Gaza’s main hospital has been forced to bury scores of dead patients in a mass grave, its director said Tuesday, as US President Joe Biden pressed Israel to protect the complex trapped in fierce combat.
Israeli forces were at the gates of the sprawling Al-Shifa hospital they say sits atop an underground Hamas command base, but the militants deny the charge and doctors say thousands of people are stranded inside in horrific conditions.
“There are bodies littered in the hospital complex and there is no longer electricity at the morgues,” said Al-Shifa hospital director Mohammad Abu Salmiyah, adding that 179 bodies had been interred so far.
“We were forced to bury them in a mass grave,” he said, adding that seven babies and 29 intensive care patients were among those who had died after fuel for the hospital’s generator ran out.
A witness said the smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere in the facility, but nighttime fighting and air strikes had been less intense compared to previous nights.
The United Nations believes that thousands, and perhaps more than 10,000 people — patients, staff and displaced civilians — may be inside and unable to escape because of fierce fighting nearby.
Israel says it is not targeting the hospital, but has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the attacks of October 7, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians and resulted in 240 hostages being taken to Gaza.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says Israel’s relentless assault has killed 11,240 people, also mostly civilians, including thousands of children.
Israel’s military says 47 of its troops have been killed in Gaza.
Biden called on Israel to use “less intrusive action relative to the hospital”, some of his most pointed comments on Israeli operations to date.
“The hospital must be protected,” he told reporters, as international outrage builds over the death and suffering the war has inflicted on Gaza civilians.
Israel’s top diplomat acknowledged Monday that his nation has “two or three weeks until international pressure really steps up”.
Quoted by his spokesman, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen added that Israel is working to “broaden the window of legitimacy, and the fighting will carry on for as long as necessary.”
‘We are civilians’
Hamas’s brutal attacks of October 7 and Israel’s massive response have sparked protests around the world, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.
Israel’s supporters insist it must protect citizens after the worst attack in the country’s 75-year history.
But Israel’s critics point to the toll of a blockade and near-relentless bombing campaign on long-suffering civilians in Gaza.
International aid agencies speak of hundreds of thousands of people displaced and a rolling humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel has urged Palestinians to flee south from the heavy combat in the north of the besieged territory, and has agreed to daily pauses in military operations around specified “corridors” to allow the passage of fleeing civilians.
But escaping the fighting is dangerous and wounded Palestinians told AFP how they were hit by a strike on their way south.
“I walked around three to four kilometers (around two miles) while I was bleeding,” said Hasan Baker, whose head and left hand were bandaged. “There was no possibility for any ambulance to enter the area.
“We didn’t have any weapons,” he added. “We are civilians, we were moving from one place to another according to the instructions of the (Israeli) occupation.”
Israeli leaders have so far insisted there will be no broader ceasefire until hostages are released, but Qatar is mediating talks on a possible deal to free hostages.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, said Monday that a possible deal would involve the release 100 Israeli hostages in return for 200 Palestinian children and 75 women held in Israeli prisons.
“We informed the mediators we could release the hostages if we obtained five days of truce… and passage of aid to all of our people throughout the Gaza Strip, but the enemy is procrastinating,” Abu Obeida said in an audio statement.
Biden said he was “somewhat hopeful” the Qatar-mediated talks could lead to a deal.
As security officials and diplomats continued negotiations, Hamas’s military wing issued a video of captive Israeli soldier Noa Marciano.
The Israeli army on Tuesday confirmed she was dead.
Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, claimed Marciano was killed in an Israeli strike. The Israeli army did not say how she was killed.
Fear of violence spreading
Israel released new video showing its troops operating among a ruined Gaza landscape, and massive aerial bombardment that shattered the buildings it targeted.
Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said troops “found signs that indicate that Hamas held hostages” in the basement of Al-Rantisi children’s hospital, showing footage of a baby bottle and a rope near a chair.
In the video he showed neatly arranged assault rifles, grenades and what he said were “vests with explosives”.
AFP could not independently confirm his allegations.
The war in Gaza has also spurred violence on other fronts.
In the occupied West Bank, eight Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops, seven during an army raid on the northern city of Tulkarem and one near the southern city of Hebron, the Palestinian health ministry said on Tuesday.
After repeated attacks on US forces in the Middle East, the United States launched air strikes that killed at least eight pro-Iran fighters in eastern Syria, a Britain-based monitoring group said.
On Monday, Israel used fighter jets to strike what it said were “operational command centers” belonging to Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah inside Lebanon.