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President Joe Biden declared it was a “fact” that Hamas had “their headquarters, their military hidden under a hospital.” Senior White House officials said that the group was operating a “command-and-control node” in the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, citing US intelligence, and State Department officials referred to the hospital as being a Hamas “command centre.”
Those statements from the Biden administration this week, in response to questions about Israel’s military assault of Gaza’s largest hospital, appeared to qualify as tacit approval from the Biden administration for an operation that has been condemned by the United Nations and aid groups as a potential war crime.
Israel began what it described as a “precise and targeted” raid of al-Shifa hospital on Wednesday, which it has described as the “beating heart” of Hamas operations in northern Gaza. But after two days of searching the hospital grounds, the Israeli military has yet to produce any evidence to match those descriptions from the White House. Nor has Israel been able to prove their own claims that Hamas was operating from a sprawling underground layer beneath the hospital, which they had described in detail with maps and graphics.
Videos posted by the Israeli army on Wednesday showed a relatively scant haul from their initial search of the hospital grounds. In one clip, an Israeli soldier tours a room in the hospital and shows the camera what he describes as “a grab bag,” containing weapons and other military equipment, behind an MRI machine. The soldier finds another bag in another location during their search. The soldier displayed a total of 14 weapons, in addition to other military equipment, following the search. The Israeli army described the room as an “operational command center,” where they found “technological assets, along with military and combat equipment used by the Hamas terrorist organization.”
“These weapons have absolutely no business being inside a hospital,” Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson said, adding that he believed the material was “just the tip of the iceberg” as troops continued to search for traces of the militants inside and beneath the facility.
On Thursday, Israel’s military announced they had found “an operational tunnel shaft and a vehicle containing a large number of weapons,” at the hospital. It also said it had recovered the body of an Israeli woman near the hospital, one of around 240 hostages taken by Hamas gunmen when they stormed into southern Israel on 7 October.
But so far, Israel has not presented evidence that shows a large-scale headquarters under the hospital, although that may be forthcoming as the search of the hospital grounds continues.
In the meantime, that lack of evidence has raised questions for the Biden administration.
State Department spokesperson Matt Miller appeared to soften the administration’s language on the matter on Thursday, when asked whether al-Shifa was a legitimate target for a military assault.
“We never said there were command posts in every hospital in Gaza,” he told reporters. “We don’t want to see hospitals struck from the air. We understand that Hamas continues to use hospitals in places where they embed their fighters.”
When asked again if the US was certain al-Shifa hospital was a headquarters for Hamas, despite a lack of apparent evidence so far, Mr Miller responded: “I saw a host of rifles in videos. … I’m not aware that there’s a sort of acceptable threshold for assault rifles in hospitals. That’s not a general humanitarian practice.”
The Independent has asked the White House for comment on the al-Shifa raid.
The raid on al-Shifa hospital was preceded by at least four Israeli strikes on the facility, where thousands of Gaza residents had been sheltering, according to an investigation by the New York Times.
Israel had justified its attacks on al-Shifa with claims that Hamas had built an extensive network of tunnels and an underground headquarters beneath the hospital. Earlier this month, the Israeli army released what it described as an “intelligence-based illustration video” which showed a vast network of rooms and tunnels underneath the hospital that constituted the Hamas headquarters.
John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, appeared to back up that assessment for a second time on Thursday, describing the intelligence as “definitive,” but refusing to share it publicly.
“We have our own intelligence that convinces us that Hamas was using al-Shifa as a command and control node, and most likely as well as a storage facility,” he said. “We are still convinced of the soundness of that intelligence.”
Mr Kirby said earlier in the week that “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad use some hospitals in the Gaza Strip, including al-Shifa, and tunnels underneath them, to conceal and to support their military operations and to hold hostages,” without providing any evidence.
He added, “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PIJ, members operate a command-and-control node from al-Shifa in Gaza City. They have stored weapons there and they are prepared to respond to an Israeli military operation against that facility.”
Mr Biden’s comments on the facility came at a press conference on Wednesday evening alongside China’s president, Xi Jinping.
“You have a circumstance where the first war crime is being committed by Hamas by having their headquarters, their military hidden under a hospital. And that’s a fact. That’s what’s happened,” he said in response to a question about whether the raid was justified.
“Israel did not go in with a large number of troops, did not raid, did not rush everything down. They’ve gone in and they’ve gone in with their soldiers carrying weapons or guns,” he added.
Hamas denied that it was using al-Shifa for military purposes in a statement on Thursday, describing them as “a blatantly false narrative.”
The raid on al-Shifa Hospital was condemned by the United Nations.
“I am appalled by reports of military raids at al-Shifa hospital,” the UN humanitarian agency chief, Martin Griffiths, said on X, formerly Twitter. “The protection of newborns, patients, medical staff and all civilians must override all other concerns. Hospitals are not battlegrounds.”
WHO director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that he was “extremely worried for the safety of staff and patients. Protecting them is paramount.”
“Even if health facilities are used for military purposes, the principles of distinction, precaution and proportionality always apply,” he added.
Dr Ahmed Makhalati, the head of al-Shifa’s burns unit, told The Independent on Wednesday that the Israeli army had taken over a section of the hospital complex.
“The soldiers are still inside the complex — they seem to be moving something inside the hospital complex but I can’t see properly as it’s too dangerous to take a look from the window. It’s a gamble to move between the buildings,” he said, as the sound of gunfire could be heard in the background.
“We are running out of fuel - it will be out by the end of the day — we don’t have food or water. We have lost 6 newborn babies in total — there are still 36 newborns here,” he said. The Independent has not been able to contact Dr Makhalati since.
All hospitals in Gaza have effectively been shut down since the war began after Israel cut off electricity and water and blocked deliveries of fuel, humanitarian aid and medicine from entering the territory, which is home to 2.3 million people.
Israel launched a military operation in Gaza after Hamas killed more than 1,200, including hundreds of civilians, on 7 October. Israel’s response to that attack has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,700 children.