israel gaza
A picture taken from the border between Israel and Gaza shows buildings heavily destroyed by Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip, on November 17, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Image Credit: AFP

Gaza Strip: Israeli troops carried out building-by-building searches at Gaza’s main hospital, as a new communications blackout in the territory on Friday compounded fears for Palestinian civilians trapped inside the facility.

Al Shifa hospital has become a focal point for Israeli operations in northern Gaza since soldiers raided the complex on Wednesday, hunting for a command centre they say militant group Hamas operates there.

Hamas and hospital managers deny that charge, and there has been international concern about several thousand people - including wounded patients and premature babies - believed to be trapped inside.

Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas in response to the group’s October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and saw about 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s air bombardment and ground operation has killed 11,500 people, including thousands of children, according to Hamas-run local authorities in Gaza.

Thick dark smoke rose over the northern Gaza Strip on Friday, an AFPTV live camera showed.

Israeli authorities have defended their operation, and the military said Thursday it found rifles, ammunition, explosives and the entrance to a tunnel shaft at Al-Shifa.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged hostages may even have been held at the medical facility.

“We had strong indications that they were held in the Shifa Hospital, which is one of the reasons we entered the hospital,” he told “CBS Evening News”.

“If they were (there), they were taken out,” he said.

Allegations about the hospital have not been verified, and on Friday communications with the Gaza Strip were severed once again.

Network provider Paltel group said all telecommunications were down because “all energy sources sustaining the network have been depleted, and fuel was not allowed in”.

The UN warned that the blackout would compound the misery of civilians, complicating efforts to distribute aid and possibly triggering looting of its supplies.

“When you have a blackout and you cannot communicate with anyone anymore... that triggers and fuels even more the anxiety and the panic,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.

‘Immediate possibility of starvation’

Israel said its forces were searching Al Shifa “one building at a time,” and the army announced Friday that troops had recovered the remains of kidnapped woman soldier Noa Marciano, 19, “from a structure adjacent to Al Shifa hospital”.

The army had confirmed earlier in the week the death of Marciano, without giving the cause. Hamas said she had been killed in an Israeli bombardment.

On Thursday the army said soldiers near Al Shifa had found the body of another hostage.

Yehudit Weiss, 65, was kidnapped from her home in the border kibbutz community of Beeri, one of the areas worst-hit by the brutal Hamas assault.

Her husband was killed in the attack, a hostage support group said.

On Thursday, Jews and Arabs came together for the funeral of another casualty of the Beeri attack - peace activist Vivian Silver, who was hailed as an “extraordinary woman”.

Negotiations are ongoing for the release of the hostages, some of them just infants, in exchange for a pause in fighting.

Qatar, where Hamas has political offices, and Egypt have been mediating what Egypt’s foreign minister described Thursday as “very delicate” discussions.

“We are hopeful that our efforts and the efforts of others will bring about the speedy release,” Sameh Shoukry said.

On the ground, conditions are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinian civilians, UN agencies have warned.

More than 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and Israel’s blockade of the territory means “civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation,” World Food Programme executive director Cindy McCain said.

Food and water have become “practically non-existent,” the agency added.

Lazzarini described children sheltering at a UN school “pleading for a sip of water, or for a loaf of bread”.

‘Settler violence’

Israel’s ground operation has so far focused on the north of the Gaza Strip, where it has announced the seizure of the parliament building, government offices, Hamas police headquarters and a key port. It says 51 of its troops have been killed in the fighting.

Hospitals have become a particular target, with Israel saying it has found tunnels or military equipment at the Al Shifa, Rantisi and Al Quds facilities.

Palestinian health officials said Thursday that the Al Ahli hospital was under attack, with the Palestinian Red Crescent saying medical staff were unable to reach casualties in the courtyard because of explosions and gunfire.

Washington has backed Israel’s allegations that Hamas is using hospitals as command centres, while urging that operations be “incredibly careful”.

More than half of Gaza’s hospitals are no longer functional, due to either combat, damage, or shortages, and Israel’s raid on Al Shifa left extensive damage to the radiology, burns and dialysis unit, the Hamas-run health ministry said.

Alongside the war in Gaza, there is growing concern about violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians has surged.

In an attack claimed by Hamas, three gunmen on Thursday killed an Israeli soldier and wounded five others at a checkpoint leading into Jerusalem from the West Bank.

Overnight, a large deployment of Israeli troops raided the Jenin refugee camp, AFP reporters there said, prompting clashes. Israel’s military did not immediately comment.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged Israel to take “urgent” action to “de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including by confronting rising levels of settler extremist violence,” the State Department said.

Elsewhere, Israeli warplanes again hit targets near the Syrian capital, Syria’s state news agency reported. The strikes caused damage but there were no reports of casualties.