Gaza patients trapped in ‘circle of death’ – Why is Israel fixated on Al Shifa hospital?

Estimated read time 4 min read

Reuters reports, Israeli forces reached the gates of Gaza City’s main hospital on Monday, the primary target in their battle to seize control of the northern half of the Gaza Strip, where medics said patients including newborn babies were dying for lack of fuel.

Israel unleased relentless bombing in the densely populated Gaza Strip in retaliation to the Hamas attack, and cited ‘self defense’ and the requirement to eliminate any further ‘threat’ from Hamas fighters. The bombardment that has been going on for at least 39 days saw over 11,100 civilians die, many displaced injured, and many more missing. 

“We are besieged and are inside a circle of death,” Dr Ahmed El Mokhallalati told Reuters. 

Netanyahu’s Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has been targeting Gaza‘s biggest hospital Al-Shifa alleging that the Hamas has constructed bunkers underneath and have been operating from the healthcare facility. The bombing of Gaza’s hospitals has been condemned by world leaders who have pressured Netanyahu to not target civilians. 

“The United States does not want to see firefights in hospitals where innocent people, patients receiving medical care, are caught in the crossfire and we’ve had active consultations with the Israeli Defence Forces on this,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS News in an interview.

However, the bombing of Al-Shifa remains a political and diplomatic risk for the Netanyahu administration. 

Destroying the ability of Hamas to govern Gaza is one of the stated aims of the Israeli offensive.

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“In this war we have to dismantle the elements of Hamas that will prevent Hamas from becoming a military threat again or a government again,” said Prof Kobi Michael of the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

“We cannot deal with the ideology by bombing or shooting. This requires different means … It is not connected to the immediate objectives of this war. Right now we have to deal with the military and political entity.”

Al Shifa assumes importance because the sprawling complex dominates the centre of Gaza City, where Hamas has much of its administrative infrastructure, and is close to the main north-south road that runs along the coast.

650 patients, 500 healthcare workers, and an estimated 2,500 displaced people remain inside the Al-Shifa hospital compound.

The figures are lower than those issued at the weekend, when it was reported that 1,500 patients, 1,500 medical workers, and 7,000 displaced people were there.

Israeli officials have said they do not target medical facilities and repeatedly claimed the headquarters of Hamas is sited in bunkers under al-Shifa and that the militant Islamist organisation is using patients, medical staff and thousands displaced by the fighting as “human shields.” Hamas rejects the claims.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has denied that Israel is striking Gaza’s largest hospital. Reports from staff at Al-Shifa suggest the facility, sheltering thousands of Palestinians, has run out of electricity. But Herzog said “everything is operating” at the hospital.

Mass-market newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, columnist Avi Issacharoff said that, despite the mounting Israeli casualties in Gaza, something that began as the biggest military failure in Israel’s history had become a relatively successful military campaign. But, he added: “One cannot ignore the fact that before our very eyes this is turning into one of the biggest diplomatic disasters we have ever known.”

Israeli military planners are well aware that international pressure has earlier halted Israeli offensives or counterattacks in a series of previous wars. In 1967 and the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the Israel Defence Forces rushed to make gains in the final hours before ceasefires were imposed.

In 1982, the US president, Ronald Reagan, told the prime minister, Menachem Begin, to halt the intensive shelling and bombing of Beirut, leading Israeli hawks to claim that international pressure had deprived them of a conclusive victory against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization.

There are few signs that the current Israeli government is about to make any such concession to the entreaties of Israel’s allies.

In typically bullish style, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said his country had offered fuel to Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, which has suspended operations during the fierce fighting with Hamas but that the militant group had refused to receive it. 

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Updated: 13 Nov 2023, 06:33 PM IST

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