Two days after entering Gaza’s largest medical complex, the Israeli military brought journalists from The New York Times through an area of wartime destruction to a stone-and-concrete shaft on its grounds with a staircase descending into the earth. They claimed it was evidence of a Hamas military facility under the hospital.
Col. Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s Seventh Brigade, said Israeli forces had not ventured down the shaft at the hospital due to fear of booby traps. It was discovered earlier in the day under a pile of sand on the northern perimeter of the complex.
It was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went, but the military said it had sent a drone down at least several meters. Electrical wiring and a metal staircase were visible inside. The controlled visit will not settle the question of whether Hamas has been using Al-Shifa Hospital to hide weapons and command centers, as Israel has claimed.
This claim is central to Israel’s defense of the death toll caused by its military campaign in Gaza. Hamas denies the accusation, saying Israel is committing war crimes by targeting civilian facilities such as hospitals.
The Israeli military has yet to present public documentation of such an extensive network, despite claiming that Hamas used a vast maze of tunnels underneath the hospital as a secret base.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli forces had found proof of their allegations about Al-Shifa, and had also found a lot of weapons, ammunition, bombs, and a Hamas command and control center with military encoded encryption.
Colonel Tsury acknowledged that there is pressure on Israel to show evidence of Hamas activity at the hospital. He said it might be days until troops descended the shaft; however, soldiers were methodically searching the complex and found weapons, explosives, computers, and the body of an Israeli hostage in a nearby building.
Another military official said Israeli troops had captured and interrogated a Hamas operative at the hospital but offered no further detail.
In order to enter Gaza, two reporters and a photographer for The Times were obliged to remain with Israeli troops. They were only allowed to see part of the Al-Shifa complex; the military refused to let the journalists explore the hospital, or see or interview patients and medical staff who remain in the facility. Before Israel’s raid on Al-Shifa, the World Health Organization said that it had ceased to be a functional hospital. Officials described desperate conditions: Food, medicine, anesthetics, generators, and lifesaving equipment had all but run out due to a lack of fuel. Some three dozen premature babies were at particular risk, they said.
Colonel Tsury said the military had provided food, supplies, and medical equipment to patients and doctors, an assertion that could not be immediately verified.
The extent of the damage to the hospital was not entirely clear, but its main emergency building seemed intact, with electricity, after a dayslong siege that had led to increasingly dire conditions. Gunfire could be heard nearby throughout The Times’s visit, and the Israel military escorted journalists through destroyed remains to enter the hospital grounds. Sections of the city’s seafront promenade had been razed to the ground, apartment blocks had been hollowed out by shelling, and others were flattened by airstrikes. Ongoing tank traffic had also affected the main coastal road.