Palestinians trapped inside Gaza’s largest hospital have been forced into digging a mass grave to bury corpses, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory, as intense fighting rages outside.
Up to 700 patients are said to be trapped inside al-Shifa according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). as well as more than 400 health staff. There are many other people who are sheltering in the wider hospital complex and courtyards. The lives of dozens of babies are also said to be hanging in the balance as fuel has run out, leaving incubators unusable.
The violence has been so intense around al-Shifa, Dr Ashraf al-Qudra, a spokesperson for the health ministry in Gaza said, that medics were reduced to digging a mass grave within the medical complex “amid great risk” as it was impossible to take dozens of bodies outside. He said that no ambulance had been able to enter al-Shifa since Friday night.
Dr Yousef Abureesh – deputy minister of health in Gaza – said that they also made the decision to dig the grave “after dogs mauled part of the bodies”. In total, 170 bodies were placed in the makeshift grave.
The health ministry in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, said that it was impossible to evacuate al-Shifa as people including patients, displaced civilians taking shelter and technical workers had faced Israeli sniper fire around the hospital as they tried to leave over the last few days.
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using al-Shifa as a cover for a major military base, and published a detailed three-dimensional map of what it says is a complex network of tunnels under the hospital. For days, the Israeli army has encircled the hospital and has accused Hamas of using civilians as shields. Military spokespeople have said that Israeli forces are not firing directly on the hospital but that clashes are happening in the area. The army claimed on Tuesday that in central Gaza City – the location of al-Shifa – it had captured Gaza’s legislature building, the Hamas police headquarters and a compound housing Hamas’s military intelligence headquarters.
Israel has vowed to crush Hamas after an attack on Israel which killed some 1,200 people and saw roughly 240 taken hostage. It responded with a near-continuous aerial bombardment of Gaza, which continues, and a blockade which has seen crucial supplies of fuel, water, food and medical supplies running short – or out. Ground operations have focused on northern Gaza, and particularly Gaza City, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee southwards, even though airstrikes have also been used on areas of southern Gaza. Officials from the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza have said more than 11,000 people have been killed since Israel’s operations began.
Inside al-Shifa, Gaza health ministry officials said 40 patients, including three babies, have died since the hospital’s emergency generator ran out of fuel on Saturday. Another 36 babies are at risk.
“Luckily they are still 36, we didn’t lose any of them overnight," Dr Ahmed El Mokhatallali, a surgeon, told Reuters from al-Shifa. "But still the risks are really high ... We have still the risk of losing them."
The Independent was shown photos of the premature babies who had been moved to ordinary beds covered with aluminium to keep them warm as there was no electricity to run the incubators. Among them are four who were born via emergency C-sections because their mothers were dying when they were brought into Shifa. In videos shared online, the babies appear skeletal and are crying as medics move around them in the dark.
The Israeli military said that it was working to coordinate the transfer of incubators from an Israeli hospital to al-Shifa, after offering humanitarian assistance to the director general of the hospital, a conversation they shared with the media.
“The IDF remains committed to upholding its moral and professional responsibilities to distinguish between civilians and Hamas terrorists ... The IDF is willing to work with any reliable mediating party to ensure the transfer of the incubators.”
Palestinian media later reported that in coordination with the Red Cross, there was a potential deal agreed to transfer a small number of premature infants outside the hospital, but there was no further information given. The Israeli military did not comment any further about whether the babies were evacuated when asked by The Independent.
Dr Medhat Abbas, a senior official in the health ministry who is not in al-Shifa, later said that his teams had lost all contact with medics in the hospital because the generator fuel had run out and they had no electricity.
“It is very difficult to get through to anyone inside that hell,” he said.
Medics at al-Ahli Hospital, the only functioning medical facility in northern Gaza, meanwhile said that it was now policy to perform surgical procedures without anaesthesia for all injuries “up to the moderate level” to preserve the few supplies they have left.
“The pain experienced by the patients during the surgical interventions without anaesthesia is beyond what humanity on this earth can endure,” wrote Dr Fadel Naim.
A spokesperson for the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said he was deeply disturbed by the “dramatic loss of life” in Gaza hospitals. “In the name of humanity, the secretary general calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”
The US president, Joe Biden, said on Monday that he hoped the Israeli military would proceed with a “less intrusive” operation around al-Shifa, adding that Palestinian civilians must be protected.
In the UK, Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell said Britain is considering using “air and maritime options” to get more aid into Gaza.
Mr Mitchell said: “At this point, we assess that land presently offers the most viable and safe way to get humanitarian aid into Gaza in the quantities needed, but we are also considering air and maritime options, including through our bases in Cyprus.”
The Foreign Office has also announced sanctions against four Hamas leaders and two of the militant group’s financiers in one of David Cameron’s first moves as foreign secretary.
In Israel, police have opened an investigation into several cases of sexual assault and rape from the Hamas attack. The probe was complex and would likely take months, Chief Superintendent David Katz of the national unit for serious and organised crime said at police headquarters in Beit Shemesh.
He also showed footage of a young woman describing watching another woman get gang raped and then shot. “I couldn’t understand what I saw,” she said, adding she had survived the Hamas attack by pretending to be dead. The police wouldn’t give details about how many cases they had, beyond saying they have several witnesses as well as testimonies.