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Israeli forces clash near Gaza hospital amid premature babies’ evacuation

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Intense clashes broke out on Monday around a hospital in northern Gaza, where thousands of patients and displaced individuals have sought refuge for weeks.

A man carries a child injured in an Israeli strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestine, Nov. 20, 2023. (AFP Photo)
A man carries a child injured in an Israeli strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip,
Palestine, Nov. 20, 2023. (AFP Photo)

Israeli forces are concentrating efforts on clearing medical facilities, asserting that Hamas members use them as cover. The advance on the Indonesian Hospital came a day after the World Health Organization (WHO) evacuated 31 premature babies from Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the territory’s largest, where they were among more than 250 critically ill or wounded patients stranded there days after Israeli forces entered the compound.

The plight of Gaza’s hospitals is the focus of a battle of narratives over the war’s brutal toll on Palestinian civilians, thousands of whom have been killed or buried in rubble since the six-week-old war was sparked by Hamas’ Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel.

Israel says Hamas uses civilians as human shields, while critics say Israel’s siege and relentless aerial bombardment amount to collective punishment of the territory’s 2.3 million Palestinians.

Marwan Abdallah, a medical worker at the Indonesian Hospital, said Israeli tanks were visible from the windows. “You can see them moving around and firing,” he said. “Women and children are terrified. There are constant sounds of explosions and gunfire.”

Abdallah said the hospital had received dozens of dead and wounded in airstrikes and shelling overnight.

He said medical staff and displaced people fear Israel will besiege the hospital and force its evacuation.

Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra, who is now based in southern Gaza, said Israeli forces struck the hospital, killing at least 12 people.

It was not possible to independently confirm the report. He said some 600 patients, 200 health care workers, and 2,000 displaced people were sheltering there.

The Israeli military, which rarely publicizes troop movements, had no immediate comment.

U.N. bodies were able to safely evacuate the babies, who were in critical condition, from Al-Shifa to a hospital in southern Gaza and plan to transport them to a hospital in neighboring Egypt.

Four other babies died in the two days before the evacuation, according to Mohamed Zaqout, the director of Gaza hospitals.

Over 250 patients with severely infected wounds and other urgent conditions remain in Al-Shifa, which could no longer provide most treatment after it ran out of water, medical supplies and fuel for emergency generators amid a territory-wide blackout.

Israeli forces battled Hamas outside its gates for days before entering the facility last Wednesday.

Israel’s army said it had strong evidence supporting its claims that Hamas maintained a sprawling command post inside and under the hospital’s 20-acre complex, which includes several buildings, garages and a plaza.

Hamas and hospital staff have denied the allegations of a command post under Al-Shifa. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed the latest announcement, saying, “The Israelis said there was a command and control center, which means that the matter is greater than just a tunnel.”

Israel has repeatedly ordered Palestinians to leave northern Gaza and seek refuge in the south, which has also been under aerial bombardment since the start of the war. Some 1.7 million people, nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s population, have been displaced, with 900,000 packing into crowded U.N.-run shelters, according to the U.N.