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Friday, November 17, 2023

Israel-Hamas War Israeli Army Takes Journalists on Controlled Visit to Gaza Hospital

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ImageA smashed-up white car is surrounded by debris.
Destroyed vehicles near the Al-Shifa Hospital on Thursday.Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

The Israeli Army escorted Times journalists to Al-Shifa, a focus of its invasion.

A soldier holds a gun and looks to the side while a second has his back to the camera. Building stand in the darkness in the background.
Israeli soldiers from the 7th Brigade escorted journalists to see a stone and concrete shaft, on the grounds of the Al-Shifa hospital, in Gaza City on Thursday. Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times
A soldier holds a gun and looks to the side while a second has his back to the camera. Building stand in the darkness in the background.

Almost 48 hours after entering Gaza’s largest medical complex, the Israeli military escorted New York Times journalists through a landscape of wartime destruction Thursday night to a stone-and-concrete shaft on its grounds with a staircase descending into the earth — evidence, it said, of a Hamas military facility under the hospital.

But Col. Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s Seventh Brigade, said Israeli forces, fearing booby traps, had not ventured down the shaft at the hospital, Al-Shifa. He said it had been discovered earlier in the day under a pile of sand on the northern perimeter of the complex.

In the darkness, it was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went, though the military said it had sent a drone down at least several meters. Electrical wiring was visible inside, along with a metal staircase.

The controlled visit will not settle the question of whether Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules Gaza, has been using Al-Shifa Hospital to hide weapons and command centers, as Israel has said.

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 Gazan health officials. Israeli officials say that the extreme loss of life has been caused in part by Hamas’s decision to hide its military fortifications and command centers inside civilian infrastructure like Al-Shifa.

A hole in the ground surrounded by dirt and stones. Cords and metal pieces poke out in the area.
A stone and concrete shaft on the grounds of the Al-Shifa hospital, on Thursday. Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Hamas denies the accusation and says Israel is committing war crimes by targeting civilian facilities such as hospitals.

The Israeli military has said that Hamas used a vast maze of tunnels underneath the hospital as a secret base, but since announcing early Wednesdaythat its troops had entered the grounds, the military has yet to present public documentationof such an extensive network. As the international community increasingly demands protections for civilians in Gaza, Israel is under pressure to demonstrate that the hospital — and the tunnel network it said it concealed — were important enough military targets to justify the immense cost in Palestinian lives.

In order to enter Gaza, two reporters and a photographer for The New York Times were obliged to remain with Israeli troops for the duration of the visit. They agreed not to photograph most soldiers’ faces, landmarks, maps and certain details of weapons. The Times did not allow the Israeli military to screen its coverage before publication.

The Times journalists were allowed to see only a portion of the sprawling Al-Shifa complex. The military refused to let the journalists explore the hospital, or see or interview patients and medical staff who remain in the facility, saying it had not been fully secured and that Hamas combatants might still be there. 

Before Israel’s raid on Al-Shifa, the World Health Organization said that it had ceased to be a functional hospital. Officials described desperate conditions: Food, medicine and anesthetics had all but run out, and generators and lifesaving equipment had been shut down because of a lack of fuel. Some three dozen premature babies were at particular risk, they said.

Colonel Tsury said the military had provided food, supplies and medical equipment to patients and doctors, an assertion that could not be immediately verified.

The extent of the damage to the hospital was not entirely clear. But its main emergency building appeared intact, with electricity, after a dayslong siege that health officials say had resulted in increasingly dire conditions.

Gunfire rattled nearby throughout The Times’s visit, giving the impression of ongoing gun battles in nearby streets. To enter the hospital grounds, special forces officers escorted journalists through the bombed-out remains of a building on the outskirts of the site; they said it was too dangerous to pass through the main gate.

Away from the hospital, the scale of the destruction had rendered parts of Gaza unrecognizable. Sections of the city’s seafront promenade had been razed to the ground, apartment blocks had been hollowed out by shelling and others flattened by airstrikes. Constant tank traffic had also churned the main coastal road into a bumpy dirt track.

U.N. says collapsed food supply chain and lack of aid put all Gazans at risk of starvation.

