Israeli troops conducted a building-by-building search of Gaza’s main hospital, as a new communications blackout in the area on Friday heightened fears for Palestinian civilians trapped inside the facility.
Israel’s brutal aerial bombardment and ground operation have killed more than 11,500 Palestinians, including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
Al-Shifa hospital has become the focus of Israeli operations in northern Gaza since soldiers stormed the compound on Wednesday in search of a command center they say Hamas operates there. In the multi-day search, Israeli forces found no evidence of military activity at the hospital.
Hamas and hospital managers deny that charge, and there has been international concern about several thousand people — including injured patients and premature babies — believed to be trapped inside.
A photo taken from the border between Israel and Gaza shows smoke billowing during Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip. PHOTO: AFP
Israeli authorities defended their operation and the military claimed on Thursday to have found rifles, ammunition, explosives and the entrance to a tunnel shaft in Al-Shifa.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly held hostage at the medical facility.
“We had strong indications that they were being held at Sifa Hospital, which is one of the reasons we entered the hospital,” he told CBS Evening News. “If it was [there]they came out,” he said.
The claims about the hospital have not been verified, and on Friday communications with the Gaza Strip were cut off once again.
Network operator Paltel Group said all telecommunications were down because “all energy sources sustaining the network have been exhausted and no fuel was allowed to enter”.
The UN has warned that the blackout will worsen civilian misery, complicating aid distribution efforts and possibly sparking looting of its supplies.
“When you have a blackout and you can no longer communicate with anyone … it causes and fuels even more anxiety and panic,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees UNRWA.
Israel said its forces were searching Al-Shifa “one building at a time” and claimed the body of a female hostage was discovered in a building nearby.
Negotiations continue for the release of the prisoners in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.
Qatar, where Hamas has political offices, and Egypt are mediating what Egypt’s foreign minister described Thursday as “very delicate” talks.
“We are optimistic that our efforts and the efforts of others will bring about a speedy release,” said Sameh Shoukry.
On the ground, conditions are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinian civilians, UN agencies have warned.
More than 1.5 million people have been internally displaced and Israel’s blockade of the territory means “civilians face the immediate possibility of starvation,” said World Food Program Executive Director Cindy McCain.
Food and water have become “practically non-existent”, the agency added, with Lazzarini describing children housed at a UN school “begging for a sip of water or a loaf of bread”.
Israel’s ground operation has so far focused on the northern part of the Gaza Strip, where it has announced the seizure of the parliament building, government offices, Hamas police headquarters and a key port. It reports that 51 of its soldiers have been killed in the fighting.
Hospitals have become a particular target, with Israel bombing medical facilities without cause or justification.
Palestinian health officials said on Thursday that Al-Ahli Hospital was attacked, with the Palestinian Red Crescent saying that victims in the courtyard could not be reached by medical staff due to explosions and gunfire.
Washington has backed Israel’s claims that Hamas is using hospitals as command centers, while urging businesses to be “extremely cautious”.
More than half of Gaza’s hospitals are no longer functioning, either due to fighting, damage or shortages, and Israel’s raid on Al-Shifa caused extensive damage to the radiology, burns and dialysis unit, the health ministry said.
With international concern about the conflict growing, the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution calling for an “urgent and comprehensive humanitarian pause” in the fighting.
But the resolution — passed with abstentions from the United States, Britain and Russia — was rejected by Israel as “out of touch with reality.”
Alongside the conflict in Gaza, there is growing concern about violence in the West Bank, where violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians has increased.
Israeli troops during the invasion of the Gaza Strip. PHOTO: AFP
In an attack claimed by Hamas, three gunmen on Thursday killed one Israeli soldier and wounded five others at a checkpoint leading into Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Overnight, a large deployment of Israeli troops stormed the Jenin refugee camp, AFP journalists there said, sparking clashes. Israel’s military did not immediately comment.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Thursday urged Israel to take “urgent” action to “de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including addressing rising levels of extremist violence by settlers,” the State Department said.
Elsewhere, Israeli warplanes again struck targets near the Syrian capital, Syria’s state-run news agency reported. The strikes caused damage, but there were no reports of casualties.
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