On Tuesday night, hours after U.S. officials backed Israel’s claims about militant activity at Shifa, Israeli troops raided the complex in what the military described as “a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area.” Soldiers moved past the emergency room and through the cardiology unit, staff said, as gunshots rang out and doctors spluttered through the smoke.
The late-night operation was the culmination of weeks of messaging from Israeli officials about alleged Hamas infiltration of hospitals in Gaza. Across dozens of news conferences and media interviews, Israeli officials have repeatedly made the case that medical facilities are being used for military purposes, and that Shifa specifically is the “beating heart” of the group’s command infrastructure in northern Gaza.
Much about the raid on Shifa — and the extent to which it has corroborated those claims — remains unclear.
Hospitals have protected status under international humanitarian law, losing it only in circumstances where a facility is used by a warring party. Even then, the care of patients remains paramount.
“Even if the building loses its special protection, all the people inside retain theirs,” said Adil Haque, the Judge Jon O. Newman Scholar at Rutgers Law School. “Anything that the attacking force can do to allow the humanitarian functions of that hospital to continue, they’re obligated to do, even if there’s some office somewhere in the building where there is maybe a fighter holed up.”
The Israeli military released two videos and some photos Wednesday from Shifa showing what it said were Hamas weapons and other gear recovered from the complex.
The majority of both videos appears to have been filmed inside the hospital’s radiology unit, called the Prince Nayef Center, located next to the emergency room in the heart of the Shifa complex. In the longer video, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Jonathan Conricus gives a single-shot tour of the building, pausing periodically to show where he said Hamas had hidden “go bags.”
He ducks behind an MRI machine to show viewers a backpack with an AK-style rifle and ammunition visible. He then moves down the hall, pausing at a closet where he said four AK-style self-loading rifles with folding stocks were found.
Photographs released later by the IDF appeared to show the full alleged haul, laid out neatly: Military uniforms, 11 guns, three military vests, one with a Hamas logo, nine grenades, two Qurans, a string of prayer beads, a box of dates.
The Washington Post was unable to independently verify who the weapons belonged to or how they came to be inside the radiology unit.
“These arms by themselves hardly seem to justify the military fixation on al-Shifa, even setting the law aside,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group and former legal adviser at the State Department.
Pressed in an interview Wednesday on CNN, another IDF spokesman, Richard Hecht, was cautious in his comments about what the raid had revealed. “We found certain things,” he said. “That’s all I can say at this stage.”
IDF forces found no sign of hostages at the site, Israel’s Army Radio reported.
Parts of the hospital have been co-opted by Hamas during past conflicts, including in 2014, when Amnesty International found that militants used abandoned parts of the complex to “detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects, even as other parts of the hospital continued to function as a medical centre.”
Doctors and other medical workers at the facility have strenuously denied that it is being used for military purposes. The “accusations about al-Shifa Hospital are a comedy play,” Hamas spokesman Basem Naim said Wednesday.
“I and my colleagues would not put our lives at risk because someone with a gun is around,” said Ahmed Mokhallalati, a plastic surgeon still sheltering inside Shifa late Monday. “There are only civilians here.”
A steady stream of photos, videos and voice notes have shown the collapse of the hospital since the start of the war. Corridors became operating rooms, surgeries happened without anesthesia and premature babies were forced from their incubators. When fuel for generators ran dry and the lights went out, doctors were forced to make wrenching decisions over whom to save.
For weeks, Israel has urged civilians and medical staff to evacuate Shifa. While thousands of displaced people heeded the call, making the long march south, doctors have refused to leave their patients.
Other hospitals, no longer able to provide care, have already emptied in recent days, including the al-Rantisi pediatric hospital, where the Israeli military released two videos and a map this week that it said bolstered its claims about hospitals being used as militant hideouts.
Both videos show some of the same spaces. In one, troops are seen discovering weapons and backpacks full of cash. In another, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari gave a tour of the abandoned hospital. Both were heavily edited, occasionally cutting Hagari off midsentence or stringing together different takes.
