Gaza hospital raid questioned amid discrepancies in Israeli claims

As the global community grapples with the implications of these actions, the need for transparency and accountability in conflict zones becomes increasingly apparent.

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Image Credit: Stringer, Reuters

Weeks before the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched their raid into the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, spokesperson Daniel Hagari began constructing a narrative to justify the impending operation. In an elaborate briefing on Oct. 27, Hagari detailed the alleged militaristic uses of the hospital by Hamas, including claims of five hospital buildings directly involved in militant activities, and a network of underground tunnels accessible from within the hospital’s wards. The IDF’s narrative, backed by “concrete evidence,” laid the groundwork for the Nov. 15 storming of the complex. However, an in-depth analysis by the Washington Post has raised serious doubts about the veracity of these claims, stirring debates on the legal and humanitarian implications of the IDF’s actions.

During the briefing, Hagari was specific in his allegations, describing the hospital as a hub for directing rocket attacks and coordinating fighters. Following the IDF’s raid, a series of photographs and videos were released, purportedly substantiating the IDF’s central claim of Hamas’ militaristic use of the hospital. “Terrorists came here to command their operations,” stated Hagari in a video tour through the underground tunnels beneath al-Shifa, depicting dark, empty rooms, which the IDF presented as evidence of Hamas activities.

The Washington Post’s analysis, incorporating open-source visuals, satellite imagery, and all publicly released IDF materials, challenges these claims. The evidence presented by the Israeli government does not conclusively demonstrate that Hamas had been using the hospital as a command and control center. This discrepancy raises critical legal and humanitarian questions about the proportionality of the civilian harm caused by Israel’s military operations against the hospital, in light of the assessed threat. The Post’s findings show that the rooms connected to the discovered tunnel network showed no signs of military use. None of the five hospital buildings identified by Hagari appeared connected to the tunnels, and there was no evidence that the tunnels were accessible from inside the hospital wards.

Hours before the IDF troops entered al-Shifa, the Biden administration declassified U.S. intelligence assessments that supported Israel’s claims. Despite this, U.S. and Israeli officials have maintained their stance on the issue. “We are absolutely confident in the intelligence…that Hamas was using it as a command and control node,” a senior administration official told the Washington Post anonymously. However, no declassified material has been made public, and the official did not disclose the basis of this intelligence assessment.

The IDF spokesperson, when queried about further evidence from al-Shifa, responded, “We cannot provide additional information.” On Nov. 24, Israel announced it had destroyed the tunnel on the hospital grounds and withdrew its forces. This move followed the raid that saw Israeli troops encircle, besiege, and ultimately storm the hospital complex.

The targeting of al-Shifa, housing hundreds of sick and dying patients, along with thousands of displaced people, marks an unprecedented event in recent history. The operation led to the collapse of the hospital’s functions. Fuel shortages, restricted access for ambulances, and the inability to receive supplies transformed al-Shifa from a healing sanctuary to a “death zone,” as described by WHO medics who arrived for evacuations. The United Nations reported that before the troops entered, doctors at al-Shifa dug a mass grave for approximately 180 people, as the morgue was no longer operational. WHO’s subsequent reports indicated that at least 40 patients, including four premature babies, perished due to the raid and its aftermath.

The assault on al-Shifa has not been an isolated incident in the Gaza conflict. Other hospitals in Gaza have faced similar attacks, making the assault a critical case study in Israel’s adherence to the laws of war. Under international law, medical facilities are accorded special protection, losing their status as protected sites only when used for acts harmful to the enemy. The legality of the IDF’s actions against al-Shifa thus remains under scrutiny, hinging on a complete understanding of Israeli intelligence and the military objectives sought.

In his October briefing, Hagari presented an animated video showing what allegedly lay beneath the hospital, depicting masked militants, rooms with laptops, and sleeping quarters. This depiction set the expectations for what Israeli forces hoped to find. “The law is about what was in the mind of the attacker at the time the attacker planned and executed the mission with respect to both the collateral damage they expected to cause and the military advantage they anticipated gaining,” explained Michael Schmitt, an emeritus professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

The underground tunnel discovered by Israeli forces does suggest a possible militant presence underneath the hospital at some point. However, it falls short of confirming a command node was operational there during the conflict. The precise timing of militant activities in relation to the IDF operation remains unclear. The Post’s detailed mapping of the tunnel, juxtaposed with the IDF’s original map, reveals no connection between the identified hospital buildings and the tunnel network. The supposed operational rooms beneath the surgery building showed no signs of recent usage.

In response to the IDF’s actions, the international community, particularly human rights organizations and legal experts, have expressed deep concerns. The targeting of al-Shifa and other medical facilities in Gaza has set a dangerous precedent, potentially justifying future operations against hospitals. This development calls for a careful examination of Israel’s adherence to the principles of international humanitarian law.

The raid on al-Shifa Hospital, a cornerstone of Gaza’s health system, has sparked a vital debate on the conduct of warfare and the protection of medical facilities. As the global community grapples with the implications of these actions, the need for transparency and accountability in conflict zones becomes increasingly apparent. The investigation into the IDF’s claims and actions at al-Shifa remains critical in understanding the complexities of modern warfare and the protection of civilian life and infrastructure.

In the words of a senior U.S. member of Congress, who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, “I think there has to be a new level of demonstration. They should have more proof at this point.”

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