Nearly 48 hours after entering Gaza’s largest medical complex, the Israeli military on Thursday evening escorted New York Times journalists through a landscape of wartime destruction to a stone and concrete well on his land with a staircase descending into the earth – evidence, he said, of a Hamas military installation located beneath the hospital.
But Col. Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s Seventh Brigade, said Israeli forces, fearing booby traps, had not ventured into the well at Al-Shifa hospital. He said it was discovered earlier in the day under a pile of sand on the northern perimeter of the complex.
In the darkness, it was not clear where the well led or how deep it was, although the military said it sent a drone at least several meters away. Electrical wiring was visible inside, as well as a metal staircase.
The monitored visit will not resolve the question of whether Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that rules Gaza, used Al-Shifa Hospital to hide weapons and command centers, as Israel has claimed.
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 considerable loss of life was caused in part by Hamas’s decision to hide its military fortifications and command centers inside civilian infrastructure like Al-Shifa.
Hamas denies the accusation and says Israel is committing war crimes by targeting civilian facilities such as hospitals.
The Israeli military said Hamas was using a vast labyrinth of tunnels beneath the hospital as a secret base, but since announcing Wednesday morning that its troops had entered the grounds, the army has yet to provide a statement. of public documentation on such an extensive network. As the international community increasingly demands protection for civilians in Gaza, Israel is under pressure to demonstrate that the hospital – and the network of tunnels it claims to conceal – were military targets important enough to justify the cost immense in Palestinian lives.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that Israeli forces had found evidence of their allegations regarding Al-Shifa. There were “a lot of terrorists there,” he said. an interview with National Public Radiobut “they fled as our forces approached the hospital.”
“We found a lot of weapons, a lot,” he added. “We found a lot of ammunition. We found bombs. We found on level minus two a Hamas command and control center, with coded military encryption. »
Col. Tsury acknowledged Friday morning the pressure on Israel to show evidence of Hamas activity at the hospital, but said it could be several days before troops descend the well . He said soldiers methodically searched the compound and found weapons, explosives and computers, as well as the body of an Israeli hostage in a nearby building. The army announced later in the day that soldiers had found the body of a second hostage in a building near Al-Shifa.
Another military official said Israeli troops captured and interrogated a Hamas member in the hospital, but provided no further details.
To enter Gaza, two Times reporters and a photographer were forced to stay with Israeli troops for the duration of the visit. They agreed not to photograph the faces of most soldiers, monuments, maps and some weapon details. The Times did not allow the Israeli military to verify its media coverage before publication.
Times journalists were only allowed to see part of the sprawling Al-Shifa complex. The military refused to let journalists explore the hospital or see or interview patients and medical staff who remain at the facility, saying the facility was not fully secure and that Hamas fighters could still be there.
Before the Israeli raid on Al-Shifa, the World Health Organization declared that the hospital had ceased to be a functioning hospital. Authorities described desperate conditions: Food, medicine and anesthetics were all but exhausted, and generators and life-saving equipment had been shut down due to lack of fuel. Some three dozen premature babies were at particularly high risk, they said.
Colonel Tsury said the army had provided food, supplies and medical equipment to patients and doctors, a claim that could not immediately be verified.
The extent of the damage to the hospital is not entirely clear. But its main emergency building appeared intact, with power, after a days-long siege that health authorities said had led to increasingly dire conditions.
Gunshots rang out nearby throughout the Times’ visit, giving the impression of shootings in progress in nearby streets. To enter the hospital grounds, special forces officers escorted journalists through the ruins of a bombed building on the outskirts of the site; they said it was too dangerous to go through the main gate.
Outside of the hospital, the scale of the destruction had made parts of Gaza unrecognizable. Sections of the city’s waterfront promenade were flattened, apartment buildings hollowed out by bombings and others flattened by airstrikes. Constant tank traffic had also turned the main coastal road into a bumpy dirt road.