Nearly 48 hours after entering Gaza’s largest medical complex, the Israeli military escorted New York Times journalists through a landscape of wartime destruction Thursday night to a stone and concrete pit on its grounds. with a ladder descending to the ground: evidence, he said, of a Hamas military facility beneath the hospital.
But Colonel Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s 7th Brigade, said Israeli forces, fearing booby traps, had not ventured into the Al-Shifa hospital shaft. He said it had been discovered earlier that day under a pile of sand on the complex’s northern perimeter.
In the darkness, it was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went, although the military said it had sent a drone at least several meters away. Electrical wiring was visible inside, along with a metal ladder.
The controlled visit will not resolve the question of whether Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that rules Gaza, has been using Al-Shifa hospital to hide weapons and command centers, as Israel has said.
The claim is central to Israel’s defense of the death toll caused by its military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 11,000 people, according to Gaza health officials. Israeli officials say the extreme loss of life has been caused in part by Hamas’s decision to hide its military fortifications and command centers within civilian infrastructure such as Al-Shifa.
Hamas denies the accusation and says Israel is committing war crimes by attacking civilian facilities such as hospitals.
The Israeli military has said that Hamas used a vast labyrinth of tunnels beneath the hospital as a secret base, but since announcing early Wednesday that its troops had entered the grounds, the army has yet to provide public documentation of such an extensive network. As the international community increasingly demands protection for civilians in Gaza, Israel is under pressure to prove that the hospital – and the network of tunnels it claimed to hide – were military targets important enough to justify the immense cost in lives. Palestinians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that Israeli forces had found evidence of their accusations about Al-Shifa. There were “many terrorists there,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio, but “they fled when our forces approached the hospital.”
“We found many weapons, many,” he added. “We found a lot of ammunition. We found bombs. “We found on level minus two a Hamas command and control center, with military coded encryption.”
Colonel Tsury earlier Friday acknowledged pressure on Israel to show evidence of Hamas activity at the hospital, but said it could be days before troops descended the shaft. He added that soldiers were methodically searching the compound and had discovered weapons, explosives and computers, as well as the body of an Israeli hostage in a nearby building. The army announced later that day that soldiers had found the body of a second hostage in a building near Al-Shifa.
Another military official said Israeli troops had captured and interrogated a Hamas operative at the hospital, but offered no further details.
To enter Gaza, two Times reporters and a photographer were forced to remain with Israeli troops during the visit. They agreed not to photograph the faces of most soldiers, landmarks, maps and certain details of weapons. The Times did not allow the Israeli military to leak its coverage before publication.
Times journalists were only allowed to see part of the sprawling Al-Shifa complex. The military refused to allow journalists to explore the hospital, or see or interview patients and medical staff remaining in the facility, saying it was not fully secured and that Hamas fighters could still be there.
Before the Israeli attack on Al-Shifa, the World Health Organization said it was no longer a functional hospital. Officials described desperate conditions: Food, medicine and anesthetics had virtually run out, and generators and life-saving equipment had been shut down for lack of fuel. About three dozen premature babies are at special risk, they said.
Colonel Tsury said the military had provided food, supplies and medical equipment to patients and doctors, a claim that could not immediately be verified.
The extent of damage to the hospital was not entirely clear. But its main emergency building appeared intact, with electricity, after a days-long siege that health officials said had resulted in increasingly dire conditions.
Gunshots rang out nearby during the Times’ visit, giving the impression of ongoing gunfights in nearby streets. To enter the hospital grounds, special forces agents escorted the journalists through the remains of a bombed building on the outskirts of the site; They said it was too dangerous to go through the front door.
Outside the hospital, the scale of the destruction had left parts of Gaza unrecognizable. Sections of the city’s seafront had been leveled, apartment blocks had been leveled by bombing and others leveled by air raids. Constant tank traffic had also turned the main coastal highway into a bumpy dirt road.