Patients and internally displaced people at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

GAZA STRIP: Intense fighting raged around Gaza’s biggest hospital on Sunday where doctors said thousands of Palestinians were trapped in dire conditions, as Israel pledged to help evacuate babies from the crippled facility.

Gaza City’s Al Shifa hospital is caught in Israel’s ground offensive aimed at destroying Hamas, and the compound has been repeatedly hit by strikes, one of which Hamas health officials said destroyed the cardiac ward on Sunday.

The Israeli military has denied deliberately targeting the hospital and has accused the Islamist militant group of using medical facilities or tunnels under them as hideouts — a charge Hamas denies.

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Thousands of medics, patients and displaced people are trapped in the territory’s largest hospital with no electricity and dwindling supplies, health officials say.

The Health Ministry says there are still 1,500 patients at Al Shifa, along with 1,500 medical personnel and between 15,000 and 20,000 people seeking shelter. Thousands have fled Al Shifa and other hospitals, but physicians said it’s impossible for everyone to get out.

The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said another Gaza City hospital, Al Quds, is “no longer operational” because it has run out of fuel. Gaza’s sole power plant was forced to shut down a month ago, and Israel has barred any fuel imports, saying Hamas would use them for military purposes.

Fears have intensified for patients and people taking refuge in Al Shifa and other healthcare facilities in Gaza, and medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned that without a ceasefire or evacuation the hospital “will become a morgue”.

“The situation in Al Shifa is truly catastrophic,” said Ann Taylor, head of the Palestinian Territories mission for MSF.

Other buildings serving as shelters have also been hit, including a strike on a UN compound in Gaza City that the United Nations Development Programme said late Saturday caused “a significant number of deaths and injuries.”

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas fighters smashed through the militarised border with Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking about 240 people hostage, according to the most recent Israeli figures.

Israel’s relentless campaign in response has killed more than 11,000 people, also mostly civilians and including thousands of children, according to the latest figures from the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

The ministry has not updated tolls for two days citing the collapse of hospital services.

Witnesses inside the Al Shifa hospital told AFP by phone on Sunday that “violent fighting” had raged around the hospital the whole night.

Dire conditions in Gaza hospitals

Inside Al Shifa hospital, Doctors Without Borders surgeon Mohammad Obeid said there was no water, power, food or internet access for about 600 post-operative patients, 37-40 babies and 17 people in intensive care.

The surgeon said in an audio message posted on Saturday on social media that two babies died in the Al Shifa neonatal unit after power to their incubators was cut off and a man also died when his ventilator shut down.

The Israeli military pledged on Saturday to aid the evacuation of babies from the hospital, noting that “staff of the Al Shifa hospital has requested that tomorrow”.

Military spokesman Daniel Hagari said that “we will help the babies in the paediatric department to get to a safer hospital. We will provide the assistance needed.”

A “safe passage” was to be opened from Al Shifa to allow people to flee toward the south, The Israeli military said on Sunday.

Twenty of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are “no longer functioning”, according to the UN’s humanitarian agency.

Very little aid has made it into Gaza in the five weeks of war, with the densely populated coastal territory effectively sealed off by a total blockade that Israel has vowed to maintain until the hostages are freed.

The Israeli military confirmed that a Jordanian plane dropped medical equipment and food to the Jordanian Hospital in the Gaza Strip.

The army declined to elaborate further, and Israel’s Foreign Ministry also made no comment.

As the fighting raged, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday ruled out a role for the current Palestinian Authority government in Gaza once the war is over.

“There will have to be something else there,” he said, when asked whether the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has partial administrative control in the occupied West Bank, may govern Gaza after the war.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this month, said the PA could only assume power in Gaza if a “comprehensive political solution” is found for the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict encompassing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, in an interview earlier this week, said that Israel would assume “overall security” over Gaza “for an indefinite period” after the war.

Many thousands flee south

Perched on trucks, crammed in cars, pulled by donkeys on carts, and on foot, many thousands of Palestinians have fled Israeli army strikes on the territory squeezed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Youssef Mehna, one of many who moved south, said his sick wife is in a wheelchair so he had to rent “carts pulled by donkeys, trucks, cars” to transport her.

Sometimes, between rides, they were forced to go on foot. “So it was me who pushed my wife’s chair,” he told AFP.

Almost 1.6 million people have been internally displaced since October 7, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA. This equals about two-thirds of Gaza’s population.

However, people arriving in the south were no longer able to find tents or improvised shelter, with some sleeping in the streets, according to AFP journalists.

Strikes were also hitting buildings at the southern end of Gaza in Rafah, the area to which civilians have been urged to evacuate.