Al Shifa hospital, the largest and most advanced medical complex in the Gaza Strip, is increasingly a flashpoint in the month-old Israel-Hamas war.
On Friday, at least one strike hit inside the hospital complex as fighting in Gaza City intensified between Israel and Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules the Gaza Strip. The territory’s health ministry claimed that it was an Israeli airstrike that killed one person. The Israeli military declined to comment immediately on any of the claims, and both the source of the blast and the extent of the damage were not yet clear.
Not long after the latest war began, Al Shifa served as a refuge for tens of thousands of displaced Gazans seeking a degree of safety from Israel’s punishing air bombardment, unleashed after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and killed about 1,400 people.
Just a couple weeks ago, more than 60,000 displaced people were sheltering there. But it now appears that many of them have left as it has grown clearer that the Israeli military regards Al Shifa as a possible threat, and perhaps a target.
Israel has long maintained that Al Shifa is used as a Hamas war room and that Hamas’s leaders hide under the hospital. The Israeli military has repeatedly singled out Al Shifa in statements in recent weeks, saying that the hospital provides cover for a Hamas military compound.
This has raised fears that Israeli forces were preparing the groundwork for an attack on Al Shifa.
Late last month, for the first time, the Israeli military publicly laid out where it said specific installations were hidden in Al Shifa, based on what it said was intelligence. The Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters that Hamas “does its command and control in different departments of the hospital.”
Admiral Hagari played a recording of a call, whose origins he did not specify, in which an unidentified man told a woman that Hamas’s military headquarters were below the hospital. He said these disclosures were part of a continuing effort to “expose” Hamas’s “exploitation of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.”
Salama Marouf, the head of the Hamas-run Gaza government media office, denied the accusation in a news conference, saying Israel had “failed to provide a single piece of evidence” supporting its claims about Al Shifa. He called the recording Admiral Hagari cited “fabricated.”
The Israeli authorities have also released videos that they say show Palestinian prisoners who were involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel speaking about Hamas’s use of Al Shifa.
Israel has long viewed civilian infrastructure like malls and places of worship as legitimate targets for its strikes, saying Hamas uses civilians as human shields by running operations in, around and underneath such places. And it says that when attacking, it tries to limit harm to civilians.
Gaza’s hospitals are collapsing under the weight of Israel’s onslaught on the territory, coupled with a siege that has made food, water, fuel and medicine extremely scarce. Some hospitals have been forced to perform surgeries, including amputations and brain operations, without anesthesia.
Ghassan Abu Sittah, a British-Palestinian doctor who was at Al Shifa until Thursday, described chaotic scenes at an overburdened hospital in a war zone. “The place had that feel of mayhem, where things are out of control,” Dr. Abu Sittah said. “A lot of the doctors have left, as well as the internally displaced.”
“A lot of the patients who can walk have been moved to be with their families,” he added. “But there are a lot of people who can’t be moved.”