A fire burns following Israeli air strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip – Copyright AFP SAID KHATIB
Adel Zaanoun with Sarah Benhaida in Jerusalem
Tanks were massed near the gates of Gaza’s main hospital where Palestinians were trapped in dire conditions on Tuesday as US President Joe Biden pressed Israel to protect the complex.
After days of heavy air strikes around Gaza City’s Al-Shifa hospital, witnesses said tanks and armoured vehicles were metres (yards) from the besieged facility, which has become a focal point of the five-week-old war.
The United Nations believes that thousands, and perhaps more than 10,000 people — patients, staff and displaced civilians — may be inside and unable to escape because of fierce fighting nearby.
Amid reports of premature babies dying for lack of electricity and patients facing gunfire, a surgeon working for Doctors Without Borders said the situation inside the hospital had become “very bad”.
“We don’t have electricity. There’s no water in the hospital. There’s no food,” said the doctor, who was not named by his organisation. “It is inhuman.”
Israel accuses Hamas fighters of using tunnels under the hospital as a command “node”, effectively engaging the sick and injured as human shields. It is a charge that Hamas denies.
Israel says it is not targeting the hospital, but has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the attacks of October 7, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians and resulted in 240 hostages being taken back to Gaza.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says Israel’s assault has already killed 11,240 people, also mostly civilians, including thousands of children.
Israel says 46 of its troops have been killed in fighting in Gaza.
Biden called on Israel to use “less intrusive action relative to the hospital”, some of his most pointed comments on Israeli operations to date. “The hospital must be protected,” he told reporters.
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner insisted Al-Shifa was “central in Hamas’s command and control capabilities”, but said troops were currently “stand-offish”.
“The idea is to try to evacuate the people, evacuate as many as possible,” he said.
Underscoring the role that global public opinion is playing in the war, both sides have repeatedly given vastly different accounts of events.
Lerner put the number of people inside the hospital at “a few hundred”, while the Hamas government’s deputy health minister Youssef Abu Rish, who is present in the hospital, said about 20,000 displaced people had sought refuge there.
– ‘Window of legitimacy’ –
Hamas’s brutal attacks of October 7 and Israel’s massive response have sparked protests around the world, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.
Israel’s supporters insist it must protect citizens after the worst attack in the country’s 75-year history — an attack that brought painful echoes of past pogroms against the Jewish people.
But Israel’s critics point to the toll of a blockade and near-relentless bombing campaign on long-suffering civilians in Gaza.
International aid agencies speak of hundreds of thousands of people displaced and a rolling humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel’s top diplomat admitted Monday that his nation has “two or three weeks until international pressure really steps up.”
Quoted by his spokesman, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen added that Israel is working to “broaden the window of legitimacy, and the fighting will carry on for as long as necessary.”
– Truce talks –
In the face of mounting pressure, Israel has agreed to daily pauses in military operations around specified humanitarian “corridors” to allow Gazans to flee fighting.
Israeli leaders have so far insisted there will be no broader ceasefire before hostages are released.
But Qatar is mediating talks on a possible deal to free the hostages.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, said Monday that a possible deal would involve the release 100 Israeli hostages in return for 200 Palestinian children and 75 women held in Israeli prisons.
“We informed the mediators we could release the hostages if we obtained five days of truce… and passage of aid to all of our people throughout the Gaza Strip, but the enemy is procrastinating,” Abu Obeida said in an audio statement.
Biden said he was “somewhat hopeful” the Qatar-mediated talks could lead to a deal.
As security officials and diplomats continued negotiations, Hamas released a video of a young woman who was said to be an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
The Israeli army later confirmed the identity of the woman.
“Our hearts go out to the Marciano family, whose daughter, Noa, was brutally kidnapped by the Hamas terrorist organisation,” the army said in a statement.
– Fear of violence spreading –
Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said troops “found signs that indicate that Hamas held hostages” in the basement of Al-Rantisi children’s hospital, showing footage of a baby bottle and a rope near a chair.
In the video he showed neatly arranged assault rifles, grenades and what Hagari said were “vests with explosives”.
The war in Gaza has also spurred violence on other fronts.
In the northern West Bank, five Palestinians were killed in clashes around the city of Tulkarem, the director of a local hospital told AFP on Tuesday.
After repeated strikes on US forces in the Middle East, the United States launched air attacks that killed at least eight pro-Iran fighters in eastern Syria, a Britain-based monitoring group said.
On Monday, Israel used fighter jets to strike what it said were “operational command centres” belonging to Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
Israeli tanks at Gaza hospital’s gates, Biden urges protection
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