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Israeli raid around Gaza hospital ongoing

Rafah, Gaza Strip –

Palestinians who fled during an ongoing Israeli raid in and around the Gaza Strip’s main hospital described days of heavy fighting, mass arrests, forced marches past dead bodies and flattened buildings in interviews Sunday.

The Israeli military says it has killed over 170 militants and detained some 480 suspects in the raid on Shifa Hospital that began last Monday, portraying it as a heavy blow to Hamas and other armed groups that it says had regrouped in the medical compound.

But the heavy fighting has also highlighted the resilience of Palestinian armed groups in an isolated and heavily destroyed part of Gaza where troops have been forced to return after launching a similar raid back in November.

Kareem Ayman Hathat, who lived with his parents and two brothers in a five-story building about 100 metres (yards) from the hospital, said they huddled in the kitchen for days while gunfire and explosions echoed outside, sometimes causing the whole building to shake.

Early Saturday, Israeli troops stormed the building and forced them and dozens of other residents to leave. He says the men were forced to strip to their underwear and four were detained. The rest were blindfolded and ordered to follow a tank south, as more blasts thundered around them.

“From time to time, the tank would fire a shell,” he told The Associated Press in an interview from another hospital in central Gaza, where he has sought shelter. “It was to terrorize us.”

The head of Israel’s southern command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, said the Shifa raid had been a “daring, tricky and most impressive operation so far,” with ”hundreds” of militants apprehended and the acquisition of valuable intelligence.

“We will finish this operation only when the last terrorist is in our hands — alive or dead,” he added in a statement released by the military on Saturday.

Shifa Hospital had largely stopped functioning following the raid in November. After claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command center inside and beneath the hospital, Israeli forces exposed a single tunnel leading to a few underground rooms. They also said they found weapons in parts of the hospital.

Gaza City, where Shifa is located, suffered widespread devastation in the early days of Israel’s offensive, launched after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that triggered the war. Israeli forces have isolated the city and the rest of northern Gaza since November, and hardly any aid has been delivered in recent weeks. Experts said last week that famine is imminent in northern Gaza, where over 210,000 people are suffering from catastrophic hunger.

Jameel al-Ayoubi, who was among thousands of people sheltering at Shifa when the raid commenced last Monday, said in a phone interview that tanks and armored bulldozers had plowed into the courtyard of the sprawling medical compound, crushing ambulances and civilian vehicles. He said he saw tanks driving over at least four bodies of people killed early in the raid.

The Health Ministry said five wounded Palestinians trapped at Shifa had died without food, water or medical services. The World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the conditions there as “utterly inhumane.”

The military said Saturday that it had evacuated patients and medical staff from Shifa’s emergency department because militants had “entrenched” themselves in the building. The army said it had set up an alternative site where seriously wounded patients were receiving care.

Abed Radwan, who lived some 200 metres (yards) from the hospital, said Israeli forces stormed all the buildings in the area, detaining several people and forcing the rest to march south. As he walked south with others, he saw dead bodies in the streets and several flattened homes.

“They left nothing intact,” he said in an interview from a relative’s house in central Gaza.

Now in its sixth month, the war between Israel and Hamas has killed at least 32,226 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. It does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its toll but says women and children make up around two-thirds of the dead.

Israel says it has killed over 13,000 militants, without providing evidence. It blames civilian casualties on Hamas, accusing it of using schools, hospitals and residential areas to shield its fighters.

More than 80 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, with most seeking refuge in the southernmost city of Rafah, which Israel says will be the next target of its ground offensive. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed calls from the United States and others to avoid launching a major ground operation there, saying it is essential for defeating Hamas.

The war began when Hamas-led militants stormed over the border on Oct. 7 and rampaged across southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of people hostage. Hamas is still holding an estimated 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others, after most of the rest were freed in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in November.

The United States, Qatar and Egypt have been trying to broker another cease-fire and hostage release, but weeks of indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have failed to yield an agreement.

Magdy reported from Cairo.

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