DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Battles around hospitals forced thousands of Palestinians to flee from some of the last shelters in northern Gaza, stranding critically wounded patients, including newborns, and their caregivers with dwindling supplies and no electricity, health officials said Monday.
The Israeli military has urged Palestinians to flee south on foot through what it calls safe corridors. But its purported drive to separate civilians from Hamas militants has come at a heavy cost, with more than two-thirds of the territory’s population of 2.3 million having already fled their homes.
Thousands fled Gaza’s Shifa Hospital over the weekend as Israeli troops encircled it, but hundreds of patients and displaced people remained, according to officials. Shifa “is not functioning as a hospital anymore,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. A second Gaza City hospital faces evacuations after running out of fuel.
Both sides have seized on the plight of hospitals, particularly Shifa’s, as a symbol of the larger war, now in its sixth week. The fighting was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack into Israel, and Israel’s response has brought unseen levels of death and destruction to Gaza.
For Palestinians, Shifa evokes the suffering of civilians. For weeks, staff running low on supplies have performed surgery there on war-wounded patients, including children, without anesthesia. Up until days ago, tens of thousands of people driven from their homes by airstrikes lived in and around the complex, hoping it would be safe.
Israel says Hamas shields itself among civilians, and that the hospital, Gaza’s largest, is a prime example. It says the militants have a command center in and beneath the medical compound. Israel has released maps and diagrams showing what it says are bunkers and other Hamas installations in and around Shifa, but has not provided any evidence.
Israeli officials recently released photos and footage showing what they described as the opening of a tunnel next to another hospital, as well as gunmen firing from inside the building. They also have shared footage of militants operating in residential neighborhoods and positioning rockets and weapons near schools, hospitals and mosques.
Both Hamas and Shifa hospital staff deny the Israeli allegations.
After power went out for Shifa’s incubators, the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza released a photo it says shows about a dozen premature babies wrapped in blankets together on a bed to keep them at a proper temperature. Otherwise, “they immediately die,” said ministry spokesman Medhat Abbas, who added that four of the babies had been delivered by cesarean section after their mothers died.
The Palestinians accuse Israel of firing recklessly toward hospitals, while Israel accuses Hamas of using the hospitals for cover. On Monday, Israel released a video showing what it said was a militant carrying an RPG launcher in front of Al-Quds hospital, the facility that ran out of fuel and was forced to shut down Sunday. An Israeli tank was stationed nearby.
Preparations are being made to evacuate some 6,000 patients, medics and displaced people from Al-Quds, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, which operates the facility.
After the exodus of people from Shifa over the weekend, about 650 patients and 500 staff remain in the hospital, along with around 2,500 displaced Palestinians sheltering inside the complex, said Mohammed Zaqout, the director of hospitals in Gaza.
The Health Ministry said 32 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. It said 36 babies, as well as other patients, are at risk of dying because life-saving equipment can’t function.
Medical Aid for Palestinians, a U.K.-based charity that has supported Shifa’s neonatal intensive care unit, said transferring critically ill infants is complex. “With ambulances unable to reach the hospital … and no hospital with capacity to receive them, there is no indication of how this can be done safely,” CEO Melanie Ward said. She said the only option was to pause the fighting and allow in fuel.
The military said it placed 300 liters (79 gallons) of fuel several blocks from the hospital, but Hamas militants prevented staff from reaching it. The Health Ministry disputed that, saying Israel refused its request that the Red Crescent bring them the fuel rather than staff venturing out to retrieve it. The fuel would have provided less than an hour of electricity, it said.
The U.S. has pushed for temporary pauses to allow wider distribution of badly needed aid. Israel has agreed only to daily windows during which civilians can flee northern Gaza along two main roads. It continues to strike what it says are militant targets across the territory, often killing women and children.
Tens of thousands of people remain in the north.
Saib Abu Hashish said he has been trapped on the ground floor of his family home along with 27 others in Gaza City, and they haven’t left the house in three days and are running out of food and water. He said their neighbors attempted to escape the area Sunday, but Israeli forces fired on them.
“We want to leave but we can’t because of the bombing,” he said by phone. “If we survive the bombing, we will die from hunger.”
Those who make it south face a host of other difficulties. U.N.-run shelters are overflowing, and the lack of fuel has paralyzed water treatment systems, leaving taps dry and sending sewage into the streets. Israel has barred the import of fuel for generators.
As of last Friday, more than 11,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths. About 2,700 people have been reported missing.
Health officials have not updated the toll, citing the difficulty of collecting information.
At least 1,200 people have died on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial Hamas attack. Palestinian militants are holding nearly 240 hostages seized in the raid, including men, women, children and older adults. The military says 44 soldiers have been killed in ground operations in Gaza.
About 250,000 Israelis have evacuated from communities near Gaza, where Palestinian militants still fire barrages of rockets, and along the northern border, where Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group repeatedly trade fire, including on Monday.
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