By NAJIB JOBAIN, JACK JEFFERY and LEE KEATH Associated Press
Palestinian authorities on Tuesday called for a cease-fire to evacuate three dozen newborns and other patients trapped inside Gaza’s biggest hospital as Israeli forces battled Hamas in the streets just outside and seized more ground across northern Gaza.
For days, the Israeli army has encircled Shifa Hospital, the facility it says Hamas hides in, and beneath, to use civilians as shields for its main command base.
Hospital staff and Hamas deny the claim. Meanwhile, hundreds of patients, staff and displaced people were trapped inside, with supplies dwindling and no electricity to run incubators and other life-saving equipment. With refrigeration out for days, morgue staff on Tuesday dug a mass grave in the yard for more than 120 bodies, officials said.
The standoff at Shifa and other hospitals comes as Israeli forces control larger swaths of Gaza City and the surrounding northern part of the Gaza Strip, saying they are driving out and killing Hamas fighters.
Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said in a nationally televised press conference Tuesday night that Hamas has “lost control” of northern Gaza and that Israel has made significant gains in Gaza City. But asked about the timeframe for the war, Gallant said: “We’re talking about long months, not a day or two.”
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas rule in Gaza after the militants’ Oct. 7 attack into Israel in which they killed some 1,200 people and took roughly 240 hostages. But even as its troops control more of a devastated north Gaza, the Israeli government has acknowledged it doesn’t know what it will do with the territory after Hamas’ defeat.
The onslaught – one of the most intense bombardments so far this century — has been disastrous for Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians.
More than 11,200 people, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. About 2,700 people have been reported missing. The ministry’s count does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths.
Almost the entire population of Gaza has squeezed into the southern two-thirds of the tiny territory, where conditions have been deteriorating even as bombardment there continues. About 200,000 fled the north in recent days, the U.N. said Tuesday, but tens of thousands are believed to remain.
Hamas released a video late Monday showing one of the hostages, 19-year-old Noa Marciano, before and after she was killed in what Hamas said was an Israeli strike. The military later declared her a fallen soldier, without identifying a cause of death.
She is the first hostage confirmed to have died in captivity. Four were released by Hamas and a fifth was rescued by Israeli forces.
PLIGHT OF HOSPITALS
Fighting has raged for days around Shifa Hospital, a complex several city blocks across at the center of Gaza City that has now “turned into a cemetery,” its director said in a statement.
The Health Ministry said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since Shifa’s emergency generator ran out of fuel Saturday. Another 36 babies are at risk of dying because there is no power for incubators, according to the ministry.
The Israeli military said it had started an effort to transfer incubators to Shifa. But they would be useless without electricity, said Christian Lindmeier, a World Health Organization spokesman.
The Health Ministry has proposed evacuating the hospital with the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross and transferring the patients to hospitals in Egypt, but has not received any response, ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said.
While Israel says it is willing to allow staff and patients to evacuate, some Palestinians who have made it out say Israeli forces have fired at evacuees.
Israel says its claims of a Hamas command center in and beneath Shifa are based on intelligence but has not provided visual evidence to support them. Denying the claims, the Gaza Health Ministry says it has invited international organizations to investigate the facility.
The White House’s national security council spokesperson, John Kirby, said the U.S. has unspecified intelligence from a variety of sources that Hamas and another Palestinian militants use Shifa and other hospitals and tunnels underneath them to hide and support military operations and hold hostages.
But Kirby said the U.S. doesn’t support airstrikes on hospitals and does not want to see “a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are simply trying to get the medical care that they deserve.”
On Monday, the military released footage of a children’s hospital in Gaza City that its forces entered over the weekend, showing weapons it said it found inside, as well as basement rooms where it believes militants were holding hostages. The video showed what appeared to be a hastily installed toilet and ventilation system in the basement.
The Health Ministry rejected the allegations, saying the area had been turned into a shelter for displaced people.
BATTLE IN GAZA CITY
Independent accounts of the fighting in Gaza City have been nearly impossible to gather, as communications to the north have largely collapsed.
Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces have completed the takeover of Shati refugee camp, a densely built district bordering Gaza CIty’s center, and are moving about freely in the city as a whole.
Videos released by the Israeli military show troops moving through the city, firing into buildings. Bulldozers push down structures as tanks roll through streets surrounded by partially collapsed towers.
The videos portray a battle where troops are rooting out pockets of Hamas fighters and tearing down buildings they find them in, while gradually dismantling the group’s tunnel network.
Israel says it has killed several thousand fighters, including important mid-level commanders, while 46 of its own soldiers have been killed in Gaza. In recent days Hamas rocket fire into Israel — constant throughout the war — has waned. Details of the Israeli account and the extent of Hamas losses could not be independently confirmed.
One Israeli commander in Gaza, identified only as Lt. Col. Gilad, said in a video that his forces near Shifa Hospital had seized government buildings, schools and residential buildings where they found weapons and eliminated fighters.
The army said it had captured Gaza’s legislature building, the Hamas police headquarters and a compound housing Hamas’ military intelligence headquarters. The captured buildings carry high symbolic value, but their strategic value was unclear. Hamas fighters are believed to be positioned in underground bunkers.
Israeli news sites showed pictures of soldiers holding up the Israeli flag and military flags in celebration inside some of the buildings.
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel, Wafaa Shurafa and Samy Magdy contributed to this report.