Health officials said Sunday that 31 “very sick” premature babies were safely transferred from Gaza’s main hospital to another in the south and will later go to Egypt, as scores of critically wounded patients remained stranded there days after Israeli forces entered the compound.
The fate of the newborns at Shifa Hospital had captured global attention after the release of images showing doctors trying to keep them warm. A power blackout had shut down incubators and other equipment, and food, water and medical supplies ran out as Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants outside.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on social media the “very sick” babies were evacuated along with six health workers and 10 family members of staff. They were receiving urgent care in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
The babies suffered from dehydration, vomiting, hypothermia and some had sepsis because they hadn’t received medication, and they had not been in “suitable conditions for them to stay alive,” said Mohamed Zaqout, director of Gaza hospitals. They’ll go to Egypt on Monday for more specialized care, he said.
A WHO team that visited the hospital on Saturday said 291 patients were still there, including the babies. Others were trauma patients with severely infected wounds and those with spinal injuries who are unable to move. Four babies died in the two days before their visit, Zaqout said.
The WHO said 25 medical staff remained, along with the patients who it said were “terrified for their safety and health, and pleaded for evacuation.” The agency described Shifa as a death zone.
Later Sunday, the hospital’s head of plastic surgery, Dr. Ahmed El Mokhallalati, said Israeli troops raided the surgical department, investigated staff and patients, and arrested one patient. The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the incident.
Israel has long alleged Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under Shifa, part of its wider accusation that the fighters use civilians as cover. It has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end Hamas’ rule in Gaza following the militant group’s wide-ranging attack into southern Israel six weeks ago.
After searching the grounds for days, Israel’s army said Sunday it had discovered a 55-meter (60-yard) tunnel about 10 meters (33 feet) under the hospital’s 20-acre complex, which includes several buildings, garages and a plaza. It said the tunnel included a staircase, blast-proof door and a firing hole that could be used by snipers. The army said it was still uncovering the tunnel’s route.
The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify Israel’s findings.
Hamas and hospital staff earlier denied the allegations of a command post under Shifa, and critics describe the hospital as a symbol of what they call Israel’s reckless endangerment of civilians. Thousands have been killed in Israeli strikes, and there are severe shortages of food, water, medicine and fuel in the besieged territory.
Israel’s military said Yemen-based Houthi rebels had seized a cargo ship in the southern Red Sea sailing from Turkey to India but said no Israelis were aboard and that it wasn’t an Israeli ship.
The Houthis said they had seized an Israeli ship and crew and took the vessel to the Yemeni coast, but gave no details, other than to say it was treating the captives “in accordance with the teaching and values of our Islamic religion.” Earlier in the day, the Iranian-backed group threatened to target Israel-linked vessels in the Red Sea.
A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office described the ship as owned by a British company. But a U.N. ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm, Ray Shipping Ltd. Officials there did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
HEAVY FIGHTING IN THE NORTH
Heavy clashes were reported in the built-up Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza overnight into Sunday. “There was the constant sound of gunfire and tank shelling,” Yassin Sharif, who is sheltering in a U.N.-run hospital there, said by phone. “It was another night of horror.”
The commissioner-general of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, said 24 people were killed in what witnesses described as an Israeli airstrike on a school in a crowded U.N. shelter in Jabaliya the day before. The Israeli military, which has repeatedly called on Palestinians to leave northern Gaza, said only that its troops were active in the area “with the aim of hitting terrorists.”
“This war is having a staggering and unacceptable number of civilian casualties, including women and children, every day. This must stop,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on that strike and another on a U.N.-run school within 24 hours.
More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed, according to Palestinian health authorities. A further 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried in rubble. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants; Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.
About 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, in which the group dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza and shattered Israel’s sense of security. The military says 63 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including 12 over the past 24 hours.
Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two were found near Shifa where there had been heavy fighting.
Israel, the United States and the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating a hostage release for weeks. “We are hopeful that we can get a significant number of hostages freed in the coming days,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Herzog, told ABC’s “This Week.” He added, “We’re talking about a pause in the fighting for a few days, so we can get the hostages out.”
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said Sunday the “the sticking points, honestly, at this stage are more practical, logistical.”
More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA, is struggling to provide basic services to hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Seventeen of its facilities have been directly hit, the agency said.
Their misery has worsened in recent days with the arrival of winter, with cold winds and driving rain.
Over the weekend, Israel allowed UNRWA to import enough fuel to continue humanitarian operations for another couple of days, and to keep internet and telephone systems running. Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing Gaza’s sole power plant and most water treatment systems to shut down.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday gave the clearest indication yet that the military plans to expand its offensive to the south, where Israel has told Palestinian civilians to seek refuge. Israel has repeatedly struck what it says are militant targets across the south, often killing civilians.
The evacuation zone is already crammed with displaced civilians, and it was not clear where they would go if the offensive moved closer. Egypt has refused to accept any influx of Palestinian refugees, in part because of fears that Israel would not allow them to return.
Palestinian-Canadian Khalil Manaa, 71, left Gaza for Egypt on Sunday. After fleeing to southern Gaza, he said he and relatives shared a crammed home of 40 people. “And there, we also were subjected to intense strikes. … A rocket hit our house,” he said.