Hamas command centre, weapons found at Gaza hospital, Israeli military says

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli troops found a command centre and weapons and combat gear belonging to Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza's biggest hospital on Wednesday, Israel's military said, in a campaign that stoked global alarm over the fate of civilians inside.

Al Shifa hospital had become the chief target of a Gaza City incursion by Israeli forces, who said the "beating heart" of the Hamas fighters' operations was headquartered in tunnels beneath it. Hamas denied the accusation and on Wednesday dismissed the Israeli statements as "lies and cheap propaganda".

Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the troops were still searching, having entered the hospital early on Wednesday after days of clashes around it.

The military simultaneously released a video it said showed some of the materials it recovered from an undisclosed building in the hospital compound, including automatic weapons, grenades, ammunition and flak jackets.

In one hospital department, "the soldiers located an operational command centre and technological assets belonging to Hamas, indicating that the terrorist organization uses the hospital for terrorist purposes," an Israeli military statement said.

Israel has consistently said the hospital sits above a Hamas headquarters, an assertion the United States said on Tuesday was supported by its own intelligence.

Hailing the entry of his forces into the hospital, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: "There is no place in Gaza that we cannot reach. There are no hideouts."

"We will reach and eliminate Hamas and we will bring back our hostages. These are two sacred missions," he said.

Israel began its campaign to wipe out the Islamist group that rules Gaza after militants rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel says 1,200 people were killed and some 240 captives taken in the deadliest day of its 75-year-old history.

Since then, Israel has put Gaza's population of 2.3 million under siege, battering the crowded strip with air strikes. Gaza health officials, considered reliable by the United Nations, say about 11,500 Palestinians are now confirmed killed, around 40% of them children, and more are buried under the rubble. Israel has ordered the entire northern half of Gaza evacuated, and around two-thirds of residents are now homeless.

TENSE INSIDE HOSPITAL

Israel said its troops had entered the hospital compound on Wednesday after killing militants in a clash outside. Once inside, they said there had been no fighting and no friction with civilians, patients or staff.

Witnesses who spoke to Reuters from inside the compound described an at times tense situation as Israeli troops moved between buildings. Sporadic shooting was heard but there were no reports of anyone hurt inside the grounds.

The Israeli military released photos of a soldier standing beside cardboard boxes marked "medical supplies" and "baby food", at a location Reuters verified was inside Al Shifa. Other photos showed Israeli troops in tactical formation walking past makeshift tents and mattresses.

International attention has focused on the fate of hundreds of patients trapped inside without electricity to operate basic medical equipment, and thousands of displaced civilians who had sought shelter there. Gaza officials say that many patients including three newborn babies died in recent days while Israel encircled the hospital.

"Before entering the hospital our forces were confronted by explosive devices and terrorist squads, fighting ensued in which terrorists were killed," the Israeli military said.

"We can confirm that incubators, baby food and medical supplies brought by IDF tanks from Israel have successfully reached the Shifa hospital. Our medical teams and Arabic speaking soldiers are on the ground to ensure that these supplies reach those in need," it said.

HUMANITARIAN PAUSES SOUGHT BY UN

The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday called for urgent and extended humanitarian pauses in fighting between Israel and Hamas militants for a "sufficient number of days" to allow humanitarian aid access. It also called for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas. The 15-member council overcame an impasse in four attempts to take action last month.

Israel has so far rejected calls for a ceasefire, which it says would benefit Hamas, a position backed by Washington. But a pause in fighting has been discussed in negotiations mediated by Qatar to release some of the hostages held by Hamas.

An official briefed on the negotiations said Qatari mediators were seeking a deal that would include a three-day truce, with Hamas releasing 50 of its captives and Israel to release some women and minors from among its security detainees.

The official said Hamas had agreed to the outlines of the deal but Israel had not and was still negotiating terms.

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told reporters the Israeli incursion into Al Shifa Hospital was "totally unacceptable".

"Hospitals are not battlegrounds," he said in Geneva.

Dr Ahmed El Mohallalati, a surgeon, told Reuters by phone that Al Shifa staff had hidden as fighting unfolded around the hospital overnight. As he spoke, the sound of what he described as "continuous shooting from the tanks" could be heard in the background.

"One of the big tanks entered within the hospital from the eastern main gate, and ... they just parked in the front of the hospital emergency department," he said.

The Israelis had told the hospital administration in advance that they planned to enter, he said. By mid-morning, he and other staff had yet to receive instructions from the troops, although the soldiers were "metres away" from them.

After five days during which he said the hospital had come under repeated Israeli attack, it was a relief at least to have reached an "end point", with troops now inside the grounds instead of outside shooting in, Mohallalati said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Maayan Lubell, James Mackenzie, Crispian Balmer and Emily Rose in Jerusalem, Abir Al Ahmar and Claudia Tanos in Dubai; Writing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Grant McCool; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Howard Goller)