A hair tie on the ground was cited by Hagari as evidence that Hamas had held hostages in the hospital basement. Written atop a calendar on the wall was “Al-Aqsa Flood,” Hamas’s name for the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Hagari claimed the calendar also listed the names, in Arabic, of Hamas fighters charged with guarding hostages. They were, in fact, just the days of the week.
As Israeli forces moved into Shifa early Wednesday, Omar Zaqout, the emergency room director, told Al Jazeera that the situation was “horror compounded.” There was no water, he said, and more patients were dying as electricity went in and out.
“We felt the army approaching the hospital from the intensity of the shooting, the intensity of the explosions, the intensity of the bombardment around the hospital,” he said.
The Post could not independently verify his claims.
Israel’s military operation in Gaza began after Hamas’s brazen and brutal attack on Israeli border communities. Militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 230 hostage. Unlike its previous wars in Gaza, Israel says this time it is determined to end Hamas rule in the blockaded territory.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in just five weeks, many of them civilians in Gaza City, where Shifa is located. The Gaza Health Ministry stopped releasing updated death toll figures Friday, saying fighting and communications breakdowns had made it impossible to gather information.
The Israeli allegations about Hamas’s presence at Shifa and other hospitals began in the early days of the war. On Oct. 27, the IDF held a news conference on the subject. “Today I will be revealing intelligence proving that Hamas uses hospitals as terror infrastructures,” Hagari said. He claimed that Shifa concealed a vast Hamas command-and-control center, accessed through secret entrances to underground tunnels.
He then showed an animated video of what allegedly lay beneath the facility — masked militants patrolled on one level, which was connected to several offices farther below ground. “This is only an illustration; we will not share here the true material that we have in our hands,” Hagari said, adding that the intelligence had been shared with allies.
Over the weekend, U.S. officials expressed broad support for Israel’s claims about hospitals, but avoided details: “Without getting into this specific hospital or that specific claim, this is Hamas’s track record,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.
On Monday, asked about Shifa, President Biden said hospitals “must be protected.”
Tuesday afternoon, the administration line changed: “We have information that confirms that Hamas is using that particular hospital for a command-and-control mode,” national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One, citing declassified intelligence. “That is a war crime.”
Hours later, Israeli troops entered Shifa.
“We felt it was important to show the world exactly what Hamas was doing,” a U.S. official said Wednesday, explaining the decision to declassify the intelligence. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
“That does not mean that we want military action to be taken at the hospital,” the official said. “Quite the opposite. We do not want to see airstrikes on hospitals [or] firefights inside of hospitals.”
Kirby said Wednesday that American statements the night before had not amounted to a green light for the Israeli operation in Shifa: “We did not give an okay to their military operations around the hospital — in similar fashion to the fact that we don’t give an okay to their other tactical operations.”
Experts described the Biden administration’s strategy as striking. “For the U.S. to come out and declassify intelligence in advance of a potential military operation or to justify that operation in some way” was “highly unusual,” Finucane said.
Israel’s government insisted that the operation inside Shifa was carried out in accordance with international law because troops had given advance warning to Hamas that it must vacate any positions within the hospital.
“That deadline expired and the hospital lost its protected status,” spokesman Eylon Levi said Wednesday.
But scholars said that is not how international law works. “Hospitals only lose special protection while they’re being used to commit acts harmful to the enemy,” Haque said. “Past use or possible future use is not enough. So if Hamas used part of a hospital in the past but abandoned it prior to the IDF attack, the hospital’s protection would snap back into place.”
There was no doubt that the hospital had served as a primary care center until Israeli forces entered. On Tuesday, photographs from hospital staff showed 36 premature babies, removed from their incubators after the fuel to power them ran out, their straining chests no wider than a bag of sugar. Three have already died, the medics said.
The survivors had been placed together for warmth. They appeared to have been wrapped in doctors’ green scrubs.
Kelly reported from Washington. Ellen Nakashima in Washington; Sarah Dadouch in Beirut; and Miriam Berger and Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.