Israeli troops carried out building-by-building searches at Gaza’s main hospital, as a new communications blackout in the territory on Friday compounded fears for Palestinian civilians trapped inside the facility.
Al-Shifa hospital has become a focal point for Israeli operations in northern Gaza since soldiers raided the complex on Wednesday, hunting for a command centre they say militant group Hamas operates there.
Hamas and hospital managers deny that charge, and there has been international concern about several thousand people — including wounded patients and premature babies — believed to be trapped inside.
Israel’s air bombardment and ground operation has killed 11,500 people, including thousands of children, according to Hamas-run local authorities in Gaza.
Israeli authorities have defended their operation, and the military said Thursday it found rifles, ammunition, explosives and the entrance to a tunnel shaft at Al-Shifa.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged hostages may even have been held at the medical facility.
“We had strong indications that they were held in the Shifa Hospital, which is one of the reasons we entered the hospital,” he told “CBS Evening News”.
“If they were [there], they were taken out,” he said.
Allegations about the hospital have not been verified, and on Friday communications with the Gaza Strip were severed once again.
Network provider Paltel group said all telecommunications were down because “all energy sources sustaining the network have been depleted, and fuel was not allowed in”.
The UN warned that the blackout would compound the misery of civilians, complicating efforts to distribute aid and possibly triggering looting of its supplies.
“When you have a blackout and you cannot communicate with anyone anymore… that triggers and fuels even more the anxiety and the panic,” said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.
‘Immediate possibility of starvation’
Israel said its forces were searching Al-Shifa “one building at a time,” and announced the discovery of the body of a woman hostage at a building nearby.
Yehudit Weiss, 65, was kidnapped from her home in the border kibbutz community of Beeri, one of the areas worst-hit by the brutal Hamas assault.
Her husband was killed in the attack, a hostage support group said.
On Thursday, Jews and Arabs came together for the funeral of another casualty of the Beeri attack — peace activist Vivian Silver, who was hailed as an “extraordinary woman”.
Negotiations are ongoing for the release of the hostages, some of them just infants, in exchange for a pause in fighting.
Qatar, where Hamas has political offices, and Egypt have been mediating what Egypt’s foreign minister described Thursday as “very delicate” discussions.
“We are hopeful that our efforts and the efforts of others will bring about the speedy release,” Sameh Shoukry said.
On the ground, conditions are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinian civilians, UN agencies have warned.
Over 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and Israel’s blockade of the territory means “civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation,” World Food Programme executive director Cindy McCain said.