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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amid Gaza war, U.N. evacuates babies from besieged hospital

By Louisa Loveluck and Sarah Dadouch Washington Post

 JERUSALEM - The World Health Organization said Sunday that it had evacuated 31 premature infants from Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, bringing the newborns to a facility near the Egyptian border and signaling a broader effort to save the most vulnerable amid an Israeli siege of the sprawling medical complex.

Officials in Israel, in making the case to storm al-Shifa, have described the hospital as the “beating heart” of the Hamas militant group’s operations, a claim for which they have yet to provide significant evidence. By the time a U.N. assessment team reached the hospital Saturday, the WHO said in a statement, the once-bustling facility resembled a “death zone.”

Outside, the team found a grave filled with dozens of bodies. Inside, 25 terrified medics had stayed behind as Israeli troops closed in, swearing not to abandon the almost 300 patients who could not be moved safely.

The list of injuries the U.N. team witnessed was an indicator of the brutality of an Israeli military campaign that has killed thousands of civilians in the pursuit of ending Hamas rule in Gaza. Among the most serious health conditions were amputations, burns, spinal injuries and chest and abdominal trauma.

At least 11,100 Palestinians have been killed in the territory since Oct. 7, when Israel launched its war in response to a Hamas attack that left 1,200 people dead. The militants also seized more than 200 Israeli and foreign hostages and took them to Gaza.

On Sunday, the war’s impact again rippled across the region. In Yemen, Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized a vessel linked to an Israeli shipping magnate, with multiple nationalities on board. The Israeli military also said that 10 mortar shells were launched from Lebanon toward Israel, adding to fears of a creeping escalation between Israeli forces and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But even as regional tensions flared, Israel is hopeful that it can get a “significant” number of hostages freed from Gaza in the next few days, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, said Sunday. The deal, which is being brokered by Qatar, is meant to include a pause in the fighting, in return for the hostages.

The United States has pushed Israel to allow about 100 trucks of humanitarian assistance into Gaza daily as civilians endure a food crisis so dire that the World Food Program has warned that starvation is a possibility. But aid groups say supplies entering by truck are still a drop in the ocean compared to the need.

In southern Gaza, waves of displaced people from the north have overwhelmed hospitals, shelters and residential areas, placing strain on already meager resources. Vast tent camps have sprung up in the south, where heavy rain in recent days has worsened the misery.

In northern Gaza, where Israel has focused its ground offensive, doctors last week had already run out of anesthetic and painkillers for operations. A power outage at al-Shifa forced medics to remove 39 babies from their incubators. To keep the infants warm, staff placed them close together and wrapped them in aluminum foil and medical scrubs.

Thirty-one infants survived the wait for evacuation, two of them dying the night before a U.N. team reached them, the WHO said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said Sunday that 31 “very sick” babies had been evacuated to southern Gaza in ambulances operated by the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The mission took place under “extremely intense and high-risk security conditions,” Tedros said, adding that his organization was expected to evacuate more patients in the coming days.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said that the babies would be taken to Egypt on Monday and that their parents would be asked to go to the Tal al-Sultan Hospital in the southern city of Rafah to arrange permission to leave with their children.

It was unclear how the mothers would be notified, or whether they would be able to make the trip. Fuel shortages and war damage have disrupted Gaza’s communications network, and humanitarian groups say that the route out of Gaza City, where an unknown number of civilians are trapped or too scared to leave, is full of danger.

Doctors Without Borders said Sunday that a staff member’s relative was killed and another wounded after a convoy carrying 137 of the organization’s employees and their family members the day before came under “deliberate” fire. The convoy was clearly marked, said the organization - which is known by its French initials, MSF - and both warring parties were notified of its passage.

“It was not crossfire,” Michel O. Lacharité, the head of MSF’s emergencies desk, said Sunday. “It was targeted. Our MSF vehicles are clearly marked with a big logo - MSF - on the hood, on the rooftop, on the doors.”

On Sunday night, the employees and family members were again sheltering on MSF premises near al-Shifa, without food or water, Lacharité said.

The ill-fated convoy had set out as more than 2,500 people sheltering at al-Shifa also evacuated after Israeli troops gave them one hour to depart, health officials said. Exhausted and bedraggled, many of them walked the 15 miles to Khan Younis in the south.

Israeli aircraft recently dropped leaflets near the city urging residents to move once again, as military leaders signaled the offensive would soon expand beyond the north.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Saturday that his forces were shrinking the space for Hamas operations “with every passing day.”

“People who are in the southern Gaza Strip will understand that soon as well,” he said.

But a ground assault in the south would put hundreds of thousands of civilians in the crossfire, and many of them are already displaced and have nowhere to go. Israeli strikes and intense urban combat have laid waste to much of northern Gaza, and it remained unclear whether Israel would allow civilians to return.

The Biden administration is increasingly uncomfortable with the loss of life in Gaza, and on Sunday, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer warned that there was “real concern” civilians could be adversely affected without careful planning for operations in the south.

Israel has the right to pursue Hamas militants in southern Gaza, Finer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” but added: “Their operations should not go forward until those people - those additional civilians - have been accounted for in their military planning.”

“And so we will be conveying that directly to them and have been conveying that directly to them,” he said.

The Israeli army’s internal calculations over its threshold for civilian casualties, which are not made public, appear higher than in previous operations, according to legal experts, as military planners frame the fight against Hamas as existential.

International law requires militaries to make clear distinctions between civilians and combatants and to take all possible steps to prevent civilian harm. In practice, Israeli strikes have hit water towers and bakeries, schools and ambulances. Human rights groups have flagged more strikes as potential war crimes and pressed for international investigation.

There is growing anger among the families of the Israeli and foreign hostages in Gaza over the Israeli government’s failure to secure their release. Some have been horrified by the intensity of the bombing, fearing that it will affect their loved ones, too; others have described the military operation as a necessary response to the mass killing in October and the kidnappings.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that the parties were nearing a deal that could lead to the release of dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting, according to people familiar with the terms.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani said Sunday that the sticking points to the deal, which is also intended to allow aid into the besieged enclave, are largely logistical.

In a news conference, Thani said efforts to reach a deal have had “ups and downs” in recent weeks but that he was “now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal that can bring the people safely back to their homes.”

The challenges that remain “are very minor,” he said, adding that “efforts are ongoing.”