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Published November 20, 2023

Israel battles Hamas near another Gaza hospital sheltering thousands

By Wafaa Shurafa, Samy Magdy And Jack Jeffery in Deir el-Balah - The Associated Press

Israeli forces pressed their offensive against Hamas in northern Gaza on Monday, battling militants around a hospital where thousands of patients and displaced people have been sheltering for weeks, raising Palestinian fears of another painful standoff and evacuation of a medical facility.

A medical worker inside the facility and the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said a shell struck the second floor of the Indonesian Hospital, killing 12 people. Both blamed Israel, which denied firing a shell at the hospital, saying its troops returned fire on militants who had fired on them from inside the 3.5-acre compound.

The advance came a day after the World Health Organization evacuated 31 premature babies from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. At least 28 were transported to Egypt on Monday. More than 250 critically ill or wounded patients remain stranded at the compound that Israeli forces stormed days ago.

Gaza's hospitals play a prominent role in the battle of narratives over the war's brutal toll on Palestinian civilians, thousands of whom have been killed or buried in rubble since the conflict was sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel. In the wake of the assault, Israeli leaders vowed to eradicate Hamas, destroy its ability to rule Gaza and uproot its militant infrastructure.

Israel says Hamas uses civilians as human shields and that it operated a major command hub inside and beneath Shifa. Critics say Israel's siege and relentless bombardment amount to collective punishment of the territory's 2.3 million Palestinians.

Marwan Abdallah, the medical worker at the Indonesian Hospital, said Israeli tanks were operating less than 200 meters (yards) from the hospital, and that Israeli snipers could be seen on the roofs of nearby buildings. As he spoke over the phone, the sound of gunfire could be heard in the background.

Abdallah said the hospital had received dozens of dead and wounded in airstrikes and shelling overnight.

Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra, who is based in southern Gaza, said some 600 patients, 200 health care workers and 2,000 displaced people are sheltering there. "The occupation aims to evacuate the hospital, as it did in Shifa,” he said.

In a separate development that could relieve some of the pressure on Gaza's collapsing health system, dozens of trucks entered from Egypt on Monday with equipment from Jordan to set up a field hospital. Jordan’s state-run media said the hospital in the southern town of Khan Younis would be up and running within 48 hours.

CLAIMS ABOUT SHIFA

Babies evacuated from Shifa hospital arrived in Egypt, according to the country's state-run media, after the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said it was transporting 28 premature babies across the border. It was not immediately clear where the other three babies who were evacuated from Shifa were.

Following that evacuation, over 250 patients with severely infected wounds and other urgent conditions remained in Shifa, which can no longer provide most treatment after it ran out of water, medical supplies and fuel for emergency generators.

Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants outside its gates for days before entering the facility on Wednesday. Four babies died in the two days before the evacuation, according to Mohamed Zaqout, the director of Gaza hospitals.

Israel’s army said it has evidence that Hamas maintained a sprawling command post inside and under the hospital’s 20-acre (8-hectare) complex, which includes several buildings.

On Sunday, the military released a video showing what it said was a tunnel discovered at the hospital, 55 meters (60 yards) long and about 10 meters (33 feet) below ground. It said the tunnel ended at a blast-proof door with a hole in it for gunmen to fire out of. Troops have not opened the door yet, it said.

Israeli forces also released security camera video showing what they said were two foreign hostages, one Thai and one Nepalese, who were captured by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack and taken to the hospital. Hamas said its fighters brought them in for medical care.

The army also said an investigation had determined that Israeli army Cpl. Noa Marciano, another captive whose body was recovered in Gaza, had been wounded in an Israeli strike on Nov. 9 that killed her captor, but was then killed by a Hamas militant in Shifa.

The military has previously released images of several guns it said were found inside an MRI lab and said that the bodies of two hostages were found near the complex.

The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm the military's findings.

Hamas and hospital staff have denied the allegations of a command post under Shifa. Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed the latest announcement, saying “the Israelis said there was a command and control center, which means that the matter is greater than just a tunnel."

THREE IN FOUR PEOPLE DISPLACED

Israel has repeatedly ordered Palestinians to leave northern Gaza and seek refuge in the south, which has also been under aerial bombardment since the start of the war. Some 1.7 million people, nearly three quarters of Gaza’s population, have been displaced, with 900,000 packing into crowded U.N.-run shelters, according to the U.N.

Strikes in the Nuseirat and Bureij refugee camps Monday killed at least 40 people, according to hospital officials, and residents said dozens more were buried in the rubble. Bundled against a chilly wind from Gaza's approaching winter, a line of men prayed over more than a dozen bodies on the grounds of the nearby morgue in Deir al-Balah before loading them onto a truck.

More than 12,700 Palestinians, including more than 5,000 minors and 3,250 women, have been killed in Gaza, the Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank said Monday — an increase of 1,200 deaths from a day earlier. Health officials could not be immediately reached to elaborate on the significant increase.

For the past 10 days, officials have released numbers more sporadically saying they are struggling to keep up the count amid communications lapses. The West Bank ministry coordinates with officials in the Health Ministry of Hamas-run Gaza.

Officials there say another 4,000 are missing and believed buried in rubble. Their count of the dead and missing does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.

Violence has also surged in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where attacks by Jewish settlers are on the rise and where more than 200 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war, mostly in gunbattles triggered by Israeli military raids.

About 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians during the Oct. 7 attack, in which Hamas dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza. The military says 66 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza ground operations.

Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two were found near Shifa.

Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating a hostage release for weeks. Israel's three-member war Cabinet is to meet with representatives of the hostages’ families on Monday evening.

Banner image: Premature babies are prepared for transport to Egypt after they were evacuated from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City to a hospital in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

___

Magdy and Jeffery reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Najib Jobain in Khan Younis, Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed.

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