Health officials said 31 premature babies in "extremely critical condition" were transferred safely Sunday from Gaza's main hospital and will go to Egypt, while over 250 patients with severely infected wounds and other urgent conditions remained stranded days after Israeli forces entered the compound to look for Hamas operations there.
The plight of the babies, along with Israeli claims against Shifa Hospital, have become potent symbols in the devastating war between Israel and Hamas. An Israeli offensive has taken a heavy toll on Palestinian civilians, while Israel has accused Hamas of using Shifa and other hospitals as headquarters for military operations.
The newborns from the hospital, where power was cut and supplies ran out while Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants outside, were receiving urgent care in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. They had dehydration, hypothermia and sepsis in some cases, said Mohamed Zaqout, director of Gaza hospitals. Four other babies died in the two days before the evacuation, he said.
31 premature babies at Al-Shifa Hospital, which stopped providing services due to Israeli attacks, are transferred to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Hospital in Rafah, Gaza on November 19, 2023. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)
A World Health Organization team that visited Shifa for an hour Saturday said hospital corridors were filled with medical and solid waste, increasing the risk of infection for patients who were "terrified for their safety and health, and pleaded for evacuation." Twenty-five staff stayed behind.
The U.N. agency said the vast majority of patients had amputations, burns or other trauma, and many wounds were severely infected, with antibiotics unavailable. Missions were being planned to evacuate the remaining people to southern Gaza in the next 24-72 hours, "pending guarantees of safe passage," the WHO said.
Later Sunday, Israel’s army said it had strong evidence supporting its claims that Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under Shifa. Israel has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end Hamas’ rule in Gaza following the militant group’s wide-ranging attack into southern Israel six weeks ago.
The army said it found a 55-meter (60-yard) tunnel about 10 meters under the hospital’s 20-acre complex, which includes several buildings, garages and a plaza. It said the tunnel included a staircase, blast-proof door and a firing hole that could be used by snipers.
The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify Israel’s findings, which included security camera video showing what the military said were two foreign hostages, one Thai and one Nepalese, taken to the hospital following the Oct. 7 attack.
The army also said an independent medical report had determined that a female Israeli soldier, Cpl. Noa Marciano, whose body was recovered in Gaza last week, had been killed by Hamas in the hospital. Marciano had earlier been injured in an Israeli strike Nov. 9 that killed her captor, according to Israel's intelligence assessment. The injuries were not life-threatening but she was then killed by a Hamas militant in Shifa, the army said.
Hamas and hospital staff earlier denied the allegations of a command post under Shifa. Critics describe the hospital as a symbol of what they call Israel’s reckless endangerment of civilians. Thousands in Gaza have been killed in Israeli strikes, and there are severe shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel in the besieged territory.
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed the Israeli military’s announcement and didn't deny that Gaza has hundreds of kilometers of tunnels. However, he said, "the Israelis said there was a command and control center, which means that the matter is greater than just a tunnel."