Did Israel build a bunker under al-Shifa hospital?

Israel’s ongoing assault on al-Shifa hospital – where 7,000 people are currently besieged in desperate conditions – may be part of its attempt to prove its claims that Hamas operates a sophisticated command bunker under the hospital.

That James Bond villain-like lair was depicted in an animation released by the Israeli army last month.

Israel has never offered any evidence for its claims. But as I explain in the video at the top of this article recorded on Wednesday, its assertions go back to at least 2009.

That year, The New York Times reported that “The Israeli intelligence chief, Yuval Diskin, in a report to the Israeli cabinet, said that the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas was in underground housing beneath the No. 2 building of al Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza. That allegation cannot be confirmed.”

Also in 2009, Haaretz reported that “Senior Hamas officials in Gaza are hiding out in a ‘bunker’ built by Israel, intelligence officials suspect.”

“Many are believed to be in the basements of the al-Shifa hospital complex in Gaza City, which was refurbished during Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip,” the Tel Aviv newspaper added.

And in 2014, the pro-Israel publication Tablet asserted that “The Israelis are so sure about the location of the Hamas bunker … not because they are trying to score propaganda points, or because it has been repeatedly mentioned in passing by Western reporters – but because they built it.

“Back in 1983, when Israel still ruled Gaza, they built a secure underground operating room and tunnel network beneath al-Shifa hospital – which is one among several reasons why Israeli security sources are so sure that there is a main Hamas command bunker in or around the large cement basement beneath the area of Building 2 of the hospital,” Tablet added.

Israel claims it destroyed underground infrastructure in 2021

During its assault on Gaza in May 2021, Israel heavily bombed the area around al-Shifa, perpetrating what came to be known as the al-Wihda Street massacre.

“The air raids turned one of the busiest streets in Gaza, and the main access point to the strip’s chief hospital al-Shifa, into a crater-marked moonscape,” Britain’s The Independent reported at the time.

“In place of apartment blocks are mangled heaps of concrete fringed with curls of iron rebar and scraps of belongings.”

When challenged over the death and devastation its attacks caused to apartment buildings and their civilian residents near al-Shifa, the Israeli military claimed that it was attacking “underground military infrastructure” that was located under the road.

“The underground military facilities collapsed causing the foundations of the civilian houses above them to collapse as well leading to unintended casualties,” the army added.

Israel never presented any evidence to support these claims.

But now, as it besieges and attacks the hospital again, Israel expects the world to believe that Hamas would keep its main command center in exactly the location Israeli and American newspapers have said it is in for years, and which Israel asserted in 2021 had been substantially destroyed.

Still, given Israel’s propensity to lie, it may well “discover” an underground facility which Israel itself built, and try to present it to the world as vindication of its accusations.

Israel releases more videos

On Thursday evening, the Israeli military released a video showing a cache of weapons displayed on the ground in an outdoor area, that it claims was found in al-Shifa hospital.

The military offered no evidence that the weapons – about a half dozen rifles, some magazines, hand grenades and what appears to be a drill – were found inside the hospital.

It also released a video showing what it claims is the entrance to a tunnel near the hospital. The brief video shows a hole in the ground surrounded by overturned earth and rubble, making it difficult to discern what is depicted.

Earlier this month, Israel claimed to have found the entrance to a Hamas tunnel near the Qatari-funded Sheikh Hamad hospital. The opening was in fact a water reservoir for the hospital.

Biden admits “indiscriminate bombing” by Israel

Trapped inside al-Shifa, some 7,000 people face a catastrophic situation and a slow death, without a water supply, food, medicine, medical oxygen, fuel or electricity.

On Thursday, Israel continued to lay siege to al-Shifa as its troops ransacked buildings and bulldozers carried out excavations around the hospital and its grounds, including severing the main water line.

This comes as US President Joe Biden continued to push Israel’s claims that Hamas uses the hospital as a command center.

He also repeated previously debunked atrocity propaganda that Hamas fighters beheaded and burned dozens of Israeli babies on 7 October.

And despite other comments Wednesday evening that show Biden to be out of touch with the realities of the situation, he did inadvertently admit that Israel has been bombing Gaza indiscriminately.

Defending what he claimed was a careful Israeli assault on al-Shifa, the president said “this is a different story than I believe was occurring before, an indiscriminate bombing.”

