Israel forces closure of Gaza hospitals, kills dozens at al-Shifa

Palestinians bid a final farewell to relatives killed in Israeli bombardment in Rafah, southern Gaza, 19 December.

Abed Rahim Khatib DPA

Israel massacred Palestinians throughout Gaza on Monday and Tuesday, killing dozens of people at al-Shifa hospital and forcing the closure of al-Ahli hospital, the only partially functioning medical center in the north of the territory.

The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza reported on Tuesday nearly 19,700 fatalities in Gaza since 7 October, with another 52,600 wounded. The actual death toll is likely much higher, with some 8,000 people reported missing and presumed dead under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Unprecedented famine and disease borne from Israel’s siege is causing a secondary wave of mortality that the UN’s humanitarian chief warns may soon outpace the death toll from the bombing.

Israel struck Rafah, near Gaza’s boundary with Egypt, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge after intensive bombing and destruction in the north of the territory and in eastern Khan Younis.

At least 20 people were reported killed in the strikes in Rafah, including Palestinian journalist Adel Zuroub, the 97th Palestinian media worker killed in Gaza since 7 October.

Israel has meanwhile denied foreign correspondents access to Gaza since the beginning of the war, with the exception of journalists embedded with the military. The Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem petitioned Israel’s high court on Tuesday demanding immediate access to the territory.

More than 100 people were reported killed in Israeli strikes on Jabaliya, northern Gaza, between 17 and 18 December. Dozens more were killed in the Sheikh Ridwan, al-Rimal, Shujaiya and al-Daraj neighborhoods in the area of Gaza City.

Dozens killed at al-Shifa hospital

More than 30 people were reportedly killed at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on 17 December.

“Three people were reportedly shot and injured inside the hospital compound,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “and another three persons were shot and injured when they were trying to fetch water near the hospital gate.”

The hospital was struck again early Monday, “including the entrance gate and the surgery building,” OCHA added. Five people, including children, were reported killed in those strikes. Another 26 Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces again struck the hospital later in the morning, hitting an area where displaced people were sheltering.

News reports indicate that efforts to secure another prisoner exchange deal were intensifying while the UN Security Council was working towards a resolution in support of increasing aid to Gaza that the US wouldn’t obstruct with its veto.

The United Arab Emirates, which proposed the resolution, and other Arab and Muslim states have watered down the language in an attempt to compromise with Washington, reportedly dropping language that is suggestive of calling for a ceasefire.

Hamas insists that it wouldn’t negotiate on a prisoner exchange before a ceasefire is declared but the group had put on the table an “all for all” swap weeks ago that would see the release of all captives held in Gaza in exchange for the thousands of Palestinians held by Israel. Ismail Haniya was reportedly set to arrive in Egypt on Wednesday for ceasefire talks, AFP News Agency reported.

The Israeli authorities released a video purporting to show a confession made by Ahmad al-Kahlout, the director of Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza, who was detained last week. In the four-minute video, al-Kahlout says the facility was used by Hamas as a base for its operations and employed members of the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The video of the supposed al-Kahlout confession – the hospital director appears sitting in front of an Israeli flag – is another apparent attempt by Israel to manufacture a victory in Gaza.

Ghassan Abu Sitta, a British-Palestinian surgeon who was working in Gaza during the first weeks of the war, said on Tuesday after the detention of al-Shifa’s head of orthopedics that “the aim of this arrest campaign of doctors in Gaza is to prepare them for a series of show-trials aimed at maintaining the criminalization of the health system.”

Israel did something similar to enforce its stranglehold on the humanitarian aid sector in Gaza, imprisoning Mohammed El Halabi, the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision, over fabricated charges of funneling international aid to Hamas.

World Vision, which has stood behind El Halabi, stated upon his conviction last year that “the arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and [12-year] sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The charity said that “it adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”

In a classified ruling, a panel of Israeli judges based their verdict almost entirely on a confession that El Halabi purportedly made to an informant after he was allegedly beaten by Israeli interrogators.

The UN human rights office has “continuously raised serious concerns” in El Halabi’s case over “cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment that may amount to torture.”

US pushes for “new phase” of Gaza war

The US is pressing Israel to wind down its intensive strikes in Gaza and move towards more limited and precise operations while at the same time Washington is obstructing international efforts towards a ceasefire that would help prevent a wider regional escalation.

The Iran-allied Yemeni rebel group Ansar Allah has “vowed to defy a US-led naval mission” to protect commercial interests in the area. It pledges to continue striking Israeli targets in the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, as Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, on the northern front, Israel’s defense minister has promised to push Hizballah north of the Litani river so that Israelis evacuated from settlements near the border with Lebanon can return to their homes.

Hizballah said that it hit two of Israel’s Iron Dome batteries on Monday. The Iron Dome is Israel’s missile interception system.

US President Joe Biden reportedly wants to see a transition to a lower intensity conflict in Gaza by the end of the year, which would align with the Israeli defense ministry’s expectation that ground operations in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, would take three to four weeks.

With the army’s “mistaken” execution of three captives who were waving white flags last week, Tel Aviv has come under greater domestic pressure to strike a deal to return the estimated 130 captives who remain in Gaza and produce something resembling a victory to the public.

The Israeli military continues to meet fierce resistance and suffer serious losses in Gaza, with at least 132 soldiers killed and more than 700 injured during its ground invasion. Palestinian groups continue to fire rockets towards Tel Aviv and other places in Israel.

