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JERUSALEM — The presence of Israeli forces inside Gaza’s largest hospital stretched into its second day Thursday, amid the wait for more concrete evidence of extensive Hamas infrastructure at the facility that precipitated the raid.
Israel also said no further evidence of Hamas activities in the hospital was scheduled to be made public for now, following the release Wednesday of photographs and video showing small caches of rifles and laptops that the Israel Defense Forces identified as Hamas material. The military did not show evidence of tunnels or a command center it has said exists under the hospital.
“I can confirm now that the operation is still ongoing,” an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said Thursday. “All the publishable evidence was released.”
How Israel built its case to raid Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital
Aid groups said they had lost touch with their teams inside the hospital, and repeated calls to doctors and workers there have gone straight to voice mail. The Washington Post was finally able to reach Ashraf al-Qudra, the Gaza Health Ministry spokesman based at Shifa.
“The soldiers and military machines are around the hospital, but every now and then, they go in and out of the [hospital] complex for their operation,” he said, including fresh searches of several of the hospitals departments.
He said it was the sixth day without food and water in the hospital, which has been surrounded by fighting: “That is why we are asking to immediately let in fuel and medicine and food and water into the hospital.”
Israel is under intense pressure to bolster its long-standing claims that Gaza hospitals, and Shifa in particular, served as Hamas hideouts, its justification for targeting the health-care facilities. An official in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that any further evidence would be made public as soon as possible and that journalists would be given a chance to tour the sites. Teams from Fox News and the BBC were already accompanied on brief trips to the hospital.
The incursion into Shifa was anticipated — and dreaded — for days as a watershed action in nearly six weeks of intense warfare. The hospital, Gaza’s primary health-care center and a haven for Gazans seeking refuge, had already become symbolic of the humanitarian crisis enveloping the crowded enclave during the assault Israel launched after Hamas fighters raided nearby Israeli towns, killing 1,200 and taking more than 240 hostages.
Shifa was already functioning without food, water or reliable power when Israeli tanks surrounded it early Wednesday, followed by troops engaging in firefights outside of the compound and then entering the facility.
Israel described the incursion as a “precise and targeted” mission to push Hamas from one of its main command centers. The operation was in compliance with international law, Israel said, because the military gave the staff days of warning to evacuate patients and Hamas activities there had stripped the hospital of its protected status under the Geneva Conventions.
But humanitarian groups condemned the incursion and said Israel’s actions highlighted the need for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, calls for which Israel and the United States have rejected.
Aid groups warned the Shifa raid would hasten the collapse of medical care available inside of the enclave. The Gaza Health Ministry said nearly 11,100 people had died in Gaza, including more than 4,000 children, when it stopped tallying fatalities on Nov. 10, citing failing communications. More than 27,000 injured people have overwhelmed a hospital network working without medical supplies or often even electricity.
The top human rights official at the United Nations warned Thursday the general humanitarian collapse raised the risk of a widespread outbreak of disease and hunger in the Gaza Strip. Volker Turk, the high commissioner for human rights, said in a briefing in Geneva that there needed to be not only a humanitarian pause in the fighting — as per the recent U.N. Security Council resolution — but also a cease-fire to bring in the basic necessities and “create the political space for the path out of this horror.”
“There has been a breakdown of the most basic respect for humane values, the killing of so many civilians cannot be dismissed as collateral damage. The only winner of such a war is likely to be extremism and further extremism,” he said.
The absence of electricity and fuel for generators has led to a breakdown in the enclave’s sewage systems and hospitals so that “massive outbreaks of infectious disease, and hunger, seem inevitable,” he said. When asked about the Israeli operation at al-Shifa Hospital and the military’s announcements of the discovery of military materiel inside the compound, Turk said this showed the need for U.N. access and an independent investigation.
Israeli strategists have hoped that attacking so deeply in the heart of Gaza City would pressure Hamas to reach a deal on hostage releases. Israeli officials would not comment publicly on reports that the militant group has agreed to let some captives go, perhaps 50, in exchange for a three- to five-day humanitarian pause and the release of an unspecified number of Hamas prisoners in Israeli custody.
Commentators in Israel said the military would need to show more evidence to support assertions that Shifa has been a Hamas stronghold for more than a decade, something doctors working there have denied. Families of some of the Israelis held hostage by Hamas called for the government to release any evidence that captives may have been held or treated at the hospital. The IDF said that investigation would continue.
While support for the war remains high among the Israeli public, a political fissure appeared to widen Thursday with for calls for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid, for the first time, called for Netanyahu’s Likud party to replace him as party chief, which would amount to removing him as prime minister without needing new elections to be held. Opposition parties, Lapid said, would be willing to serve in a government with Likud under different leadership.
“He needs to go now because we can’t afford, in terms of security and society, a prime minister who has lost the public’s confidence,” Lapid said in an interview with an Israeli news station.
Anger at Netanyahu has been high as even some of his supporters blamed him for both the failure to prevent the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. and his long-standing policy of bolstering Hamas in the first place, a strategic attempt to sow division between Palestinian factions.
Polls taken in the weeks after the attack showed two-thirds of Israelis wanted to see Netanyahu replaced. Support for Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main rival who joined him in October at the head of an emergency war cabinet, has been soaring.
Hajar Harb and Paul Schemm in London contributed to this report.