Displaced Residents Flee Last Hospital in Central Gaza as Fighting Nears

REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
An Israeli soldier operates, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Gaza, January 8, 2024.

CAIRO – Israeli attacks around central Gaza’s last remaining hospital caused hundreds of displaced civilians to flee over the weekend and forced most medical workers to evacuate, leaving wounded people with no good options for seeking care as fighting intensifies in the area.

Organizations including Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee and Medical Aid for Palestinians have pulled their staff from al-Aqsa Hospital in recent days, after the surrounding areas in the Deir al-Balah region came under drone attacks and sniper fire, and residents received warnings from the Israel Defense Forces to evacuate.

The heavy fire and pullout of major international medical organizations sparked panic among displaced civilians sheltering at the facility, prompting many of them to flee yet again in search of relative safety, eyewitnesses said.

“Due to extreme fear, a large number of displaced people who were present in the hospital’s courtyards dismantled their tents yesterday evening and this morning, and headed toward the city of Rafah,” Ashraf Abu Amra, a freelance journalist stationed at the hospital, said in a voice message Monday. By evening, 35 bodies had arrived at the hospital, he said, “because it is the only one that covers the entire central regions.”

The IDF began a gradual drawdown of troops in northern Gaza late last month, saying it had largely disabled Hamas operations in that part of the enclave. But widespread attacks continue throughout central and southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have taken refuge.

Israel is under growing international pressure to rein in its military campaign and facilitate the delivery of more aid to the besieged enclave.

Speaking to British and French counterparts at the start of Italy’s presidency of the Group of Seven wealthiest nations, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said it was “an absolute necessity to curb the number of Palestinian civilian casualties immediately,” according to a readout of the call. “A second objective is to put pressure on the Israeli government to end military operations,” he said, and push for the “difficult but inescapable” two-state solution.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is in the region to try to stave off a broader war, said Monday that the United States and Arab leaders agreed to coordinate plans for how Gaza will be governed after Israel’s military campaign ends.

“We agreed to work together and to coordinate our efforts to help Gaza stabilize and recover, to chart a political path forward for the Palestinians and to work toward long-term peace, security and stability in the region,” Blinken told reporters after meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Blinken arrived in the ancient Saudi city of Al Ula on Monday following meetings with leaders in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Greece and Turkey.

In his visits, Blinken has tried to generate interest from the leaders in contributing to a plan for Gaza’s governance and reconstruction – something Arab leaders have been loath to discuss as the enormous civilian death toll continues to climb.

“No one I talked to thinks any of this will be easy,” he said. “All recognize the hurdles and no one thinks that anything will happen overnight.”

Washington considers the financial support from Saudi Arabia and other energy-rich Gulf countries as critical to any long-term solution in Gaza. Arab countries, meanwhile, have made clear they have no interest in footing the bill for reconstruction without establishing a firm path to a sovereign Palestinian state.

Blinken then boarded a plane to Israel, landing in Tel Aviv on Monday night, where he said he would present the ideas he heard from Arab countries, including the need for the creation of a Palestinian state – something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out.

He also said he would press Israel “on the absolute imperative to do more to protect civilians, and to do more to make sure that humanitarian assistance is getting into the hands of those who need it.”

Israel’s campaign has killed more than 23,000 people in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and its forces have repeatedly targeted hospitals in the enclave, saying Hamas militants use them to store weapons, command operations and hide hostages.

As of Jan. 3, before the exodus from al-Aqsa Hospital, only 13 out of Gaza’s 36 hospitals were partially functional, according to the World Health Organization – nine in the south and four in the north.

In a statement Sunday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said only five doctors remained at al-Aqsa Hospital to treat the wounded, with no food, scant medical supplies and no assurance that they would be protected from an attack.

The WHO “has received troubling reports of increasing hostilities and ongoing evacuation orders near the vital Al-Aqsa Hospital,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter. A WHO team visited the hospital on Sunday, he added, and “saw sickening scenes of people of all ages being treated on blood-streaked floors and in chaotic corridors.”

Bob Kitchen, vice president for emergencies and humanitarian action at the International Rescue Committee, told The Washington Post that the IRC and Medical Aid for Palestinians had decided to pull out their joint emergency medical team from al-Aqsa Hospital after fighting in the area “got hotter and hotter” and bullets pierced the doctor’s room and the intensive care unit last week.

“We were able to make it through the end of that day, but it was evident . . . that the Israelis had placed the hospital in the red zone and were moving further south,” he said.

The IDF press office said it was “checking” on reports that fighting and bombardment in the vicinity had forced civilians and medical workers to flee al-Aqsa Hospital.

Also Monday, the Israeli military said it had “eliminated” Hassan Hakashah, a Hamas operative in Beit Jinn in southern Syria. In a statement, the IDF described Hakashah as a “central figure responsible for rockets fired by Hamas from Syrian territory toward Israel in recent weeks.”

It did not provide any more details about the operation, including whether he was killed in a strike. It is rare for Israel to publicly acknowledge strikes or targeted killings in other countries. But on Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz also said Israel was responsible for the killing of a Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon.

Earlier in the day, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful militant group, announced that one of its commanders – Wissam Hassan Tawil – had been killed.

“We’ve prepared ourselves to be able to fight on all fronts,” Katz said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 14.

“In regards to the hit in southern Lebanon, we took responsibility for the elimination of the Radwan force’s acting commander,” he said, referring to Hezbollah’s elite special forces unit.

So far, 135 Hezbollah members have been killed since Oct. 7, according to a Post tally. Israeli bombardments have also killed at least 19 Hezbollah members in neighboring Syria, the militant group told The Post.

In a pair of speeches last week, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah warned Israel that waging a war on Lebanon would be “very, very, very costly.”