The Israeli military’s focus on hospitals in Gaza is growing more intense with a spokesperson inviting news media to visit a medical center for children on Monday, where he alleged parts of the basement had been a Hamas “command and control center” and may have been used to hold hostages.
A CNN team embedded with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and was shown guns and explosives in one room located beneath Al-Rantisi children’s hospital on Monday, which IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari termed as an “armory.”
He also pointed to a chair with a rope next to it and a piece of women’s clothing, which he said would be tested for DNA, and a makeshift toilet.
Hamas has repeatedly denied that its fighters hide under hospitals, as have Gazan health officials and hospital directors.
Speaking by phone to CNN on Tuesday, Mohammed Zarqout, who has responsibility for all of Gaza’s hospitals, said the basement at Al Rantisi had been used as a shelter for women and children – not to store Hamas weaponry and hold hostages – as well as being the location of the pharmacy and some of the hospital’s administrative offices before rainwater made it “impossible” to use.
Zarqout also told CNN that medical staff had been forced to leave the hospital by Israeli soldiers, and had been unable to take all the patients with them when they left.
In a statement on Sunday, the IDF said it was enabling passage by foot and ambulance to evacuate from three hospitals: Al-Shifa, Al-Rantisi and Nasser hospitals.
But concerns are mounting that hospitals are now being targeted for military action, as searing images and accounts from civilians inside continue to emerge and as doctors warn they cannot evacuate their most vulnerable patients.
Israeli troops had been conducting operations inside Al-Rantisi only a few hours before CNN’s visit, according to Hagari. He added that a forensic team would soon test the material left behind in the basement rooms to confirm any potential connection to the more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas during its rampage in Israel on October 7.
The IDF is also working to determine if there is a connection between an apparent nearby tunnel entrance and the rooms under the hospital.
CNN was shown a shaft, about 200 meters away from Al-Rantisi, which Hagari claimed was located next to a Hamas commander’s house and also a school.
Wires leading into the shaft provided power to the tunnel from solar panels fixed onto the roof of the Hamas commander’s house, he also said.
“We [put] a robot inside the tunnel and the robot saw a massive door, a door that is in the direction of the hospital,” Hagari said.
Zarquot said “the tunnel they claim to be a Hamas tunnel is actually an electrical wire assembly point. We raised the wires to prevent any electrical shocks caused by floods.”
CNN’s team witnessed huge amounts of destruction on their way through Gaza with the Israeli military as they were taken to Al-Rantisi hospital.
Countless houses, tall apartment blocks, hotels and villas had been destroyed. Bullet and shell holes were visible everywhere and firefights were ongoing.
While hospitals are protected in times of war under international humanitarian law, that protection may be compromised if they are believed to be sites of military activity. The World Health Organization has recorded at least 137 attacks on health facilities in Gaza, which it said resulted in 521 deaths and 686 injuries.
Other protected sites, like schools, civilian shelters, and United Nations facilities have already been damaged or destroyed in over a month of Israeli airstrikes. On Monday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee announced that over 100 UN staffers had been killed in Gaza since fighting began – the most in the United Nation’s history.
Israeli forces’ orders for hospitals to evacuate or risk danger from fighting as troops try to root out Hamas have sparked criticism from global health organizations and aid groups. A joint statement by the regional directors of UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Health Organization on Sunday called for “urgent international action to end the ongoing attacks on hospitals in Gaza.”
“We are horrified at the latest reports of attacks on and in the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital, Al-Rantissi Naser Paediatric Hospital, Al-Quds Hospital, and others in Gaza city and northern Gaza, killing many, including children. Intense hostilities surrounding several hospitals in northern Gaza are preventing safe access for health staff, the injured, and other patients” the statement reads.
Doctors continue to refuse to leave Al-Shifa – the biggest in Gaza – as of Monday, , because they say they fear hundreds of patients will die if they are left behind. Israel has alleged a Hamas center is hidden in the basement there, a claim which the hospital staff and Hamas have denied.
Thousands of civilians are believed to be sheltering at the hospital, and approximately 700 at-risk patients are receiving treatment there, according to Dr. Munir Al-Bursh, Director-General of the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza.
“The problem is not the doctors, it’s the patients,” Al-Burish told CNN on Monday. “If they are left behind, they will die, and if they are transferred, they will die on the way, this is the problem.”