Palestinians Flee as Israeli Forces Raid a Major Hospital in Gaza

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The Israeli military on Thursday raided the largest hospital still functioning in the Gaza Strip, in what it called a search for Hamas fighters and the bodies of hostages. Many people who had sought shelter there were forced to flee from combat once again.

Explosions and gunfire rocked the hospital in the city of Khan Younis, the Nasser Medical Complex, before the predawn raid, killing and wounding several people including at least one doctor and a patient, according to a doctor there, as well as the charity Doctors Without Borders, which had staff members at the hospital, and Gaza health authorities. The specific casualty claims, like many assertions in the conflict, could not be immediately confirmed.

Videos posted on social media on Thursday and voice messages sent by doctors during the night, both before and after Israeli forces smashed through the perimeter wall and entered the compound, depicted scenes of chaos and fear inside the damaged, smoke-filled hospital, punctuated by automatic gunfire, explosions and shouting.

One video, verified by The New York Times, showed damage to the hospital and injured people being rushed through a smoke-filled corridor among debris amid sounds of gunfire. Witnesses said people by the hundreds — possibly thousands — later stood in long lines as Israeli troops screened them, a few at a time, for evacuation.

The Israeli military said it had detained dozens of people, but did not say who or why.

“We have credible intelligence from a number of sources, including from released hostages, indicating that Hamas held hostages at the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, and that there may be bodies of our hostages in the Nasser hospital facility,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the Israeli military, said in a video statement.

The military did not say whether hostages or Hamas fighters had been found. Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the health ministry in Gaza, said that Israeli forces had used bulldozers to dig up graves on the hospital grounds.

For two days before the raid, Israeli forces surrounding the medical center had told displaced people over loudspeakers to evacuate, signaling that a raid was coming, though international rights and medical groups warned of dire consequences. Some of the Palestinians who took refuge there did leave, but others said it was too dangerous — some had tried and said that gunfire and airstrikes had forced them to turn back.

Doctors and health officials said that some people who tried to flee on Tuesday were killed. Asked for comment, the Israeli military did not respond to specific allegations about people coming under fire.

“We really don’t know what to do,” a local journalist, Mohammed Salama, said in a video posted on Wednesday to social media. In the background, people lined up with sacks of belongings to leave the hospital, but he said people who tried to evacuate were forced to stand at checkpoint lines for hours.

The Israeli military said Thursday that it had opened a “humanitarian corridor” for people leaving the hospital, but even then witnesses who fled said it was a harrowing and perilous experience.

Gazan officials said that about 300 medical workers, 450 wounded patients and 8,000 people displaced from their homes elsewhere in the territory were on the hospital grounds when the week began. It was unclear how many were still there by Thursday morning.

While trying to crush Hamas in Gaza, Israel also faces a conflict with Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group based in Lebanon, which has stepped up its rocket fire on Israel in solidarity with Hamas. The two sides have traded dozens of attacks across Israel’s northern border since October, and both have threatened further escalation. U.S. officials have counseled calm, trying to avoid the opening of a full-fledged second front in the war.

Israeli forces carried out multiple airstrikes in Lebanon on Thursday, a day after a series of strikes that Lebanese state media said had killed 10 civilians, and that Hezbollah said had killed several of its fighters.

The raid on Nasser hospital was “a precise and limited operation,” conducted by “special forces who underwent special training for this mission,” Admiral Hagari said. Israeli forces had not told patients or medical staff to leave, he added, saying that Israel in fact wanted the hospital to continue functioning.

But by multiple accounts, most of the medical workers and patients did evacuate. Mr. Salama said that Israeli troops were telling doctors to leave, though not by the same route as others. Doctors Without Borders said in a statement, “our medical staff have had to flee the hospital, leaving patients behind,” and that “one of our colleagues was detained” by the Israelis.

Dr. Islam Sawaly, a doctor at Nasser, said she and a group of others left the hospital around 3 a.m. and walked for more than four hours along a dark road pocked with potholes. “We fell into sewage ditches,” she said. Finally, they reached the area of Miraj, between Khan Younis and Rafah, the city along the border with Egypt where more than a million Gazans have sought refuge.

Doctors Without Borders said only the sickest patients had stayed behind at Nasser, though the number was unclear. In voice memos shared by the group, a doctor at the hospital, whose name it withheld for his safety, said Israeli troops had ordered all remaining staff and patients into one building, the oldest in the complex, and that only about 40 employees were left.

Before the raid began, a rocket struck the hospital at about 2 a.m., killing a patient in his bed and injuring six others, the doctor said in the voice message. Dr. Sawaly said another rocket strike had killed a doctor and left two other people with burns, though Gazan health officials said the doctor was injured but not killed.

Hospitals have been a flashpoint throughout the war that began with the Oct. 7 Hamas-led assault on Israel that Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostage, of whom more than 130 are still thought to be held in Gaza. Talks mediated by Egypt and Qatar, on a cease-fire and the release of the remaining hostages, are underway this week in Cairo, but the two sides appear to be far apart.

Israel has faced widespread international condemnation for its conduct in the war, which has killed more than 28,000 people in Gaza, the health authorities there say, and destroyed much of the enclave’s infrastructure. Much of that criticism has focused on attacks on hospitals, mosques and schools, which are supposed to be protected under the laws of war.

Israel has long accused Hamas, which had governed Gaza since 2007, of using such places as de facto military bases and the civilians there as human shields — itself a violation of international law — wagering that they are less likely to be targeted directly. In some cases, the Israelis contend, beneath those facilities are important nodes in Hamas’s vast tunnel network. Hamas and hospital administrators deny the claims.

Most of Gaza’s hospitals have stopped operating as hospitals. Those that still do are overcrowded, many have been damaged, and they lack critical supplies. Israel says it has ensured the delivery of needed supplies to Nasser; the United Nations says Israel has blocked such deliveries.

Israel has repeatedly ordered civilian evacuations, beginning in northern Gaza and working its way southward, displacing many people multiple times and steadily forcing them into more crowded spaces. Palestinians and aid groups say that amid falling bombs, street battles and scarce supplies, there is no safe place in Gaza.

Khan Younis, one of the major cities of southern Gaza, has been the focus of ground combat for weeks, and Israeli officials describe it as a Hamas stronghold.

More than half of Gaza’s roughly 2.3 million people have sought refuge in Rafah, many of them sleeping in makeshift shelters and tents. Israeli officials have said the military will eventually enter Rafah in force, as well.

Reporting was contributed by Rawan Sheikh Ahmad from Haifa, Israel; Ameera Harouda from Doha, Qatar; Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Adam Sella from Tel Aviv, Euan Ward from Beirut and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.





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