Israeli troops entered Gaza's biggest hospital 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 have the "beating heart" of their operations in a headquarters in tunnels beneath it, which Hamas denies.
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.
Israel said its troops killed fighters in a clash outside the gates before entering and had brought medical supplies for those inside.
"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," the Israeli military said.
Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone Wednesday morning that staff were in hiding as the fighting unfolded outside the hospital overnight. The sound of what he described as "continuous shooting from the tanks" could be heard in the background as he spoke.
"The sound was really horrible," he said.
"And then we realized that the tanks are moving around the hospital. 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."
The Israelis had told the hospital administration in advance they planned to enter and search it, he said, adding troops had yet to enter the main building where he was sheltering.
After five days during which he said the hospital had come under 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 was worried about the fate of his patients, including from any hasty evacuation, 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 and he was remaining in hiding.
U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths wrote on X: "Our concern on the humanitarian side is for the welfare of the patients of that hospital, which is of course, in great peril at the moment."
"I understand the Israelis’ concern for trying to find the leadership of Hamas, that’s not our problem. Our problem is protecting the people of Gaza from what’s being visited upon them," he wrote.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the raid was essential: "Based on intelligence information and an operational necessity, IDF forces are carrying out a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa hospital."
Israel had given Hamas a 12-hour deadline to cease military activity at the hospital, it said: "Unfortunately, it did not."
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told CNN the hospital and compound were for Hamas "a central hub of their operations, perhaps even the beating heart and maybe even a center of gravity."
The United States said Tuesday that its own intelligence supported Israel's conclusions about the presence of a Hamas headquarters at Al Shifa.
Hamas terrorists said that amounted to giving Israel a "green light" for Israel to raid the hospital, making President Joe Biden fully responsible alongside Israel itself for a "war crime."
Medical personnel and the multitude of internally displaced people are now facing a "barbaric assault" on a health facility safeguarded by the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Hamas statement said. Israel says Hamas fighters are to blame for harm to civilians by hiding among them.
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 into Gaza. 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.
Israeli ground forces entered at the end of October and had gradually tightened their circle around the Shifa complex. The reported deaths of newborn babies in recent days added to international alarm.
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