By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) -Israeli troops entered Gaza’s biggest hospital on Wednesday and were searching its rooms and basement, witnesses said, culminating a days-long siege that caused global alarm over the fate of thousands of civilians trapped inside.
Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City has become the main target of the ground operation by Israeli forces, who say Hamas fighters located the “beating heart” of their operations in a headquarters in tunnels beneath it, which Hamas denies.
Israel said its troops uncovered unspecified weapons and “terror infrastructure” inside the hospital compound after killing fighters in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there had been no fighting and no friction with civilians, patients or staff.
Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound on Wednesday described a situation that appeared calm, if tense, as the Israeli troops moved between buildings carrying out searches. Sporadic shooting was heard but there were no immediate reports of anyone hurt inside the grounds.
The Israeli military released photos of a soldier standing beside cardboard boxes marked “medical supplies” and “baby food”, at a location Reuters verified was inside the facility. Other photos showed Israeli troops in tactical formation walking past makeshift tents and mattresses.
World attention has been focused on the fate of hundreds of patients trapped inside without power to operate basic medical equipment, and thousands of displaced civilians who had sought shelter there. Gaza officials say many patients including three newborn babies died in recent days as a result of Israel’s encirclement of the facility.
“Before entering the hospital our forces were confronted by explosive devices and terrorist squads, fighting ensued in which terrorists were killed,” the Israeli military said.
“We can confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies brought by IDF tanks from Israel have successfully reached the Shifa hospital. Our medical teams and Arabic speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure that these supplies reach those in need,” it said.
A senior military official said: “IDF soldiers have already found weapons and other terror infrastructure. In the last hour, we saw concrete evidence that Hamas terrorists used the Shifa hospital as a terror headquarter.”
Hamas called the claim that weapons were found “a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda through which (Israel) is trying to give justification for its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza”.
Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone on Wednesday morning that staff had hid as the fighting unfolded around the hospital overnight. As he spoke, the sound of what he described as “continuous shooting from the tanks” could be heard in the background.
“One of the big tanks entered within the hospital from the eastern main gate, and they were, they were they just parked in the front of the hospital emergency department,” he said.
The Israelis had told the hospital administration in advance that they planned to enter, he said. By mid morning, he and other staff had yet to receive instructions from the troops, although the soldiers were “metres away” from them.
“They have been moving between the buildings where the troops can be seen, within the hospital areas. So, it’s getting more and more close to our building. We don’t know what they want exactly,” he said. “The tanks are continuously moving within the hospital area.”
After five days during which he said the hospital had come under repeated Israeli attack, it was a relief at least to have reached an “end point”, with troops now inside the grounds instead of outside shooting in, he said.
He was worried about the fate of his patients but unconcerned about potential clashes in the compound, saying Israeli claims that there were fighters inside had been a “big lie”.
The Israelis had used “all kinds of weapons” and “targeted the hospital directly” during their siege, he said, describing a large hole that had been blasted through the wall of a room in an outpatient building.
Another witness inside the hospital, reached by telephone, said tanks had entered the compound at 3:00 a.m. The Israeli troops dismounted and spread out in the yard, and began searching the basement and entering buildings.
“It was very dangerous looking from the glass window. The administration of the hospital told us the occupation army informed them they wanted to search us and search room by room. I am very scared,” the man said, asking that his name be withheld for fear of Israeli reprisals.
“There was no shooting because there were no gunmen inside the facility. The soldiers were acting freely as were people inside the hospital, the doctors, the wounded and the displaced,” the man said. He later told Reuters that gunfire could occasionally be heard.
‘HOSPITALS ARE NOT BATTLEGROUNDS’
U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths wrote on X that “Hospitals are not battlegrounds”.
“The protection of newborns, patients, medical staff and all civilians must override all other concerns.”
Israel has consistently maintained that the hospital sits above a Hamas headquarters, an assertion that Washington said on Tuesday was supported by its own intelligence.
The hospital and compound were for for Hamas “a central hub of their operations, perhaps even the beating heart,” Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said.
Israel launched its campaign to annihilate Hamas, the Islamist militant group which controls Gaza, after fighters crossed into Israel on Oct. 7, rampaging through towns, killing civilians and dragging hostages back to the enclave. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken in the deadliest day in its 75-year history.
Since then, Israel has put Gaza’s entire population of 2.3 million under siege, pounding the crowded strip with air strikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say more than 11,000 Palestinians are confirmed killed, around 40% of them children, and more are buried under the rubble. Israel has ordered the entire northern half of Gaza evacuated, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.
Israel has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, which it says would benefit Hamas, a position backed by Washington. However, a pause in fighting has been discussed in negotiations mediated by Qatar to release some of the hostages held by Hamas.
An official briefed on the negotiations said Qatari mediators were seeking a deal that would include a three-day truce, with Hamas releasing 50 of its captives and Israel to release some women and minors from among its security detainees. The official said Hamas had agreed to the outlines of the deal but Israel had not and was still negotiating terms.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Maayan Lubell, James Mackenzie and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Abir Al Ahmar and Claudia Tanos in Dubai; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)