The White House said Tuesday that Hamas is storing weapons and operating a command node from the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza, revealing publicly what US intelligence has shown is underneath the medical facility.
“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,” John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, told reporters traveling with President Joe Biden.
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.”
Kirby presented no evidence to back up his statement. Israel has claimed for years that Gaza militants have been building key tunnel infrastructure under the hospital – allegations that doctors in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have always vehemently denied.
Later Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces said the Israeli military was “carrying out a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa Hospital.” In a statement, the IDF accused Hamas of “continued military use of the Shifa hospital,” which, it said, “jeopardised the hospital’s protected status under international law.”
A doctor who was present at the hospital told CNN they were given a 30-minute warning before the Israeli operation at the complex began. “We were asked to stay clear of the windows and the balconies. We can hear the armored vehicles, they are very close to the entrance of the complex,” Dr. Khaled Abu Samra said.
A US official with knowledge of American intelligence told CNN on Monday that Hamas has a command node under the Al-Shifa hospital, uses fuel intended for it and its fighters regularly cluster in and around Gaza’s largest hospital. Hamas and hospital officials have denied the accusation that the hospital is being used as a command center.
Al-Shifa, the largest hospital in Gaza, has been besieged for several days amid Israel’s response to the Hamas terror attacks on October 7.
Still, Kirby said the US has been clear that it does not support Israel bombing medical facilities from above.
“We do not support striking a hospital from the air,” Kirby said, adding the US also does not want “firefights” where innocent people seeking medical care are caught in the crossfire.
“This just points out how challenging the military operation is because Hamas has deeply embedded itself within the civilian population,” Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One, saying it added an “extra burden” on Israel to protect civilians.
Kirby cited a “variety” of intelligence sourcing to back up the assertion al-Shifa is being used by Hamas, though wouldn’t provide further details.
Global attention has turned to the fighting around the hospital and reports suggest several patients, including children, have died in what the hospital’s director has called “catastrophic” conditions.
“There is no more water, food, milk for children and babies. … The situation in the hospital is catastrophic,” the director of the medical center, Dr. Muhammad Abu Salmiya, told CNN on Monday.
But Israel has insisted that patients can be evacuated from the hospital.
“There’s no reason why we just can’t take the patients out of there, instead of letting Hamas use it as a command center for terrorism, for the rockets that they fire against Israel, for the terror tunnels that they use to kill Israeli civilians,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Dr. Munir Al-Bursh, the director-general of the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, said Monday that medical staff at Al-Shifa had refused an Israel Defense Forces evacuation order because they fear approximately 700 patients will die if they are left behind.
“The problem is not the doctors, it’s the patients. And if they are left behind, they will die, and if they are transferred, they will die on the way. This is the problem: We are talking about 700 patients,” Al-Bursh told CNN on Monday.
This story has been updated with additional developments.