‘Intense violence’ around north Gaza hospitals causing thousands to flee

Palestinians fleeing north Gaza move southward (REUTERS)
Palestinians fleeing north Gaza move southward (REUTERS)

Thousands of Palestinians sheltering from Israel’s war on Hamas at Gaza City’s largest hospital have fled south as explosions and “intense violence” were reported at or around the compound and other medical facilities.

The Israeli military said 100,000 people have moved from the north to the south of Gaza in the last couple of days, with forces operating “deep in Gaza City”. Northern Gaza has become the epicentre of the military operation, although much of the Strip has faced aerial bombardment in the wake of the attack by Hamas inside Israel that killed 1,400 people and saw around 240 more taken hostage in Gaza. The health ministry in the Hamas-run Strip says that more than 11,000 people have been killed in the continuous airstrikes that have followed, while a blockade of the territory has left fuel, food, water and medical supplies running low.

The World Health Organisation said colleagues had reported “intense violence” at al-Shifa hospital, the territory’s largest, and “significant bombardment” around Nasser Rantissi hospital.

The search for safety across the Strip has grown desperate as Israel intensifies its assault on the territory’s largest city. The Israeli army says Hamas’s military infrastructure is nestled amid Gaza City’s hospitals and neighbourhoods, and officials have vowed to destroy the group after its deadly 7 October attack.

Palestinian officials said airstrikes had directly hit or landed near four hospitals and a school on Friday. That included hitting the courtyard and the obstetrics department of al-Shifa hospital, where tens of thousands of people are sheltering, according to Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesperson at the health ministry. Videos posted online appeared to show screaming and bloodied people, including children, in the grounds of al-Shifa.

Israeli army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht told an evening briefing that the army “does not fire on hospitals”.

“If we see Hamas terrorists firing from hospitals we’ll do what we need to do. We’re aware of the sensitivity [of hospitals], but again, if we see Hamas terrorists, we’ll kill them,” he said.

“We’re not dropping bombs right now on Shifa or Rantisi,” he added. When asked if there was a plan to deal with patients in the hospitals, including people who can’t walk or are on drips, Lt Col Hecht said: “We’re saying to Hamas to move people south.”

Israeli officials have repeatedly said they believe Hamas’s headquarters is in al-Shifa hospital’s basement. Hospital officials have denied this.

Israeli tanks, which have been advancing through northern Gaza for almost two weeks, have taken up positions around the Nasser Rantissi, as well as the al-Quds hospital, medical staff said. The Palestinian Red Cross said Israeli forces were shooting at al-Quds, and there were violent clashes, with one person killed and 28 wounded, most of them children. Palestinian officials of the health ministry in Gaza said they believed more than two dozen people were killed in strikes in the north of the territory on Friday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement that hospitals in Gaza have “reached a point of no return”, risking the lives of thousands of people. The ICRC said its staff attempting to deliver medical supplies had witnessed “horrendous” scenes and that “any military operation around hospitals must consider the presence of civilians, who are protected under international humanitarian law”.

Among those fleeing al-Shifa was 32-year-old Haneen Abu Awda, who was being treated for wounds from an earlier strike on their house. “The strikes were hoping to scare people and it worked. It was too intense and it became too much,” they told the Associated Press.

The Israeli military announced an expanded six-hour window on Friday for civilians to escape northern Gaza along Salah al-Din, the main north/south highway used since last weekend. It also announced the opening of a second route, along the coastal road, after an agreement announced by the White House a day earlier.

The White House said Israel agreed to implement a four-hour humanitarian pause each day — in what appeared to be an effort to formalise and expand the process.

More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes since the war began. Israel estimates that more than 850,000 of the 1.1 million people in northern Gaza have left, according to military spokesperson Jonathan Conricus. He called the pauses “quick humanitarian windows” that allow southward movement “while we are fighting”.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said “far too many” Palestinians had been killed as Israel pushes ahead with its war against Hamas in Gaza, saying more needs to be done to protect the civilians.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi as he wrapped up a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Asia, he said: “Far too many Palestinians have been killed; far too many have suffered these past weeks.”

“And we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximise the assistance that gets to them,” he said, adding that Washington would be discussing further steps with Israel to advance these objectives.

Mr Blinken said the US had concrete plans to get more humanitarian assistance in and take steps to ensure more protection for civilians, but achieving such objectives was a process. He did not go into further detail.

“This is a process, and it's not always flipping a light switch, but we have seen progress. We just need to see more of it,” he said.

Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets into Israel, and an attack on Tel Aviv wounded at least two people on Friday, said Yossi Elkabetz, a paramedic with Israel’s rescue services. Hamas claimed credit.

Some 250,000 Israelis have been forced to evacuate from communities near Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants have traded fire repeatedly.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report