JERUSALEM – The Israeli raid of the Gaza Strip’s largest hospital stretched into its second day Thursday as troops searched for evidence of the extensive Hamas infrastructure that Israeli and U.S. officials have said lies beneath the facility.
The Israel Defense Forces said Thursday that searches had uncovered the body of a captive Israeli woman in a house near the hospital, along with weapons. On Wednesday, the IDF released photographs and video of small caches of weapons it said belonged to Hamas.
The military added to its case Thursday with a photo and video of a rough cavity that it described as an “operational tunnel shaft.” The Washington Post verified the location of the shaft inside the al-Shifa Hospital complex but could not verify where the opening led or what its purpose might be.
Israel has yet to produce findings that corroborate its claims that al-Shifa sits atop a Hamas headquarters and was central to the militant group’s operations in northern Gaza.
As cellular communications inside Gaza collapsed, aid groups said they had lost touch with their teams inside the hospital, and repeated calls by The Post to doctors and workers went straight to voice mail. The Post was eventually able to reach Ashraf al-Qudra, the Gaza Health Ministry spokesman based at al-Shifa.
“The soldiers and military machines are around the hospital, but every now and then they go in and out of the complex for their operation,” he said. He described fresh searches of several of the hospital departments.
Qudra said Thursday 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.”
The IDF said special forces soldiers were searching the hospital compound one building at a time, floor by floor. “The operation is shaped by our understanding that there is well-hidden terrorist infrastructure in the complex,” it said in a statement.
Israel is under intense pressure to bolster its long-standing claims that Gaza hospitals, and al-Shifa in particular, have 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 accompanied on brief trips to the hospital.
Israel had hoped the raid would turn up firm evidence of substantial militant activity in al-Shifa, a European diplomat told the Post on Thursday.
But the absence of clear proof to date has prompted Western allies, including the United States, to increase pressure on Israel to accept a pause in fighting, according to the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
The incursion into al-Shifa early Wednesday had been anticipated – and dreaded – for days. The hospital, Gaza’s primary health-care center and a haven for displaced Gazans seeking refuge, has become symbolic of the humanitarian crisis enveloping the crowded enclave.
Israel’s assault, which officials have said is aimed at rooting out Hamas for good, was a response to the militant group’s surprise raids of nearby Israeli towns on Oct. 7. Hamas fighters killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages.
Al-Shifa was functioning without food, water or reliable power when Israeli tanks surrounded it early Wednesday.
Israeli troops engaged in firefights outside the compound and then entered.
Israel described the incursion as a “precise and targeted” mission to push Hamas from one of its main command centers. Its forces conducted the operation in compliance with international law, Israel said, because the military gave hospital 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 have condemned the incursion and said Israel’s actions highlighted the need for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire. Israel and the United States have rejected those calls.
Aid groups warned that the raid has sped the collapse of medical care available inside of the enclave. The Gaza Health Ministry said last week that more than 11,000 people, including 4,000 children, had died in the enclave since Oct. 7. It stopped counting on Nov. 10, citing failing communications. More than 27,000 injured people have overwhelmed a health-care system working without medical supplies or often even electricity.
Mohamed Zaqout, the chief of Gaza’s hospital network, said the communications failure has kept his team from determining the location and conditions of about 650 patients in al-Shifa. They included children and dialysis patients in serious condition, he said.
“We have been trying since the morning to communicate and coordinate with the Red Cross to transfer them to hospitals in the southern Gaza Strip, but there is no result so far,” Zaqout said in a telephone interview. “We are trying to get some of them out to Egypt, but there is also no coordination yet, and this puts their lives in danger.”
The United Nations’ top human rights official warned Thursday that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza raised risks of widespread hunger and disease. Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told reporters in Geneva that a humanitarian pause in the fighting – as called for in a recent U.N. Security Council resolution – would not be enough. Conditions demand a cease-fire to bring in basic necessities and “create the political space for the path out of this horror,” he said.
“There has been a breakdown of the most basic respect for humane values,” Turk said. “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.”
The effects of the absence of electricity and fuel for generators on the enclave’s sewage systems and hospitals, he said, make “massive outbreaks of infectious diseases, and hunger, seem inevitable.” He said the Israeli operation at al-Shifa Hospital and claims that it had found military materiel inside the compound 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 in exchange for a three- to five-day humanitarian pause and the release of an unspecified number of Hamas prisoners in Israeli custody.
Israeli commentators said the military needs to show more evidence to support assertions that al-Shifa has been a Hamas stronghold for more than a decade.
Hamas and the hospital’s medical staff have denied the accusation.
“We would not let anyone use the hospital for any non-civilian or nonmedical purposes,” said Qudra, the Health Ministry spokesman.
Families of some of the Israelis held hostage by Hamas called for the government to release any evidence that captives might have been held or treated at the hospital. The IDF said that investigation would continue.
The body of the hostage discovered near al-Shifa on Thursday was that of Yehudit Weiss, the IDF said. The 65-year-old was a kindergarten teacher from the Beeri kibbutz, one of the towns devastated by Hamas. Her husband, Shmulik Weiss, was killed during the rampage, Israeli media reported.
Support for the war remains high among the Israeli public, but a political fissure appeared to widen Thursday with calls for 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 requiring new elections. 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 told an Israeli news station.
Anger at Netanyahu has been high. Even some of his supporters criticize his long-standing policy of bolstering Hamas to sow division among Palestinian factions and blame him for the failure to prevent the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
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, has been soaring. Gantz joined the prime minister last month in an emergency war cabinet.
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Hajar Harb and Paul Schemm in London and Jonathan Baran in San Francisco contributed to this report.