(CNN) — Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, has become a flashpoint in Israel’s war in the enclave, which began when Hamas militants crossed the border into Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people.
Palestinians and humanitarian agencies say the current fighting in and around Al-Shifa is proof of Israel’s wanton disregard for civilian life in Gaza, while Israel accuses Hamas of using the medical center as a shield for its operations. On top of providing medical care, the storied Al-Shifa Hospital has recently become a key shelter for thousands of Palestinian civilians fleeing Israeli bombardment.
Since launching its operation at the hospital on November 15, the Israel Defense Forces have shown images of a tunnel shaft and military equipment, but have yet to show conclusive proof of the large-scale command and control center it alleges is there, and which Hamas denies.
The IDF is now under pressure to prove the long-standing assertion with its promise of “concrete evidence.” Its ability to continue its operation in Gaza, and the credibility of Israel, could be at stake as the number killed in Gaza surpasses 12,000, according to authorities in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
Here’s what we know so far.
For weeks, the IDF has said Hamas uses Gaza’s largest hospital as cover for what it calls terror infrastructure below ground. IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Hamas has a command and control center or headquarters underneath the hospital complex grounds, which other senior Israeli officials have also insisted on.
In a presentation to the media last month, Hagari claimed that Hamas was directing rocket attacks and commanding operations from bunkers underneath the hospital building, which he said were linked to the network of tunnels that Hamas had dug underneath Gaza City.
The IDF also published an “intelligence-based” illustrated video of what it claims the Hamas headquarters under Al-Shifa looks like. The video shows a 3D diagram of the hospital, which moves to show an animated network of purported tunnels and operation rooms.
CNN cannot independently verify Israel’s claims that Hamas is operating a “command and control center” from the hospital.
The White House has backed Israel’s claims, saying that Hamas was storing weapons and operating a command node from the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, citing US intelligence. But senior US officials have declined multiple times to expand on how they are able to corroborate Israel’s claims, as the US does not have a presence on the ground in Gaza.
On Sunday, the Israeli military also alleged that Hamas had brought hostages into the hospital, showing journalists CCTV footage of two apparent incidents. It also accused Hamas of having “murdered” another hostage – 19-year-old IDF Corporal Noa Marciano – at Al-Shifa after she was wounded in an airstrike. Marciano’s body was recovered last week in Gaza City, and Hamas has blamed the airstrike for her death.
Israel’s allegations have been vehemently denied by Hamas, the Gaza Health Ministry, and hospital officials.
The director general of the Hamas-controlled health ministry, Dr. Medhat Abbas, told CNN that hospitals in the enclave “are used to treat patients only” and are not being used “to hide anyone.”
The health ministry responded to videos and images released on Sunday by the IDF by questioning their authenticity – but went on to say that if true, the pictures showed that hospitals in Gaza provided medical care to anyone who needed it.
In a statement issued Saturday before the release of the CCTV videos, Hamas said it had brought several hostages to hospitals for medical treatment after they were injured in Israeli air strikes.
After Israel launched its operation, Hamas accused the US of giving Israel “a green light … to commit more massacres against civilians” by amplifying what it called a “false narrative” that a militant command center lies somewhere inside Al-Shifa.
The sprawling medical facility of Al-Shifa, which sits in the western part of Gaza City, was built in 1946 when Gaza was still under British rule.
It has long been seen as the backbone of medical services across the besieged Gaza Strip, and Israel’s operations there have compounded a grim humanitarian crisis, Palestinian health officials have said.
Doctors who are still at the hospital cannot treat patients due to heavy shelling in the past week. Fuel shortages and a lack of electricity mean they were unable to run incubators for the babies. ICU patients and several neonatal babies in Al-Shifa have died in recent days.
A group of United Nations humanitarian workers visited Al-Shifa on Saturday, describing the hospital as a “death zone” where “signs of shelling and gunfire” were evident.
“The team saw a mass grave at the entrance of the hospital and was told more than 80 people were buried there,” it said.
A total of 31 neonatal babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa to southern Gaza, alongside six health workers and 10 staff family members, the World Health Organization Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Sunday.
The Israeli military on Sunday presented several videos that it said illustrated Hamas’ presence at Al-Shifa hospital, including CCTV footage that appeared to show hostages being brought through the hospital itself and separate footage from inside a tunnel shaft on the medical compound’s grounds. CNN cannot independently verify the content of the videos.
IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said the CCTV footage showed Hamas fighters moving a Nepalese hostage and a Thai hostage through the hospital on October 7. One appears to be frog-marched through the building, while another appears to be bleeding and is pushed on a gurney.
He did not spell out how the IDF had acquired the videos, though he did say that Israeli intelligence officers were part of the operation inside the hospital to try to locate the hostages.
Hagari dismissed suggestions that the hostages had been brought to the hospital because they were wounded, claiming that one of the two hostages in the videos was not injured and did not need medical treatment. They had been brought to the hospital first before being moved to hiding spots like nearby apartments, he said.
The bodies of two Israeli hostages – a 65-year-old woman and an Israeli soldier – were found in the same neighborhood as Al-Shifa hospital, Israel’s military has previously said.
Another video filmed on November 17 and released by the IDF on Sunday appears to show inside a tunnel shaft on the Al-Shifa hospital compound grounds. The footage shows an underground tunnel containing a set of spiral stairs, and eventually leading to a closed metal door.
The IDF said they had not yet opened the door due to possible booby traps. “This type of door is used by the Hamas terrorist organization to block Israeli forces from entering the command centers and the underground assets belonging to Hamas,” said the IDF and the Israel Security Agency in a statement Sunday evening.
The IDF had previously touted other alleged discoveries on the hospital grounds, saying soldiers located a room in the Al-Shifa hospital where they found “technological assets, along with military and combat equipment used by Hamas” for “terrorist purposes.”
Hamas has rejected its claims as “baseless lies.”
CNN analysis of separate footage published online by the IDF prior to visits from international media outlets suggests weaponry at Al-Shifa may have been rearranged.
An IDF video on November 15 showed a military spokesperson touring the facility, during which an AK-47 gun is seen behind an MRI machine. Fox News and the BBC were subsequently granted access to the hospital. In their reports filmed after the IDF clip, two AK-47 guns are visible in the same location. It is unclear where the second assault rifle came from.
The IDF told CNN the discrepancy between the military’s own video and the BBC footage was, “due to the fact that more weaponry and terrorist assets were discovered throughout the day.”
“Suggestions that the IDF is manipulating the media are incorrect,” it said.
The United Nations has called for access to the site for an independent investigation into the competing allegations and warned that hospitals should not be used as battlegrounds for any side.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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