The Israeli military said it was carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area” of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza early Wednesday morning. The ground operation, based on intelligence and “operation necessity,” came after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had repeatedly warned Hamas against using the hospital as a base for its operations, the IDF said in a statement.
“Yesterday, the IDF conveyed to the relevant authorities in Gaza once again that all military activities within the hospital must cease within 12 hours. Unfortunately, it did not,” the IDF said, adding that Hamas’ alleged military use of the hospital was a violation of international law.
Less than an hour before the IDF’s statement, a spokesperson for the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said Israel had told officials in the Palestinian territory that it would raid the sprawling Al Shifa hospital complex “in the coming minutes,” according to Reuters.
The announcement came a day after President Biden said hospitals in the Gaza Strip “must be protected” and voiced his “hope and expectation is that there will be less intrusive action relative to hospitals” in the coastal enclave.
Al Shifa is in the heart of Gaza City and had been at the center of a tense standoff for days. Israel accuses Hamas of having an underground headquarters under the hospital, which both Hamas and doctors at Al Shifa deny.
Both Israeli and U.S. officials had stressed that Hamas has a long history of positioning weapons and fighters in civilian homes, schools and hospitals, and on Tuesday, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said the U.S. had “information that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad use some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including Al Shifa Hospital, and tunnels underneath them to conceal and support their military operations and hold hostages.”
Kirby said that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operate a “command and control node” from Al Shifa, adding, “Now to be clear, we do not support striking a hospital from the air and we don’t want to see a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people trying to get medical care they deserve are caught in the crossfire. Hospitals and patients must be protected.”
The IDF said its forces involved in the operation included medical teams and Arabic speakers “who have undergone specified training to prepare for this complex and sensitive environment, with the intent that no harm is caused to the civilians being used by Hamas as human shields.”
IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said Wednesday that troops were engaged in a firefight outside the hospital before entering Al Shifa. He said the soldiers were fired on first but added that there had been no deaths confirmed on either side of the exchange of fire.
United Nations humanitarian and health agencies voiced urgent concern Wednesday at the prospect of the Israel-Hamas ground war moving onto the grounds of the packed health care facility, with humanitarian relief coordinator Martin Griffiths saying on social media he was “appalled by reports of military raids in Al Shifa hospital,” and adding that “the protection of newborns, patients, medical staff and all civilians must override all other concerns. Hospitals are not battlegrounds.”
World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called word of the incursion “deeply concerning” and said the U.N. health agency had “lost touch again with health personnel at the hospital. We’re extremely worried for their and their patients’ safety.”
Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for almost two decades, launched an unprecedented terror attacked on Israel on Oct. 7 from the territory, prompting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare his country “at war.” Israel says at least 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the coordinated, multi-fronted attack, and approximately 240 people were taken hostage by Hamas in Gaza.
Netanyahu has said a cease-fire will be possible only if the hostages are released, but Israel’s punishing response has divided the international community.
More than 11,070 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, which does not differentiate between civilian and militant deaths. The ministry has said about 2,700 people have been reported missing and many are believed to be trapped or dead under rubble in Gaza, which has been pummelled by Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7.
The U.N. estimates that some 1.5 million people — more than two-thirds of Gaza’s population — have fled the intense fighting in the north of Gaza to head south. Meanwhile, about 250,000 Israelis have been forced to evacuate from communities near Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants have traded fire repeatedly.
—Camilla Schick, Margaret Brennan and Haley Ott contributed reporting.
S. Dev is a news editor for CBSNews.com.