Israel has come under criticism after the release of photos and videos showing hundreds of stripped civilians presented to the public as Hamas operatives.

Palestinians who are among the hundreds of civilians who were rounded up in Gaza and detained by Israeli ground forces have described being shot, tortured and humiliated.

A 62-year-old man who was detained at his home and later released said that he was interrogated about Hamas and the location of captives being held in Gaza.

“When I told them I did not know, they shot my leg,” which the Israeli military later amputated, he said.

One man told reporters that the Israeli military staged photos and video recordings of him and other civilian detainees to portray them as members of Hamas’ Nukhba commando force:

Another released man, who said he was a medic, told reporters that he was subjected to torture:
“They drew an ambulance on the wall and told me to go and bring Sinwar,” the leader of Hamas in Gaza, he said.

Headlines in the Israeli press on Tuesday uncritically repeated the claims of the military and announced the killing of the “top Hamas moneyman in Rafah strikes.”

Ramy Abdu, the head of the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, said that Subhi Farwana, the man killed in Rafah, had no ties to Hamas and owned a money exchange business.

UN official “furious”

High-ranking officials from international organizations and UN agencies despaired at the ongoing atrocities in Gaza, including Israeli attacks on hospitals.

“I’m furious that children who are recovering from amputations in hospitals are then killed in those hospitals,” James Elder, spokesperson for UNICEF, the UN’s organization for children, said on Tuesday.

Elder was referring to Dunya Abu Muhsen, an adolescent girl who was killed by an Israeli-fired shell at the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on Sunday. The girl had previously survived an Israeli attack on her home that killed her family.

Nasser Medical Complex, “the largest remaining fully functional hospital in Gaza has been shelled – twice” in recent days, Elder added.

An Australian who used to work as a journalist, Elder has been outspoken in his frustration over the situation in Gaza.

By contrast, UNICEF director Catherine Russell, an American appointee whose husband served as former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, has come under fierce criticism by rank-and-file staff over a perceived pro-Israel bias.

The UNICEF spokesperson questioned the sincerity of statements made by “those who have the power to prevent [the] carnage of children.”

“We’ve been told in all sincerity that the south [of Gaza] would not possibly endure the indiscriminate attacks of the north,” only for Palestinians in the south, including those who fled from the north, to endure attacks of the same ferocity.

He said that the sincerity of statements made by Israeli leaders – such as “our focus is on creating damage, not accuracy,” and “we will eliminate everything” – “has been proven with every additional child killed.”

Margaret Harris, spokesperson for the World Health Organization, said that the state of Gaza’s hospitals was “unconscionable” and that “it’s beyond belief that the world is allowing this to continue.”

Mirjana Spoljaric, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, condemned the “moral failure” of the “international community” on Tuesday.

The inability to end “such high levels of suffering … will have an impact on generations not only in Gaza,” she said in Geneva after visiting Gaza and Israel.

Israel forces closure of Gaza hospitals

Israel has forced the closure of al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, which was the only partially-functioning health center for hundreds of thousands of people who remain in the northern half of Gaza.

Richard Sewell, dean of the St. George’s College in Jerusalem, said that the Israeli military “detained most of our staff” at the Baptist hospital. “Just skeleton staff remains to tend to over 100 seriously wounded patients,” without running water or electricity, Sewell added.

Fadel Naim, the director of al-Ahli hospital, said that troops stormed al-Ahli and “arrested doctors, medical staff and patients, destroying part of the building’s grounds,” according to media reports.

“We can’t receive any patients or injured,” Naim added.

Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza, has also been knocked out of service after being raided by Israeli troops, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

Three Palestinian groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – say Israel is deliberately destroying Gaza’s health care system as part of the genocide it has been waging since 7 October.

On Sunday, Israeli forces stormed al-Awda hospital in the Tel al-Zaatar area north of Gaza City and arrested its director, Ahmad Muhanna, after besieging it for 12 days.

Doctors Without Borders said that men and boys over the age of 16 “were taken out of the hospital, stripped, bound and interrogated,” the charity said, including six of its staff, after which “most of them were sent back into the hospital and told not to move.”

Dozens of patients remain at al-Awda hospital, including 14 children, and the facility has run out of essential supplies like general anesthetic and oxygen, Doctors Without Borders added.

Palestinian medics and health facilities in the West Bank have also increasingly come under Israeli attack.

The spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent Society said that Israeli forces prevented the humanitarian group’s medics from accessing a person who was shot in the head in Nour Shams refugee camp in the West Bank city of Tulkarm. The injured person died as a result.

In another incident, a 16-year-old boy who was injured by shelling was arrested by Israeli forces while being transported by Red Crescent paramedics.

On Tuesday, the Red Crescent published a video showing bullet holes and other damage caused by Israeli forces in one of its medical points in Nour Shams camp:

Israeli forces killed 12 Palestinians in the West Bank between 16 and 18 December, including three children and another person who died from wounds sustained in previous military operations, according to UN OCHA.

Five people were killed during a raid in Nour Shams camp that lasted for more than 10 hours. “The operation involved armed clashes with Palestinians and airstrikes, resulting in extensive infrastructure damage,” OCHA said.

More than 290 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and settlers in the West Bank since 7 October, including 75 children.


Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.