

“I was obliged to bring the children with me, and I am still working,” Radi said in the video, his eyes sunken and his arms around his two young sons, who squirmed and looked frightened.

Zaqout, head of the ER, said in a statement that Israeli forces “blew up most of the hospital gates” before entering. He added that detentions were underway, with people “blindfolded and stripped of their clothes” before being led away.

With the collapse of communications systems and no access for journalists, there was no way for The Post to independently confirm conditions on the ground.

Since Friday, no ambulances have been allowed to reach al-Shifa Hospital, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said Tuesday. Some 700 patients were still present at the site, along with more than 400 health workers and about 3,000 displaced people who had sought refuge there, according to the latest United Nations figures.

Speaking on a choppy line from the complex early Wednesday, Qudra told The Post that only civilians were at the hospital and rejected claims to the contrary.

Israeli and U.S. intelligence assessments allege that Hamas operates a subterranean command center at the complex, using the injured and displaced as human shields.

Hamas has accused the IDF of targeting health facilities to cut off a lifeline for residents and to exact revenge for the group’s brutal assault, which killed more than 1,200 Israelis. The few medical and aid workers still left in northern Gaza have denied allegations that militants are using them for cover.

The battle around Shifa is the culmination of weeks of increasingly grave conditions at the compound and other Palestinian medical facilities, which have been overwhelmed by casualties and hampered by the lack of basic services. More than half of the hospitals in Gaza are no longer functional, according to the World Health Organization.

Fuel scarcity and damage to cellphone networks has led to a breakdown in communication that makes it impossible to accurately count the dead. Gaza’s main telephone and internet providers, Paltel and Jawwal, expect a complete communications blackout to hit the enclave “in the coming hours” as backup batteries powering infrastructure run out.

The Healthy Ministry stopped updating its tally on Friday at 11,078 but estimates that many more have died since then. There have been strikes on the Jabalya refugee camp in the north and in Khan Younis in the south since the counting stopped.

Human Rights Watch said Israel’s repeated attacks on medical facilities, personnel and transport “should be investigated as war crimes.” In a report Tuesday, the New York-based group said concerns about “disproportionate attacks are magnified for hospitals. Even the threat of an attack or minor damage can have massive life-or-death implications for patients and caregivers.”

Dadouch reported from Beirut, Allam from Cairo. Adela Suliman and Hajar Harb in London contributed to this report.

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