Hospitals and Ambulances Increasingly in Crosshairs of Israel-Hamas Conflict
Al-Quds Hospital on 29 October.  WHO denounced weekend attacks around the hospital; Israel says Al Kuds and other facilities are being used by Hamas.

Gaza’s struggling health facilities were again caught in the crosshairs of the Israeli-Hamas conflict over the weekend, as Israel acknowledged it had attacked an ambulance that it claimed was ferrying Hamas gunmen out of Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, and a dozen UN leaders called for an urgent cease fire. 

Israel pounded Gaza by air and on the ground over the weekend in what was reportedly amongst the heaviest days ever of bombardment. Hamas continued to fire missiles at Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities in the center and south. Monday evening, news reports had fighting intensifying around Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza, which has been identified by Israel as a major Hamas underground command and control center.

Meanwhile, Iranian-aligned Hezbollah forces in Lebanon claimed responsibility for a barrage of rocket attacks on northern Israeli cities, as far south as Haifa. 

”We need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.  It’s been over 30 days,” said the heads of over a dozen UN agencies along with six NGOs in a joint appeal published on Monday. “Enough is enough. This must stop now.

In Israel, some 1,400 people have been killed and thousands have been injured, according to the Israeli authorities. More than 240 people, including children, have been taken hostage. Rockets continue to traumatise families. More than 200,000 people have been displaced.

“This is horrific,” stated the letter, signed by WHO’s Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, as well as the heads of UNICEF, UN Women and Care International. “However, the horrific killings of even more civilians in Gaza is an outrage, as is cutting off 2.2 million Palestinians from food, water, medicine, electricity and fuel.”

In Gaza, according to the Ministry of Health, nearly 9,500 people have been killed, including 3,900 children and over 2,400 women. More than 23,000 injured people require immediate treatment within overstretched hospitals.

Extensive destruction caused by the unprecedented level of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since the 7 October Hamas incursion into Israel.

“An entire population is besieged and under attack, denied access to the essentials for survival, bombed in their homes, shelters, hospitals and places of worship,” stated the UN appeal. “This is unacceptable. More than 100 attacks against health care have been reported,” stated the letter, which also called for “the immediate and unconditional release of all civilians held hostage.”

Israeli ground troops have now encircled Gaza city on all sides – and are slowly advancing toward the city center, in a complex operation that they say is focused on rooting out and destroying from the air and the ground, the extensive underground tunnel network developed by Hamas over the past decade.  

On Monday, Israel’s military again urged the estimated 300,000 Palestinians still trapped in northern Gaza to flee south via Gaza’s Salahuddin Highway,  between 10-2 p.m. But the Gaza-based Health Ministry warned Palestinians against fleeing via the route, calling it a “death corridor.”

WHO protests attacks in the area of Gaza hospitals

On Sunday, WHO also condemned Israel’s attack on two ambulances as they tried to leave Shifa hospital, as well as attacks in the vicinity of two other major Gaza hospitals in the north of the enclave, Al-Quds and the Indonesian hospital. 

“According to reports, at Shifa Hospital, ambulances were evacuating critically injured and sick patients to hospitals in the south of the Gaza Strip,” said the WHO statement, “when there was an attack at the entrance of the hospital.

“According to early reports, at least 13 people were killed and more than 60 injured. The hospital infrastructure and one ambulance sustained damage. This was in addition to an earlier incident that had resulted in damage to another ambulance in the same convoy,” said the WHO statement. 

WHO also reported that “two further attacks were reported on the same day at Al-Quds hospital, resulting in 21 injuries, as well as near the Indonesian hospital,” noting that “attacks on health care.. may amount to a violation of international law.

Israel: Hamas systematically using hospitals and ambulances   

Aerial view of the Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital, with the outlines of what Israel says are military tunnels.

In a foreign press briefing Sunday, Israel’s military spokesperson Dan Hagari charged that the ambulances attacked by Israel were being used to transport Hamas gunmen. His briefing followed comments by senior US administration officials earlier in the week that Hamas had tried to sneak its fighters out of Gaza in ambulances taking seriously wounded to Egypt. 

“It’s a war crime,” he said, “that Hamas is using hospitals for military purposes.”

