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WHO on Gaza's Al-Shifa Hospital: 'We only saw civilians'

WHO, former Israeli PM, cast doubt on Israel's narrative of Al-Shifa Hospital
3 min read
21 November, 2023
A senior WHO official said staff had only seen civilians at the beleaguered Al-Shifa Hospital, while former Israeli PM Ehud Barak said that Israel - not Hamas - had constructed tunnels underneath it decades ago.
Premature babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa Hospital on Sunday [Palestinian Prime Ministry/Anadolu via Getty]

Staff from the World Health Organisation (WHO) saw only civilians during its emergency mission at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Sunday, finding no evidence of Hamas activity, a senior official from the body has said.

At a press conference on Monday - held after the WHO evacuated 31 premature babies from the hospital, which has been besieged and stormed by Israeli forces - a journalist asked if staff from the organisation had seen any evidence supporting claims by Israel that the hospital was being used as a military headquarters.

"Our focus was on the patients, our focus was with the doctors... That's what we focused on, we only saw civilians in that hospital, and that's what we were focused on," WHO Senior Emergency Officer Rob Holden said.

In response to a question from another journalist about whether there was any evidence or mention by staff of the presence of weaponry at the hospital, Holden said: "We had no discussions, we saw no evidence, other than our focus being on those patients".

Israel launched a fierce and indiscriminate attack on Gaza on 7 October that has killed more than 13,000 people, most of them women and children, and displaced more than a million. It also imposed a total siege on the Palestinian territory, denying food, water, and essential fuel which hospitals need to operate.

The bombing and siege has put most of Gaza's hospitals out of action, causing the deaths of dozens of patients, including premature babies. Thousands of displaced people had sought refuge in the hospitals from the Israeli bombing.

Raids, sieges and strikes on hospitals have sparked a particularly passionate outcry from human rights groups, who have said that attacks on healthcare facilities are an especially egregious breach of international law.

Israel has repeatedly said that Hamas, the Palestinian group controlling Gaza, is using Al-Shifa, the biggest hospital in the territory, as a base from which to attack Israeli forces and store weaponry.

It also claims Hamas constructed a network of tunnels under the hospital. Israel has failed to provide any reliable evidence for these claims.

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Further doubt on these accusations was cast on Monday, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a television interview that there were tunnels under the hospital - but that they had in fact been constructed by Israel.

"It’s already [been] known for many years that they have the bunkers that originally [were] built by Israeli constructors underneath Shifa [which] were used as a command post of Hamas. And, a kind of junction of several tunnels are part of this system," Barak told CNN's Christiane Amanpour.

A surprised Amanpour asked Barak: "When you say it was built by Israeli engineers - did you misspeak?"

Barak did not backtrack on his claim, and instead said Israel had built tunnels to allow for the hospital to better function.

"It was probably five or four decades ago that we helped (the Palestinians) to build these bunkers in order to enable more space for the operation of the hospital within the very limited size of this compound," Barak said. 

Israel captured Gaza from Egypt in 1967 and held the territory under full military occupation until 2005.

Barak served as Israeli prime minister from 1999 to 2001.