A Palestinian family cooking and sitting around a fire at night.
A Palestinian family cooking over a fire in Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations said the entire population of Gaza was now at risk of starvation.Credit...Yousef Masoud for The New York Times
A Palestinian family cooking and sitting around a fire at night.

The entire population of Gaza — 2.2 million, with about half of them being children — is in need of food assistance and at risk of starvation because of a collapsed food supply chain and insufficient aid delivery, the United Nations World Food Program said Thursday.

Food stocks are rapidly running out, markets and bakeries have closed, and fresh food is not available because of a lack of refrigeration and a halt to farming and fishing, a situation that the W.F.P. called “catastrophic.” The organization also said just 10 percent of what it characterized as the necessary amount of food aid was being delivered into Gaza.

“We are already starting to see cases of dehydration and malnutrition, which is increasing rapidly,” Abeer Etefa, a W.F.P. spokeswoman, told reporters at the U.N. “People are facing immediate possibility of starvation.”

Gazans are barely able to have one meal per day, which typically consists of canned food and raw vegetables, because there is no gas or fuel to cook, the group said. The last bakery in Gaza closed, the food supply system in Gaza has collapsed and shops have run out of supplies, the group said.

Itay Milner, spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York, said that Israel has been working to facilitate the distribution of aid to civilians in Gaza, and urged people to relocate to what he called safer areas, such as near the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, where Israel has allowed foreign assistance to enter the strip.

Since Israel agreed in Octoberto allow the first humanitarian convoys into Gaza, trucks with water, food, medicine and other basic human necessities have delivered some relief, but far short of the amount the United Nations has said is necessary.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is growing more desperate as the war rages. Israel has prevented the delivery of commercial goods, fuel and electricity for more than a month, and the lack of fuel has hindered the ability of the U.N. and humanitarian agencies to receive and distribute aid. Israel said it banned fuel delivery to Gaza to prevent Hamas militants from seizing it.

Bombed roads and the safety of aid workers also present challenges, the U.N. said.

The trickle of aid entering Gaza cannot compensate for the halt of commercial goods, Ms. Etefa said. A hotline for Gazans has received more than 40,000 calls from people saying they have nothing to eat, she said. Shelters are overcrowded, and 70 percent of the population has no access to clean water, the U.N. said.

Children in the shelters are begging for a sip of water and a piece of bread,” said Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, a U.N. agency overseeing humanitarian aid efforts in Gaza. She added: “The people of Gaza are trapped in an enclave with no way out.”

Even before the war, Gazans struggled with poverty and unemployment, and nearly 1.1 million people needed food assistance. But Israel’s siege of Gaza has imperiled food security there, the U.N. said.

Ms. Touma said fuel, food and water were being used “as a weapon of war,” calling Israel’s refusal to allow adequate aid delivery “a deliberate attempt to strangle our operations.”

Israel says soldiers recovered the body of a hostage near Al-Shifa Hospital.

Israeli soldiers have recovered the body of one of the hostages kidnapped during the Hamas-led attack on Israel last month from a building next to the Al-Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza City, the Israeli military said on Thursday night.

The body of Yehudit Weiss, 65, a resident of Be’eri, a kibbutz near the border with Gaza, was found by troops who in recent days have taken control of much of the hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, and were searching within and beneath it. Israeli officials say the hospital complex hosts major Hamas facilities, some in underground bunkers, a claim rejected by Hamas and hospital officials.

The military, in a statement announcing the recovery of her body, did not say how Ms. Weiss had died. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters that soldiers found weapons belonging to her captors near her remains.

“Yehudit was killed by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, and we didn’t manage to reach her in time,” he said.

The damaged remains of a home overrun by Hamas armed fighters. A pile of rubble rests beside an open door, near shattered windows and a dirty mattress.
A house at Be’eri kibbutz in Israel that was overrun by Hamas armed fighters on Oct. 7.Credit...Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Israeli authorities said Hamas and other Palestinian groups took roughly 240 people hostage during the surprise attack on Oct. 7 that left around 1,200 dead in Israel. The ongoing hostage crisis — which involves dozens of dual nationals — has stunned the country and complicated Israel’s hopes of toppling Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas has released four Israeli hostages so far, and Israeli troops successfully rescued a 19-year-old Israeli soldier last month. Negotiations have reportedly advanced this week for the release of 50 hostages, in exchange for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli jails and a cessation of hostilities for several days.

