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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Battle at hospital points to power vacuum in northern Gaza

Israeli soldiers on the grounds of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Nov. 16, 2023. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)

By Adam Rasgon

Since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has repeatedly spoken of the need to topple Hamas but has done little to address the power vacuum left behind by withdrawing Israeli forces.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in northern Gaza, where an Israeli military raid on a major hospital complex entered a third day Wednesday, as Israel said the reemergence of Hamas fighters had forced it to return to a site they first stormed in November.

Since Monday, the Israeli military said, troops have engaged in deadly gunbattles with militants at the complex, Shifa, leaving displaced people, medical teams and nearby residents caught in the crossfire. On Wednesday, the army said that it had killed dozens of militants in the operation and questioned or arrested hundreds of people. Its account of the operation could not be independently confirmed.

Israeli military analysts say that a coherent plan for governing Gaza could take months or years to put in place, and that troops would likely have had to return to Shifa in the interim. But critics of Netanyahu say that he has failed to advance even an initial realistic proposal, leaving Palestinian civilians to bear the highest cost of the disorder.

“Lives have been transformed into hell,” said Talal Okal, a political analyst from Gaza City who fled northern Gaza in October and is now in the United Arab Emirates.

“Netanyahu and his partners don’t want to answer the question of the day after the war,” he said. “Complete chaos has taken hold, and the people are paying the price. But what can they do? All they can do is raise their hands and pray to God.”

Following the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli forces launched a wide-scale invasion of northern Gaza, killing Hamas militants and causing immense civilian death and devastation. Its soldiers first raided Shifa Hospital in November after accusing Hamas of using the hospital for military purposes.

That raid on Shifa revealed a stone-and-concrete tunnel shaft below the hospital. At the time, the Gaza Health Ministry said the incursion had put the hospital out of service.

Soldiers withdrew from the hospital in mid-November but returned to the surrounding area in late January and pulled back again in February.

As Israeli forces have shifted the focus of their invasion to southern Gaza — and Netanyahu says they will soon invade the southernmost city of Rafah — the north of the enclave has been all but cut off from humanitarian aid. Lawlessness, damaged roads and attacks on convoys have led aid groups to suspend deliveries there, and the United Nations has said many of its relief missions have been blocked by Israel. Israeli officials say there are no limits on how much aid can enter Gaza.

Palestinians in the north are struggling to obtain basic services and food.

“We’re living, but we’re dead,” said Rajab Tafish, 37, a resident of Gaza City. “We’re exhausted from all of this misery.”

Tafish, a telephone repairperson, said he and his family could hear “terrifying” explosions and gunfire emanating from the Shifa Hospital area, where a family member had been receiving treatment but was no longer reachable.

He said his family had sent his brother to nearby schools Wednesday in hopes of acquiring flour.

The U.N.-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative said this week that 1.1 million people, half the population of Gaza, would most likely face catastrophic food insecurity and predicted an imminent rise in hunger-related deaths. In the northern areas, it said, 300,000 people faced “imminent” famine.

Twice in the past month, attempts to distribute food ended in bloodshed as Palestinians seeking aid were killed.

More than 100 people were killed in Gaza City on Feb. 29, according to local health authorities, who said Israeli troops had opened fire on a crowd that massed around aid trucks. The Israeli military acknowledged opening fire but said most of the deaths had occurred when people stampeded or were run over by truck drivers.

Last week, at least 20 people were killed while awaiting aid at a traffic circle in northern Gaza. Gaza officials said Israeli forces had “targeted” the crowds, a claim that Israel’s military has denied.

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