By: Najib Jobain
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip – Health officials said 31 premature babies in “extremely critical condition” were transferred safely Sunday from Gaza’s main hospital and will go to Egypt, while over 250 patients with severely infected wounds and other urgent conditions remained stranded days after Israeli forces entered the compound to look for Hamas operations.
The plight of the babies, along with the Israeli claims against Shifa Hospital, have become potent symbols in the devastating war between Israel and Hamas. An Israeli offensive has taken a heavy toll on Palestinian civilians, while Israel has accused Hamas of using Shifa and other hospitals as headquarters for military operations.
The newborns from the hospital, where power was cut and supplies ran out while Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants outside, were receiving urgent care in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. They had dehydration, hypothermia and sepsis in some cases, said Mohamed Zaqout, director of Gaza hospitals. Four other babies died in the two days before the evacuation, he said.
A World Health Organization team that visited Shifa said most of the remaining patients had amputations, burns or other trauma. Plans were being made to evacuate them in the coming days.
Later Sunday, Israel’s army said it had strong evidence supporting its claims that Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under Shifa. Israel has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end Hamas’ rule in Gaza following the militant group’s into southern Israel six weeks ago.
The army said it found a 55-meter (60-yard) tunnel about 10 meters (33 feet) under the hospital’s 20-acre complex, which includes several buildings, garages and a plaza. It said the tunnel included a staircase and a firing hole that could be used by snipers, and ended at a blast-proof door that troops have not yet opened.
The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify Israel’s findings, which included security camera video showing what the military said were two foreign hostages, one Thai and one Nepalese, taken to the hospital following the Oct. 7 attack.
The army also said an independent medical report had determined that Israeli army Cpl. Noa Marciano, whose body was recovered in Gaza, had been killed by Hamas in the hospital. Marciano had been injured in an Israeli strike Nov. 9 that killed her captor, according to Israel's intelligence assessment. The injuries were not life-threatening but she was then killed by a Hamas militant in Shifa, the army said.
Hamas and hospital staff have denied the allegations of a command post under Shifa. Critics describe the hospital as a symbol of what they call Israel’s reckless endangerment of civilians. Thousands have been killed in Israeli strikes in Gaza, which is severely short of food, water, medicine and fuel.
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed the Israeli military’s announcement and didn't deny that Gaza has hundreds of kilometers of tunnels. However, he said, “the Israelis said there was a command and control center, which means that the matter is greater than just a tunnel.”
About 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians during the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza and shattered Israel’s sense of security. The military says 63 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including 12 over the past 24 hours.
Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two were found near Shifa.
Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating a hostage release for weeks. “We are hopeful that we can get a significant number of hostages freed in the coming days,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Herzog, told ABC’s “This Week.”
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said the sticking points were "more practical, logistical.”
Israel's three-member war cabinet is to meet with representatives of the hostages’ families on Monday evening.