What is Al-Shifa, the Gaza hospital being besieged and stormed by Israel?

What is Al-Shifa, the Gaza hospital being besieged and stormed by Israel?
Dozens of people, including premature babies, have died in the Al-Shifa complex, Gaza's largest healthcare centre which is under siege by Israel.
3 min read
15 November, 2023
Patients and displaced people have died in the Al-Shifa Hospital as a result of Israeli siege and bombardment [Getty]

The Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza has been under siege and bombardment by Israel since last Friday, with patients and displaced people living in horrific conditions and dozens premature babies being removed from incubators as fuel, food, and medical supplies run out.

Dozens of people have died inside and part of the hospital was stormed by the Israeli military on Wednesday morning, with hundreds of men captured by Israeli troops.

Israel claimed it was pursuing a Hamas command centre under the hospital but both Hamas and hospital staff deny that any such facility exists.

What is the Al-Shifa medical complex ?

The Al-Shifa medical complex is Gaza's largest healthcare centre, operating since 1946, and encompasses three specialized hospitals including a surgery, an obstetrics and gynecology hospital, and an internal medicine hospital within its grounds.

It is located in Gaza City, in the north of the Gaza Strip and is around 500 meters from the Mediterranean Sea between the Shati refugee camp and Remal neighbourhood.

It has 1,500 staff members including 500 doctors and 760 nurses, a figure that amounts to a quarter of all hospital staff in the Gaza Strip. It also has 700 beds for patients according to Doctors Without Borders.

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Like the rest of the besieged Gaza Strip its administration has passed through many hands. Following the 1948 Nakba, it came under Egyptian control until the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the administration of the hospital was transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

The beginning of the First Intifada in 1987 saw Palestinian students in Gaza confront Israeli soldiers on the hospital grounds. The Israeli army used the hospital grounds as a base to gather troops. 

Why is it being bombed?

Israel has bombed the Shifa hospital multiple times since its indiscriminate war on Gaza began last month, including on Sunday when it hit the hospital's cardiac wing, with an earlier strike hitting the hospital's solar panels.

On 3 November, an Israeli airstrike hit ambulances around the hospital's main entrance, killing and wounding 21 people according to Human Rights Watch. The ambulances were evacuating wounded people to Rafah in southern Gaza.

Israel repeatedly claimed that Al Shifa hospital is above a Hamas "command complex" which is integral to Hamas military operations inside the Gaza Strip and has also claimed that the hospital itself is being used for military purposes, with the US suggesting that Hamas are holding hostages under the hospitals.

Hamas have denied claims of running military operations from hospitals in Gaza, with staff members also vehemently denying the Israeli claims.

Human Rights Watch also stated that it could not corroborate any claims that the complex had a Hamas operations room underground and said that it had not seen information to justify attacks on Gaza hospitals.

The situation at the hospital has only deteriorated since the Israeli military laid siege to the its grounds, with 650 patients remaining in the inactive hospital as well as 700 medical staff and between 2,000 to 3,000 displaced persons sheltering in its grounds, according to Al-Shifa Doctor Dr Ahmad Mokhallalati, who spoke to Al Jazeera.

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Personnel from the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who have been working at the hospital have reported that people attempting to flee the hospital had been shot by the Israeli military.

Because the hospital is inoperable, 36 premature babies have been taken out of incubators because of the lack of power. Three babies have already died as a result.

180 bodies are decomposing on the hospital grounds as staff have been unable to bury them in a mass grave, according to staff member Omar Zaqout, who spoke with Al Jazeera.