TEL AVIV — After having launched a raid on the Gaza Strip’s main hospital in a significant escalation of its assault on the Palestinian enclave, the Israeli military said it had found evidence that Hamas was storing weapons and military gear at the Al-Shifa medical complex.
The raid has further raised fears for the hundreds of patients and staff members trapped in the Al-Shifa complex with dwindling fuel, food and medical supplies. Israel has long maintained that Hamas uses hospitals, including Gaza City's Al-Shifa, and tunnels beneath them — which Hamas and doctors at the hospital have both denied.
Dr. Ahmed El Mokhallalati, a plastic surgeon at Al-Shifa, told NBC News that those inside the hospital were “terrified” as Israeli forces began their raid.
He said a heavy bombardment began Tuesday night, with parts of the building being hit directly. He said there were also “continuous gunshots all over the areas surrounding the hospital," before troops entered the complex.
He said he couldn't see what troops were doing in the complex as it felt too risky to move between buildings. "Snipers are everywhere and the drones are everywhere."
In a briefing late Wednesday in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, Dr. Mohammad Zaqout, the director of hospitals in the Gaza Strip, said Israeli troops first entered Al-Shifa’s surgery building around 2 a.m. local time. They then searched the medical teams, employees and patients for more than 10 hours, he said.
“They forced them to undress while [they] detained others,” Zaqout said.
On Wednesday night, Israel's government press office said the IDF had found evidence that Hamas was storing weapons and other military gear in Al-Shifa’s MRI department. Video accompanying the statement showed Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the IDF, displaying several "go bags" with military gear, including AK-47s, hand grenades, boots and tactical vests. According to Conricus, each bag corresponded to one Hamas militant.
In addition, two bags shown contained automatic weapons. NBC News counted about a dozen guns.
The final item Conricus showed was a laptop that the IDF said contained a photo of Ori Megidish, the soldier whom Hamas took captive and then freed on Oct. 30.
The video does not appear to show definitive evidence that a Hamas command center exists beneath the hospital, a claim Israeli officials have repeatedly made. The IDF did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether Hamas tunnels were found at Al-Shifa.
NBC News could not independently verify what was found in the hospital.
The IDF said that before they entered the hospital complex, its troops encountered what it described as explosive devices and terrorist cells. It did not offer any further details or specify where that occurred.
“An engagement began in which terrorists were killed,” it said earlier.
In a statement released Wednesday evening on Telegram, Hamas said Israel’s “claim that it found weapons and equipment in Al-Shifa Medical Complex is nothing but a continuation of the lies and cheap propaganda, through which it is trying to give justification for its crime aimed at destroying the health sector in Gaza.”
Much is still unknown about the scene at Al-Shifa — including the status of its vulnerable patients. NBC News has been unable to reach contacts at the hospital Wednesday, and the World Health Organization said it has lost touch with health personnel there.
Thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in the medical complex, including dozens of premature babies, while fighting has been raging outside. Global attention has been centered on Al-Shifa for days, and news that troops had entered the site drew new expressions of concern from some U.S. leaders, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and aid groups.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said the IDF informed health officials around dawn local time Wednesday of its “intention to storm the complex, where thousands of medical staff, wounded, and displaced people were trapped inside.”
She called the raid “a new crime against humanity.”
Al-Kaila serves under President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority, which partially administers the occupied West Bank. Its Fatah movement is a rival of Hamas, which controls Gaza.
The White House said Tuesday it had "information" that Hamas was using Al-Shifa hospital to conceal military operations.
NBC News was not able to independently verify the claims.
Video from the Palestinian Health Ministry, shared by Reuters, shows what it says is a doctor inside Al-Shifa describing damage to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
The doctor, who is not named, says the ICU was struck at dawn, forcing medical workers to take patients, including children, into the corridors of the department for their safety. The doctor said the patients’ lives were at risk because of the move. NBC News was not able to independently verify the video.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on X that the “reports of military incursion into Al-Shifa hospital are deeply concerning” and that he was extremely worried about the safety of health workers and patients there.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said before Israel’s incursion was announced that U.S. leaders “do not support striking a hospital from the air, and we do not want to see a firefight in the hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people are simply trying to get the medical care that they deserve.”
Until Tuesday night, the IDF had acknowledged it was involved in “intense” fighting around the hospital; the raid appears to be the first time troops have entered the facility.
As Israeli soldiers launched their operation at Al-Shifa, the IDF said incubators, baby food and medical supplies had been delivered to the hospital using tanks. The military shared images on X showing boxes labeled as “medical supplies” and “baby food.”
It said the forces involved in the Al-Shifa mission included medical teams and Arabic speakers with “specified training to prepare for this complex and sensitive environment.” Forces had no “intent” of causing harm to civilians, it added.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com