Al Shifa Hospital
File photo: A man tapes off the area as rescuers and medics search for dead bodies inside the damaged Al Shifa Hospital after Israeli forces withdrew from the hospital and the area around it following a two-week operation, in Gaza City April 8, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

Geneva: The United Nations called Tuesday for an international investigation into reports of mass graves at two Gaza hospitals destroyed in Israeli sieges, saying war crimes might have been committed.

The UN rights office said it was "horrified" by the destruction of Gaza's biggest hospital, Al Shifa in Gaza City, and its second largest, the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Yunis.

Gaza's Civil Defence agency said Tuesday that health workers had uncovered nearly 340 bodies, updating an earlier figure, of Palestinians allegedly killed and buried by Israeli forces at the Nasser complex.

Israel's army dismissed claims that its troops had buried bodies during its operation at Nasser as "baseless and unfounded".

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The UN rights office demanded "independent, effective and transparent investigations into the deaths".

"Given the prevailing climate of impunity, this should include international investigators," UN rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement.

Hospitals, which are protected under international law, have repeatedly come under Israeli bombardment over more than six months of war in Gaza.

Israel has accused Palestinian militant group Hamas of using medical facilities as command centres and to hold hostages abducted during its attack inside Israel on October 7.

Hamas has denied the claims.

'War crime'

"Hospitals are entitled to very special protection under international humanitarian law," Turk said. "And the intentional killing of civilians, detainees and others who are hors de combat is a war crime."

The UN rights office said it did not have access to independent information as to what happened at the two hospitals.

But spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said efforts were under way to corroborate reports and details given by Gazan authorities.

"Victims had reportedly been buried deep in the ground and covered with waste," she told reporters in Geneva, adding that older people, women and wounded were reportedly among the dead.

Others were allegedly "found with their hands tied and stripped of their clothes".

As for Al Shifa, the Israeli army has said around 200 Palestinians were killed during its military operation there.

The World Health Organisation earlier this month described that hospital as an "empty shell" containing many bodies.

Around 30 bodies were reported found buried in two graves in the courtyard of Al-Shifa.

"And there are reports that the hands of some of these bodies were also tied," Shamdasani said, which would constitute "serious violations" of international law.

'Precise and targeted'

Intense fighting raged in mid-February in the area of the Nasser hospital and Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded it on March 26.

In a statement Tuesday, Israel's military said its forces "conducted a precise and targeted operation against the terrorist organisation Hamas in the Nasser Hospital area" at the end of February.

"During the operation, about 200 terrorists who were in the hospital were apprehended, medicines intended for Israeli hostages were found undelivered and unused, and a great deal of ammunition was confiscated," it said.

"The activity was done in a targeted manner and without harming the hospital, the patients and the medical staff."

It rejected claims that its forces had buried any Palestinian bodies, though it acknowledged that troops had examined corpses they found buried at the facility in an "effort to locate hostages and missing persons".

"The examination was conducted in a careful manner and exclusively in places where intelligence indicated the possible presence of hostages."

"Bodies examined, which did not belong to Israeli hostages, were returned to their place," the statement said, without giving further details.