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At least 30 premature babies evacuated from Gaza's main hospital, health officials say

Nov. 19, 2023 - 19:36 By AP
This picture taken from southern Israel shows a explosion lighting up the sky during an Israeli strike on the Gaza Strip early on Sunday (local time). (AFP-Yonhap)

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) -- At least 30 premature babies were evacuated from Gaza’s main hospital on Sunday and will be transferred to facilities in Egypt, the territory’s Health Ministry said.

Medhat Abbas, a spokesman for the ministry, confirmed the evacuation in a phone call with The Associated Press. A World Health Organization team that visited Shifa Hospital on Saturday said 32 babies were among scores of critically ill patients stranded at the hospital, where Israeli forces have been operating since last week.

It was not immediately possible to resolve the discrepancy in the numbers. There was no immediate comment from the WHO.

The WHO team said earlier Sunday that 291 patients were left at Shifa after Israeli troops had others evacuate. They included the babies in extremely critical condition, trauma patients with severely infected wounds, and others with spinal injuries who are unable to move.

The team was able to tour Shifa Hospital for an hour after about 2,500 displaced people, mobile patients and medical staff left the sprawling compound Saturday morning, the WHO said. It said 25 medical staff remained, along with the patients.

“Patients and health staff with whom they spoke were terrified for their safety and health, and pleaded for evacuation,” the agency said, describing Shifa as a death zone. It said it hopes to evacuate patients to southern Gaza, where hospitals are also overwhelmed.

Israel has long alleged that Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under Shifa. It has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end the militants’ rule in Gaza following their wide-ranging attack into southern Israel six weeks ago, which triggered the war.

Hamas and hospital staff deny the allegations. Israeli troops who have been based at the hospital and searching its grounds for days say they have found guns and other weapons, and showed reporters the entrance to a tunnel shaft. The AP couldn’t independently verify Israel’s findings.

Saturday’s mass departure was portrayed by Israel as voluntary, but the WHO said the military had issued evacuation orders, and some of those who left described it as a forced exodus.

Elsewhere in northern Gaza, dozens of people were killed in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp when what witnesses described as an Israeli airstrike hit a crowded UN shelter Saturday.

“The scenes were horrifying. Corpses of women and children were on the ground. Others were screaming for help,” Ahmed Radwan, who was among the wounded, said by phone. AP photos from a local hospital showed more than 20 bodies wrapped in bloodstained sheets.

The Israeli military, which has repeatedly called on Palestinians to leave northern Gaza, said only that its troops were active in the area “with the aim of hitting terrorists.” It rarely comments on individual strikes.

Heavy clashes were reported in the Jabaliya camp overnight into Sunday. “There was the constant sound of fire, gunfire and tank shelling,” Yassin Sharif, who is sheltering in a U.N.-run hospital in the camp, said by phone. “It was another night of horror.”

In southern Gaza, an Israeli airstrike hit a residential building near the town of Khan Younis on Saturday, killing at least 26 Palestinians, according to a doctor at the hospital where the bodies were taken.

Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group, said a convoy of staff members and their families tried to evacuate northern Gaza in a clearly marked convoy on Saturday but turned back after shots rang out at a crowded Israeli checkpoint. On their way back to Gaza City, the convoy was attacked and a staffer’s family member was killed, it said. It was not immediately clear who attacked the convoy.

More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed, according to Palestinian health authorities. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants; Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.

Around 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which the group also dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza. The military says 52 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two hostages were found near Shifa in an area where there had been heavy fighting.

Israel, the United States and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating over a hostage release for weeks. On Saturday, a senior White House official suggested it would need to be completed before the entry of large amounts of desperately needed aid.

“A release of large number of hostages would result in a significant pause in fighting … and a massive surge of humanitarian relief,” Brett McGurk, the White House’s National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, said at a conference in Bahrain.

More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, is providing basic services to hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in schools and other facilities.

Over the weekend, Israel allowed UNRWA to import enough fuel to continue humanitarian operations for another couple of days, and to keep internet and telephone systems running. UNRWA had been forced to put aid operations on hold Friday during a communications blackout.

Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing Gaza’s sole power plant and most water treatment systems to shut down, leaving most residents without electricity or running water.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Saturday that Israel’s forces were expanding operations in Gaza City. “With every passing day, there are fewer places where Hamas terrorists can operate,” he said, adding that the militants would learn that in southern Gaza “in the coming days.”

His comments were the clearest indication yet that the military plans to expand its offensive to southern Gaza, where Israel had told Palestinian civilians to seek refuge. The evacuation zone is already crammed with displaced civilians, and it was not clear where they would go if the offensive moved closer.

Even as it warns of a broadening offensive, Israel remains at odds with its main ally, the United States, over what to do with Gaza should it succeed in removing Hamas from power.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that the Israeli military would have “full freedom” to operate within Gaza after the war, indicating it would at least temporarily reoccupy the territory from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005.

In an op-ed published Saturday in The Washington Post, US President Joe Biden said Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited and governed under a “revitalized Palestinian Authority” while world leaders work toward a solution that would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Netanyahu’s government is strongly opposed to Palestinian statehood. (AP)