TEL AVIV — Israeli forces were raiding the Gaza Strip’s main hospital on Wednesday, a significant escalation of its assault on the Palestinian enclave that further raised fears for the hundreds of patients and staff trapped in the Al-Shifa complex with dwindling fuel, food and medical supplies.
The Israel Defense Forces said its soldiers were carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas” in a specified area of the hospital. In a video briefing, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the raid was done out of “operational necessity,” as intelligence indicated that Hamas activity had been detected there.
Global attention has been centered on the hospital for days, and news that troops had entered the site drew new expressions of concern from U.S. leaders, the World Health Organization and aid groups.
The Israeli military has maintained throughout the conflict that Hamas hides in tunnels under Gaza hospitals, including Al-Shifa. The U.S. on Tuesday said its own intelligence also confirmed that Hamas was using Al-Shifa hospital to conceal military operations. Both Hamas and hospital workers have denied the allegations.
The Israeli military said that prior to entering the hospital complex, its troops encountered explosive devices and terrorist cells, though it did not offer any further details or specify where this occurred.
“An engagement began in which terrorists were killed,” the IDF said.
NBC News was not able to independently verify those claims or the situation on the ground.
Thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped inside Al-Shifa, including dozens of premature newborn babies.
Until Tuesday night, the IDF had acknowledged it was involved in “intense” fighting around the hospital, but this appears to be the first time troops have entered the facility.
“Yesterday early evening they started, you know, really aggressive bombardment and shooting around the hospital and within the hospital,” Dr. Ahmed El Mokhallalati, a plastic surgeon at Al-Shifa Hospital, told Reuters on Wednesday.
He said a tank entered “within the hospital from the eastern main gate,” and then parts of the hospital were targeted “directly,” including the outpatient department and the fourth floor of the main building. He said a patient’s room was also hit, leaving a hole in the wall, but “thankfully no one got injured.”
“We don’t know what to do,” El Mokhallalati added, explaining that those within the hospital were unable to move between buildings. “It’s a totally scary situation,” he said.
The doctor called the IDF’s claims that Hamas is headquartered at Al-Shifa a “big lie.”
El Mokhallalati did not immediately respond to calls from NBC News on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health in Gaza said the IDF had informed health officials around dawn local time on Wednesday of “its intention to storm the Shifa complex.”
In a statement, Hamas condemned what it called an “aggressive incursion into Al-Shifa.”
“The medical personnel and the multitude of internally displaced people now face the barbaric assault on a health facility safeguarded by the Fourth Geneva Convention,” it said.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said in a post on X that the “reports of military incursion into Al-Shifa hospital are deeply concerning.”
“We’ve lost touch again with health personnel at the hospital. We’re extremely worried for their and their patients’ safety,” he continued.
John Kirby, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said U.S. leaders “do not support striking a hospital from the air, and we do not want to see a firefight in the hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are simply trying to get the medical care that they deserve.”
As Israeli soldiers launched their operation at Al-Shifa, the IDF said incubators, baby food and medical supplies had been delivered to the hospital using tanks. The military shared images on X showing boxes labeled as “medical supplies” and “baby food.”
The IDF said the forces involved in the Al-Shifa mission included medical teams and Arabic speakers with “specified training to prepare for this complex and sensitive environment.” It said forces had no “intent” of causing harm to civilians in the incursion.
El Mokhallalati told Reuters that he feared what might happen to patients if they are forced to leave the hospital.
“We are happy that we are staying within the hospital committed and dedicated to help our patients,” he said. “I am really afraid that they will evacuate the hospital in a way — they will just throw the patients here and there, without giving them the basic right or chance to get the treatment.”
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