As for the hospitals, Hagari displayed aerial and satellite photographs of alleged Hamas’ operations in and around the Indonesian Hospital and Gaza’s Qatari-funded Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Hospital. 

They included pictures of what Hagari said were tunnel entry points by the Qatari hospital, exposed by Israel’s forces in recent ground operations, as well a video of alleged Hamas shooting from the hospital grounds.  Parts of the hospital were also damaged in aerial raids, earlier in the month. 

At the Indonesian Hospital, Hagari displayed time series photos showing stacks of cement arches on the hospital grounds when the facility was being built in 2010, which he said laid the foundations for the tunnel network now buried under the facility. 

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari points to cement arches that he says Hamas used to expand its tunnel network during the hospital’s 2010 construction.

“How Hamas uses hospitals to disguise the war machine is systematic,” he said.  “Cement arches are not needed when building hospitals. They are used to build an underground city of terror and underground metro tunnels. We have watched Hamas use these arches to build tunnels for many years.

“Instead of building homes for Gazans, Hamas built this metro over hundreds of kilometers underneath Gaza and underneath places like hospitals and mosques. 

Israel continues to rebuff reports of fuel shortages

Israel has also continued to rebuff humanitarian appeals for fuel to replenish what WHO says are severely depleted hospital supplies.  

“There is no shortage of fuel in Gaza,” Hagari declared at the briefing, playing what he said was a covertly recorded conversation between a Hamas operative and a Shifa Hospital administrator, about the movement of fuel supplies. 

“Hamas stores this fuel underneath hospitals in Gaza – the very hospitals that Hamas tells the world is running out of fuel,” he said.

On Sunday, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN in New York City shared a video of Shifa’s windows illuminated at night, along with outdoor spotlights, for what he said was a public screening by Hamas of a military video on the hospital grounds.   

“Hamas has plenty of fuel for whatever they choose to prioritize,” Erdan said. “If only ICU incubators were as important to Hamas ….” 

Hostages largely forgotten in the bitter conflict 

Sharon Cunio and her husband with their twin daughters, prior to being kidnapped by Hamas.

As the claims on both sides rage along with the bitter military conflict, the families of the estimated 241 hostages held by Hamas since 7 October  expressed growing desperation over the fate of their families, and the lack of attention the captives are receiving. 

“All around me I have witnessed a silence so enormous, it feels cacophonous;” wrote Alana Zeitchik, a New York City-based media professional of Yemenite-Israeli origins in the Sunday New York Times

Her cousin Sharon Cunio, husband David and their three-year old twins are being held captive along with Sharon’s sister and five-year-old daughter, since being snatched by Hamas gunmen from their bomb shelter on Kibbutz Nir Oz. Their plight, she said, is an issue which few in the humanitarian community have cared to address.  

“Again and again I hear that Israel is a country of white colonizers and oppressors,” she wrote in the Times. “Some of my bewilderment is in my very skin. My maternal grandparents, Avraham and Sara, grew up in a tiny rural village in central Yemen. Like other Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemenite Jews were persecuted as second-class citizens… In 1949, after pogroms against Jews in Yemen, my grandparents set out by foot and donkey on an arduous journey to the capital, Sana. From there, they were airlifted during Operation Magic Carpet to the newly formed state of Israel. As refugees fleeing oppression in their birth country, they began their lives in Israel in poverty. Slowly they built a humble but comfortable life and raised five children, amongst them my mother.

So maybe you can imagine my surprise the first time I heard my Israeli family called “white colonizers.” When did we become white? And how could a family fleeing persecution be perceived as colonizers?

“It would appear they believe my suffering to be collateral damage in service of some universal truth they hold higher. Is it really impossible to hold these two truths at the same time — that both Israeli and Palestinian civilians are suffering at great cost?” she asked. 

Within Israel there is widespread sentiment that any cease-fire needs to be conditioned upon release of the hostages – who are being held in unknown locations, and without any access to the International Red Cross.

“Israel allowed humanitarian aid into Gaza, why aren’t our children getting the same?” asked Moran Alony, brother of Sharon, speaking on the sidelines of the UN Security Council in New York City late last month.

Image Credits:  , WHO/EMRO , Times of Israel .

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