Civilian hospitals are generally considered to be protected during wartime by the Geneva Conventions. However, the Israeli military has consistently argued that Hamas uses hospitals in the Gaza Strip to hide weapons and coordinate attacks. Those allegations may be true – last week the UN agency for Palestinian refugees announced it had found 20 missiles being stored at a vacant school in Gaza. If Hamas is hiding missiles in schools, why not in hospitals?
In the current conflict, there have been at least two reports of hospitals being hit by Israeli troops. The most recent, at Al-Aqsa Hospital in the central town of Deir al-Balah, is believed to have caused the deaths of at least four people, including two patients in their beds. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the hospital was hit by direct fire at least four times, severely damaging the surgical ward and the intensive care unit. Images that purport to show the damage to the hospital have been shared on social media.
Israel has said that the shelling targeted missiles hidden near the compound, though hospital officials have denied this. "I challenge anyone in the international community to prove that," Medhat Abbas, director of al-Aqsa Hospital, told Al Jazeera on Monday. "There are no weapons in our hospital."
Gaza City's el-Wafa Rehabilitation Center in Shijaiyah, Gaza City, was reported to have been severely damaged by Israeli troops last week. The hospital, which cares for 15 disabled and elderly patients, was first hit by shells on July 11, its director, Basman Alashi, told The Post in an e-mail. Alashi says that the hospital received a number of warning phone calls but that his patients had nowhere to escape to. On Thursday, the United Kingdom's Channel 4 News and Mondoweiss reported that the hospital was significantly damaged shortly after it was evacuated. Alashi says that his hospital had been targeted on at least six occasions.
BT'Selem, an Israeli human rights group, has reported that the initial calls to evacuated the hospital were part of a broader series of calls aimed at evacuating the entire neighborhood of Shijaiyah. However, that account appears to have been contradicted by a later article in the Jerusalem Post. That report, based on an anonymous IDF source, says that no evacuation was ordered and that the hospital was inadvertently hit in an attempt to target militants firing from the building. The IDF's Twitter account has also tweeted an image that it says shows rockets were being fired from the vicinity of the hospital.
Whatever the reasoning behind the strikes, the impact on Gaza's health care community is huge. There have been a number of other reports of hospitals being hit by Israeli fire, though these are harder to confirm, and in a statement on Monday, the Palestinian Ministry of Health warned that two other hospitals were near areas facing heavy shelling from Israel. Amnesty International says that at least 13 health facilities have been forced to close (as well as 84 schools), while Médecins Sans Frontières released a statement on Sunday that said they witnessed two paramedics die from injuries sustained from an Israeli attack, and that a clearly identified MSF vehicle had escaped an air strike less than 1,000 feet away. Palestinian officials have also warned that Gaza is facing a shortage of medical supplies.
During the 2008 Gaza War, a number of hospitals were damaged by fighting, with a subsequent report from the IDF saying that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had operated his command center from one of them. A 2013 report from Human Rights Watch criticized Israel for striking the Jordanian Military Field Hospital in Gaza City with a missile during 2012's Operation Pillar of Defense.
In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Hamas was "very cynically embedding its rocketeers, these tunnels, these terror tunnels in homes, in hospitals, in schools." Whether that's true or not, Gaza's medical community is paying a steep price.