This admission means there can be no doubt that Biden has been arming Israel while knowing it is indiscriminately killing civilians, including thousands of children – a confession that will be of great interest to those trying to hold him legally accountable for war crimes and stop the slaughter in Gaza.

Patients dying

Speaking with Al Jazeera Arabic on Thursday, al-Shifa hospital’s director Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya said that one dialysis patient had died earlier in the day and four others faced imminent death.

In total the hospital is caring for 45 patients who require dialysis – something they can’t receive with no electricity to run the machines.

Two of some 650 injured people had died because staff could not provide effective treatment. Wounds he said are becoming seriously infected, some with maggots.

Of 39 premature babies in the hospital, three had died in recent days, according to Abu Salmiya.

With no electricity or fuel, incubators have stopped functioning. Purified water to make special formula for the babies has run out, so staff are using ordinary water and some of the infants are now sick with diarrhea, infections and fever.

Thousands of displaced people, many of them children, have no food and are suffering from worsening desperation and hunger.

Meanwhile, according to Dr. Abu Salmiya, the hospital compound is besieged from all sides by tanks and bulldozers, but no one can see clearly what they are doing.

He said that anyone who tries to move between hospital buildings is shot at by snipers or drones.

Israelis refuse to speak

According to Dr. Abu Salmiya, hospital administrators tried to send a delegation to speak with the Israeli military and ask for food, water, fuel, medicine and other urgent relief supplies.

On Wednesday, Israel presented a few guns and other equipment it claims to have found in one al-Shifa hospital building.

The so-called evidence did not corroborate Israel’s longstanding claims that Hamas has a sophisticated command bunker under the hospital.

It was met with the same widespread skepticism and derision as the farcical “evidence” of Hamas activity that Israel offered after it raided the Rantisi children’s hospital days earlier.

Over the 48 hours that Israeli forces have occupied parts of the al-Shifa compound, no shots have been fired at them, according to Dr. Abu Salmiya.

Palestinian resistance groups have firmly denied they use hospitals for military activities and have regularly called for impartial international bodies to visit the hospitals and investigate Israel’s claims.

“Israeli soldiers briefly exchanged fire with gunmen outside the hospital before going in, a senior military official said, but more than 12 hours after it began, the operation appeared more like a police raid than a pitched battle,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper quoted a witness inside the hospital recounting that the Israelis “are digging and excavating and breaking tiles and looking.”

While there is a particular focus on al-Shifa, Israel is also now laying siege to al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City.

Biden repeats Israeli lies

On Wednesday evening, President Joe Biden repeated Israeli assertions that Hamas has a major command center located under al-Shifa hospital.

“Here’s the situation,” Biden told reporters after meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping in San Francisco. “You have a circumstance where the first war crime is being committed by Hamas by having their headquarters, their military hidden under a hospital. And that’s a fact. That’s what’s happened.”

Administration officials have made similar assertions in recent days but have adamantly declined to offer any evidence for them. Nonetheless, they are a green light for Israel’s attack on al-Shifa.

“We’ve discussed the need for them to be incredibly careful,” Biden added. “You have a circumstance where you know there is a fair number of Hamas terrorists. Hamas has already said publicly that they plan on attacking Israel again like they did before, to where they were cutting babies’ heads off to burn – burning women and children alive.”

Last month Biden notoriously stated that he had seen photos corroborating Israeli claims that Palestinian fighters had beheaded dozens of beheaded babies, before the White House had to admit the president had been shown no such photos.

Israel has presented no evidence for that claim and many of its other assertions. Meanwhile there’s a growing body of evidence that Israeli forces killed many of their own civilians on and after 7 October.

Defending Israel’s actions at al-Shifa, Biden asserted, “they’re also bringing in incubators. They’re bringing in other – other means to help the people in the hospital, and they’ve given the doctors and – I’m told – the doctors and nurses and personnel an opportunity to get out of harm’s way.”

Were Biden well-informed, he would know that al-Shifa and other hospitals in Gaza do not lack incubators, but the electricity and fuel to power them.

Notably, al-Shifa director Abu Salmiya told Al Jazeera earlier that the Israelis had delivered no supplies to the hospital – in spite of propaganda by the Israeli army designed to market its attack on the hospital as a “humanitarian” operation.

Abu Salmiya said that despite the dire circumstances, the medical staff would not abandon their patients and would stay there and die with them if it came to that.