KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Battles between Israel and Hamas around hospitals forced thousands of Palestinians to flee from some of the last perceived safe places in northern Gaza, stranding critically wounded patients, 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 stated goal of separating civilians from Hamas militants has come at a heavy cost: More than two-thirds of Gaza's 2.3 million people have fled their homes.
Thousands fled Gaza's Shifa Hospital over the weekend as Israeli troops encircled it, and doctors said gunfire and explosions raged all around it Monday. Israeli troops appear to be only a few blocks away from the facility.
Hundreds of patients and displaced people remain in the hospital, officials say. Shifa “is not functioning as a hospital anymore,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that Shifa “must be protected.”
“It is my hope and expectation that there will be less intrusive action,” Biden said in the Oval Office.
After power went out for Shifa’s incubators days ago, the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza released a photo on Monday 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 the health ministry's director general, Medhat Abbas, who added that four of the babies had been delivered by cesarean section after their mothers died.
The Red Cross was attempting Monday to evacuate some 6,000 patients, staff and displaced people from a second hospital, Al-Quds, after it shut down for lack of fuel, but it said its convoy had to turn back because of shelling and fighting.
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, whose response has led to thousands of deaths — and much destruction — across 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 and released maps showing where it says they are located in the complex. But it has provided little evidence.
Both Hamas and Shifa hospital staff deny the Israeli allegations.
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 with an RPG launcher entering Al-Quds hospital. An Israeli tank was stationed nearby.
Israeli officials recently released photos and footage showing what they described as gunmen firing from inside another hospital and the opening of tunnel next to it, though staff said it was the entrance to the facility's underground fuel tank. They also have shared footage of militants operating in residential neighborhoods and positioning rockets and weapons near schools, hospitals and mosques.
International law gives hospitals special protections during war. But hospitals can lose those protections if combatants use them to hide fighters or store weapons, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.