Israel withdraws from al-Shifa hospital in Gaza

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Israeli forces withdrew from al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Monday after a major two-week operation that has destroyed much of Gaza’s largest medical facility.

The Israeli army promoted the success of the operation, saying its forces had killed more than 200 militants and arrested hundreds more, as well as seizing valuable intelligence.

But the raid left much of al-Shifa a burnt-out shell. Hundreds of locals who converged on the facility to assess the damage found a scene of devastation, with collapsed masonry, piles of shattered concrete and gaping holes in the hospital’s charred walls.

The Palestinian health ministry said Israeli forces had withdrawn “after burning buildings in the compound and putting them completely out of use”.

“The damage to the complex is very significant,” it said.

Israel launched the raid on al-Shifa on March 18, after Hamas and other militants had regrouped there. It has sought to justify its operations by saying Hamas is using hospitals and other civilian infrastructure to launch attacks on Israeli troops.

But Palestinian officials deny hospitals are used for military purposes, and have accused the Israeli army of endangering civilians and destroying the Gazan health sector. At least 21 patients died during the siege on Al Shifa, according to the World Health Organization.

A statement by the Israel Defense Forces said its “troops eliminated terrorists in close quarters combat and located weapons in the area, all while preventing harm to civilians, patients and medical teams”.

IDF officials said Israeli soldiers had found weapons in al-Shifa’s maternity ward, including in patients’ beds and pillows. Others were concealed in the hospital’s ceilings and walls, they said.

The operation in al-Shifa came as Israel was preparing to attack Rafah, a town in southern Gaza that Israel claims is Hamas’s last bastion. The US has raised significant misgivings about mounting an offensive in a city that has become a sanctuary for civilians fleeing fighting elsewhere in the enclave.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army was preparing to move more than 1mn Palestinian civilians out of Rafah, provide them with sufficient aid and then attack the remaining Hamas battalions there. Authorities claim 5,000 to 8,000 Hamas militants remain in Rafah.

“It’s the right thing to do operationally and internationally,” he told reporters on Sunday evening. “It takes time, but it will be done.”

Netanyahu was speaking as tens of thousands of people gathered in central Jerusalem for the largest protest against the government since the country first went to war against Hamas in Gaza in October.

The demonstrators demanded a ceasefire deal to allow the release of dozens of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas militants, and also early elections.

But Netanyahu said at the Sunday evening news conference that elections now “will paralyze Israel for eight months, paralyze the negotiations and bring an end to the war, and Hamas will bless it”.

He was referring to efforts by the US, Qatar and Egypt to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would halt the fighting in Gaza and lead to the release of the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held in the strip. Mediators have struggled for weeks to bridge the wide gaps between the warring parties.

Israel declared war on Hamas after the latter’s October 7 attack on the south of the country which killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Palestinian authorities say more than 32,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began.

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