Ever since the Israeli army’s strikes on the Gaza Strip began after the October 7 Hamas attack, the al-Shifa Hospital in the northern part of the besieged enclave has been prominently featured in the news.
For the past five days, it has been at the centre of everything as Gaza’s death toll has risen, with more than 11,500 Palestinians, nearly half of them children, killed by Israeli forces.
Brutal scenes are unfolding at the hospital as snipers have spent days shooting at anyone trying to move from one medical building to the other, prompting international outcries. But the Israeli army appears unfazed.
The significance of al-Shifa Hospital is beyond the medical.
The storied medical complex, whose name translates into “House of Healing”, has been described as the beating heart of Gaza.
It has been there since the time of the British rule over Palestine and became a hospital in 1946 after originally housing British army barracks. It has survived several wars and many years of Israeli occupation.
Since last month, it has been denied urgently needed supplies of medicine and fuel – and that was before Israeli troops broke in and blew up its dwindling stores of medicine.
Hospital staff had to bury dozens of people in a mass grave on the grounds as they were out of options. Dead bodies lie around its courtyard still.
Beyond that, al-Shifa is seen as a nerve centre for the Gaza government’s administrative bodies. Health ministry officials have held press conferences amid the corpses there, and the government’s media ministry has operated out of the hospital.
Al-Shifa kept its internet connectivity at times when the rest of Gaza was cut off by Israel, so it has also been a hot spot for journalists, some of whom are trapped there now. The hospital’s director and its doctors and staff have been providing constant updates whenever possible, often rejecting Israeli claims – like one on Wednesday that it had allowed aid into the hospital.
For some Palestinians, the hospital has become a symbol of strength and standing up to a militarily stronger force that shows little restraint. Images of dead babies and maimed children that have been broadcast from inside the hospital to the world have inspired many millions to take to the streets in support of Palestinians.
Why is Israel doing this?
Israel has said it wants to take charge of Gaza’s security in the future. It has contradicted its main ally, the United States, on that point since Washington wants the Palestinian Authority to take over.
But they seem to be on the same page on “destroying” Hamas, so the ground operation would need to expand for that to happen. Taking over the main hospital in town would be essential in that scenario.
But just as al-Shifa has found new meaning among Palestinians and those watching from around the globe, what happens at the hospital has become paramount for Israel.
Israel wants to dismantle the hub that al-Shifa has become and take over what it has said it sees as the stronghold of Hamas’s military and administrative capabilities. What happens to the hospital could also have an impact on the future of negotiations on releasing captives and allowing desperately needed humanitarian aid and fuel into Gaza.
A doctor at the hospital, Munir al-Bursh, told Israeli forces how their presence is creating a “state of fear and hysteria”, according to a recording obtained by Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
The Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor has said “the army might be creating the scene that might be released later” as it is the sole party controlling the atmosphere inside the hospital.
Israel’s targeting of hospitals has been deeply controversial.
Nearly a month ago, it was accused of a deadly attack on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, but Israel and the West blamed it on Palestinian fighters firing a faulty rocket from within the Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday, US-based news outlet CNN, embedded with Israeli tanks and military spokesman Daniel Hagari, went inside the al-Shifa Hospital to ostensibly prove Israel’s claims against Hamas. Hagari showed the outlet several rusted rifles and a chair as evidence that Hamas was operating there and holding captives.
What’s the latest at al-Shifa?
The Israeli army has spent the past several days gradually tightening its noose around the hospital.
As part of its ground offensive into northern Gaza, it came in and surrounded the largest hospital in the Strip with soldiers, tanks, armoured vehicles, and attack drones supported by snipers.
The Israeli troops have now made their way into the hospital and raided several departments. They set up electronic checkpoints at multiple doors of the main buildings. Their tanks are in the courtyard.
This is while thousands of people are still trapped in the hospital. These include many displaced Palestinians taking shelter there, critically ill patients with nowhere to go, and exhausted medical staff and personnel.
According to first-hand accounts, Israeli troops targeted generators and communications units before storming in, and they also interrogated dozens of stripped and blindfolded people who already had their access to water and basic hygiene cut off.
Is Hamas under the hospital?
Israel’s main supporting claim for laying siege to the most important hospital in Gaza is that Hamas has a main command centre operating from within and under the hospital.
This is a claim that has also been backed by the US, prompting Hamas to hold Washington “wholly responsible” for effectively giving the green light to attack a hospital filled with civilians.
Neither Tel Aviv nor the White House have released any independently verified evidence to back this claim, which has been refuted by a number of the doctors and staff at the hospital.
And there has been no clear evidence that a number of the captives taken by Hamas during its October 7 attack are being held within the confines of the hospital.
Israel has also failed to allow any independent third parties into the area in order to verify claims by each side. Such heavily disputed claims have historically ended up unproven.