Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 14 November 2023


The Battle of Al Shifa Hospital

Hamas operates from beneath Al Shifa and won’t let patients out.


The story, and the scandal, wasn’t that the U.S. struck the terrorists where they hid, but that terrorists had used the hospital for cover in the first place. “In Mosul Battle, ISIS Used Hospital Base” was the Human Rights Watch headline; it explained that “armed forces or groups should not occupy medical facilities, undermining their protected status.”

Today in Gaza, Hamas terrorists use the same war-crime tactics. Only now observers rush to apologize for it. See the front page of the Human Rights Watch website: “Unlawful Israeli Hospital Strikes Worsen Health Crisis.” For 4,500 words, the group acts as Hamas’s defense attorney, contesting Israel’s claims and dismissing evidence.

Much of the Western press would also have readers conclude that Israel has organized its counteroffensive to converge in a pincer on Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital for no reason other than that it houses sick patients.

The real story, as Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has documented, makes a great deal more sense. Hamas has used the hospital at least since 2006, when a PBS documentary showed terrorists roaming its halls and cordoning off wings. Even Human Rights Watch admitted in 2007 that Hamas had fired at Fatah, its Palestinian rival, from within the hospital.

In the 2008-09 war, Hamas leaders hid in a bunker under the hospital. The New York Times wrote that Hamas operated openly in the halls. In the 2014 war, the Washington Post reported that Shifa was a Hamas “de facto headquarters.” Amnesty International found that Hamas tortured prisoners on hospital grounds.

On Tuesday the White House confirmed what Israel has long alleged. National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby cited U.S. intelligence that “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad members operate a command and control node from Al Shifa in Gaza City.”

Hamas is certainly fighting like that’s the case. At first it massed civilians around the premises and tried to prevent them from evacuating. For days, even as it has lost control of its government district, Hamas has fought outside the Shifa hospital.

This isn’t because it cares for Gazan patients. Israel released a video of a terrorist shooting an RPG from outside a different hospital, Al Quds, and then darting inside for cover. Israel also took journalists to Al Rantisi Children’s Hospital, in whose basement they found a Hamas armory, plus a tunnel shaft nearby.

The law of war in this case is clear: Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Hamas’s use of Al Shifa for military purposes vitiates the protected status granted to hospitals. Israel is still required to give warning and use means proportionate to the anticipated military advantage, and it has.

Contrary to media claims of an Israeli “siege” of Al Shifa hospital, Israel days ago opened a humanitarian corridor from the east side of the hospital to get civilians out. Many have since fled, as Israel first warned them to do a month ago. Israel is in contact with the hospital and offered to evacuate patients for treatment elsewhere. Hamas has resisted a transfer—it prefers patients, including babies, to remain in the war zone.

Israel responded by working to transfer incubators and respirators to the hospital. On Sunday Israel risked troops’ lives to leave 300 liters of fuel outside the hospital entrance. The U.S. State Department confirms that Hamas had the hospital decline the fuel.

Hamas can end the hospital crisis any time it wants. It could let Israel get patients to safety or stand down at the hospital. It refuses to do so, counting on the West to bail it out by forcing Israel to stand down instead. Many are eager to apply that pressure.

As law, this is groundless. As morality, it is backward. As a strategy to win the war, it plays into Hamas’s hands.

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