Israeli troops transferred Ms. Weiss’s body to Israel for forensic testing by health officials, who confirmed her identity, the Israeli military said. Her husband, Shmulik Weiss, was killed in the Oct. 7 attack, Admiral Hagari said.

Their community, Be’eri, a close-knit kibbutz of approximately 1,000 residents, was devastated by the Hamas attack. At least 86 residents were killed in the assault, according to the kibbutz administration, while roughly 25 are missing, with many of those believed to have been kidnapped in Gaza.

In a video statement after her kidnapping, Ms. Weiss’s family said that she and Mr. Weiss ceased responding to messages after around 10:15 a.m. on Oct. 7. Both of their phones were later traced to Gaza, said their son Ohad.

“We had so much hope that Mom would come back,” another of their sons, Omer, told reporters on Thursday night, after learning of his mother’s death. “We wished for it and we hoped. Sadly, it was too late for us — but perhaps for the rest of the families, it’s not.”

A correction was made on 
Nov. 16, 2023

An earlier version of this article misidentified the son of Yehudit Weiss who spoke to reporters on Thursday night. He is Omer, not Ohad.

When we learn of a mistake, we acknowledge it with a correction. If you spot an error, please let us know more

How international law views military action at a hospital.

Makeshift shelters and people fill a space between buildings at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.
The Al-Shifa Hospital compound last week.Credit...Bashar Taleb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Makeshift shelters and people fill a space between buildings at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

The Israeli military has seized the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa. Israel says it needed to capture the hospital, in Gaza City, to destroy a Hamas command center and underground facilities that it says are there. Hamas and doctors at Al-Shifa deny Israeli allegations of Hamas fighters using the hospital as a base.

Here is what the Geneva Conventions and international criminal law say about hospitals and what protections they have, based on a series of interviews with experts on the laws of war and a reading of the major treaties that set out those laws.

  • Hospitals have special protections under international humanitarian law. It is illegal in nearly all circumstances to attack hospitals, ambulances or other medical facilities, or to interfere with their ability to provide care to the wounded and sick. That is true even if some of their patients are wounded fighters as well as civilians.

    Attacking a protected hospital is a war crime that can be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. Using civilians, like those in a hospital, as human shields for combatants is also prohibited.

  • But there is an exception under which hospitals lose that protection: A hospital or medical facility can lose its special legal status if it is used for a military purpose that is “harmful to the enemy,” rather than just for medical care. For example, if an armed group uses a hospital building as a headquarters, it cannot use the special hospital protection as a shield for that military operation.

    The exception is supposed to be read narrowly, according to the Red Cross, which is considered a leading authority on the interpretation of humanitarian law. If there is doubt about whether a hospital is being used for military purposes, it should be presumed not to be, the Red Cross says.

  • Even if the exception applies, an attacking force has to give civilians a chance to evacuate. The Geneva Conventions state that before attacking a military target inside a hospital, the attacking force has to warn the doctors and patients inside that the hospital is going to be a target, and then give them a reasonable amount of time to escape.

    Israel has issued frequent warnings to hospitals in northern Gaza that they should evacuate. However, doctors have said that some patients are too fragile to be moved, or that there is no safe or practical evacuation route, raising questions about what could be considered reasonable warning.

  • Even if the exception applies, there are still strict rules that limit how force can be used. Doctors, patients, and other civilians who remain in the hospital after a warning to evacuate are still protected civilians. International humanitarian law says that civilians cannot ever be targeted directly.

    The exception applies only under “very narrow conditions,” said Tom Dannenbaum, an associate professor of international law at Tufts University.

  • Proportionality requirements are especially strict when medical care is on the line: Even if a hospital loses its special protection and becomes a military target, the civilians inside are still protected by the rule of proportionality: If the civilian harm caused by an attack is disproportionate to the military advantage it confers, then it’s illegal.

    That is a balancing test that depends on the specific facts of the situation. However, the proportionality test is much harder to satisfy when the target is a medical facility, because the likely harm includes the loss of medical care for the civilian community as well as any immediate casualties of the attack itself, Professor Dannenbaum said.

Ephrat Livni and Gaya Gupta contributed reporting.”

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