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As Israel orders Gaza hospitals to evacuate, health care is 'on its knees'

People check the bodies of victims killed in a reported Israeli strike, as they lie on the ground in the vicinity of Gaza City's Al Shifa hospital compound on Friday.
Khoder Al-Zannoun
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AFP via Getty Images
People check the bodies of victims killed in a reported Israeli strike, as they lie on the ground in the vicinity of Gaza City's Al Shifa hospital compound on Friday.

TEL AVIV, Israel —Israel's military pressed ahead Saturday with a campaign to force the evacuation of hospitals in the northern Gaza Strip so it can pursue Hamas militants it believes are taking cover there.

Palestinians said the hospitals, already overwhelmed with patients, are barely functioning, or have suspended services in some cases.

"The hospitals need to be evacuated so we can deal with Hamas," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman. "We intend on dealing with Hamas who have turned hospitals into fortified positions."

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The increased pressure from the Israeli military on Gaza's hospitals to evacuate over the past two days has further stressed an overtaxed medical system in the besieged area.

Hamas and another Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, have both reported fighting with Israeli forces in areas around the hospitals.

Palestinian officials say several Gaza City hospitals, including Al Rantisi Children's Hospital, have been surrounded by Israeli troops.

Israel's military said it surrounded Al Rantisi and told everyone to leave, including staff, patients and civilians sheltering on the hospital grounds. The military said Hamas fighters were also present and tried to prevent civilians from leaving. But eventually many civilians left, the military said — many by foot, some by ambulance. Israel's military said it killed the "terrorist" who held approximately 1,000 civilians "hostage" at Rantisi.

With the forced evacuations and ongoing military bombardments from Israel, Gaza's medical system is "on its knees," said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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The WHO's director-general said on Friday that the organization had documented five attacks on five hospitals in a single day in Gaza in the previous week. Half of Gaza's 36 hospitals and two-thirds of the territory's primary health care centers are no longer functioning, he added.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said with the intensified Israeli bombardments around hospitals as of Friday, several facilities were directly hit.

Al Shifa loses power, forcing some services to cease

An internally displaced woman cooks while camping at Al Shifa hospital, where many civilians have fled to take shelter, in Gaza City on Friday, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas.
Khader Al Zanoun / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
An internally displaced woman cooks while camping at Al Shifa hospital, where many civilians have fled to take shelter, in Gaza City on Friday, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas.

On top of this, dwindling fuel remains an acute issue for civilians in Gaza.

By Saturday, Al Shifa hospital, the largest such facility in Gaza, had lost power, forcing a shutdown of services requiring electricity, according to Palestinian health officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The Ministry of Health said its intensive care and pediatric departments and the oxygen equipment stopped working.

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Al Shifa was also the site of an explosion early Friday.

Several videos shared online by witnesses showed people injured in a courtyard that is part of the Al Shifa Complex, which has also served as a shelter for the displaced and injured since the Israeli incursion began.

Palestinians blamed Israel for the attack. But Israel said that an errant Palestinian rocket was responsible.

Just a week ago, Israel acknowledged an airstrike just outside that hospital killed more than a dozen people. Israel said it targeted Hamas members trying to leave the hospital in an ambulance.

The Israeli military maintains it has not directly targeted a hospital, but the health officials in Gaza say the Al Shifa Medical Complex has been hit five times in recent days.

"The destruction affecting hospitals in Gaza is becoming unbearable and needs to stop. The lives of thousands of civilians, patients and medical staff are at risk," said William Schomburg, head of International Committee of the Red Cross' sub-delegation in Gaza.

"Children's hospitals have not been spared from the violence, including Al-Nasser Hospital, heavily damaged by the hostilities," the ICRC said.

The director of Al Shifa Medical Complex, Mohammed Abu Salmiya, said Friday that the situation facing hospitals "is tragic in every sense of the word."

"This day was a day of war on hospitals," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz
Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.