Since Israel’s ground troops invaded Gaza 19 days ago, the fate of its war has become largely entwined with the fate of the territory’s largest hospital.
Israeli soldiers on Wednesday morning stormed that hospital, Al-Shifa, searching its corridors and rooms for evidence to support Israel’s assertion that the sprawling medical complex doubles as a secret military command center. Over the course of the day, they hunted for weapons and interrogated those they found inside, according to both Israeli officials and Palestinians at the hospital.
The early-morning raid was seen by both sides as a watershed moment in the conflict, capable of shaping the pace and extent of the war.
Israel says Al-Shifa, a sprawling complex in Gaza City, conceals an underground military base and has presented its capture as a key metric of Israeli success. The Israelis also say that Hamas’s use of the hospital highlights how the group defends itself with human shields.
Hamas and the hospital’s leadership have denied the Israeli assertions. Al-Shifa, they say, is nothing other than a medical center and sanctuary for thousands of people uprooted by Israel’s strikes on Gaza. For Palestinians, the Israel military’s focus on a major hospital, when such facilities are typically off-limits during times of war, is proof of its disregard for Palestinian life.
What Israel finds — or doesn’t — in the hospital could affect international sentiment about the invasion and influence the negotiations taking place on freeing more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas.
Eighteen hours after the raid on the hospital began, the Israeli military released photos and video that it said backed its assertions. It distributed images of 13 guns that it said its soldiers had discovered in the hospital, as well as a statement saying that it had found a military command center in the hospital’s M.R.I. unit.
In a video taken at the hospital, a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, displayed caches of guns, ammunition, protective vests and Hamas military uniforms, some of which, he said, had been hidden behind M.R.I. machines and others in nearby storage units.
The New York Times was unable to verify the provenance of the weapons and equipment in the images or assess the claim of the command center’s existence. Apart from a gunfight outside the hospital at the start of the raid, there were no reports of clashes with Hamas gunmen at the site.
In a statement, Hamas dismissed the Israeli account as “a fabricated story that no one would believe.”
Should the Israelis in the end be unable to come up with compelling evidence that the hospital was used to house troops, store weapons and command fighters, they may find that the time left to achieve their stated goal — removing Hamas from power — has been curtailed. Israel’s targeting of Al-Shifa has already drawn global concern; a failure to prove the raid’s necessity could make Israel’s international partners less supportive of further Israeli operations in Gaza.
A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, John F. Kirby, rejecting Hamas claims that the United States had given the raid on Al-Shifa a “green light,” said Wednesday that Israel had not alerted the White House ahead of time.
The war began on Oct. 7, after Hamas led a terrorist attack on Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapping roughly 240 others, according to Israeli officials. In the 40 days since, Israel’s counterattack — by air, sea and land — has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, including more than 4,600 children, according to health officials in Gaza.
Israel is pushing to oust Hamas from power and re-establish control over a territory that it occupied between 1967 and 2005. Since 2007, when Hamas took full control of the narrow coastal enclave, Israel, in unison with Egypt, has maintained a tight blockade on Gaza.
Initially, at least, the raid on Wednesday seemed to pass without major bloodshed.
Israeli soldiers briefly exchanged fire with gunmen outside the hospital before entering, a senior military official said.
The hospital director, Mohammad Abu Salmiya, said in a broadcast interview with Al Jazeera that the soldiers had destroyed a wall of the hospital compound before entering, shattering several windows and wounding people inside with shrapnel.
“We can see the tanks before our eyes and we can see the soldiers walking inside the hospital,” he said.
As the day progressed, witnesses described an operation that appeared more like a violent police raid than a pitched battle between two military forces.
Soldiers interrogated some of the people inside, according to both Israeli and Palestinian officials. Medical workers and patients were locked down in wards, unable to move between departments, according to Dr. Abu Salmiya. Some feared trying to gain access to the hospital pharmacy, lest they be shot, Dr. Abu Salmiya said.
A Palestinian man inside a surgical building said that word had spread of interrogations and searches, including excavations, and that a tight cordon of Israeli armored vehicles had closed around the hospital.
“There are sounds of explosions, but I don’t know what they are blowing up exactly,” said the witness, Mahmoud, whose full name is being withheld for security purposes. “But the sounds are coming from inside the building. Naturally, everyone is scared.”
Dr. Abu Salmiya said that by Wednesday evening, the Israeli ground forces had reached the hospital’s X-ray facilities, a warehouse and its main pharmacy, as well as its internal medicine, dialysis and specialized surgery departments.
Otherwise, with communications disrupted in Gaza City, little information was available on Wednesday. Earlier in the war, Israel blacked out communications by switching off Gaza’s phone networks, according to U.S. officials, but the latest outages might tired to dwindling fuel supplies and Israeli strikes.
Early on Wednesday, the Israeli army said it had launched “a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa Hospital.” It said that its goal was not to harm civilians, and that it had sent incubators, Arabic speakers and medical supplies and personnel to join the operation.
The Hamas-run government media office in Gaza said in a statement that the Israeli soldiers had beaten patients, displaced people taking shelter at the hospital and had expelled others from the complex.
Because of the communications disruption, The New York Times could not reach hospital administrators. The Palestinian man interviewed by telephone in the surgery building at the hospital said he had not heard of anyone being beaten.
Palestinian officials, the heads of United Nations agencies and some Mideast regional leaders condemned the raid, warning that it put the lives of Gaza’s most vulnerable a risk.
Mr. Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said on Tuesday that the United States had its own intelligence supporting Israel’s assertion of a militant presence at Al-Shifa. But Mr. Kirby also said that the United States, Israel’s closest ally, did not want to see “a firefight in a hospital where innocent people, helpless people, sick people trying to get medical care they deserve are caught in the crossfire.”
Before the raid, the World Health Organization said that Al-Shifa had ceased to be a functional hospital, and officials described grim conditions there. They said that medicine and anesthetics had all but run out, as had fuel, forcing the shutdown of generators and lifesaving equipment. Some three dozen premature babies were at particular risk, they said.
“The smell of death wafts everywhere,” said Dr. Abu Salmiya.
At home, Israel’s leaders have been hoping to portray the military’s control of the hospital as a symbolic victory to the Israeli public, according to an official who spoke anonymously to discuss a sensitive matter.
The raid came as the government was deliberating whether to agree to a pause in fighting, a concession opposed by some Israelis. Foreign mediators are also negotiating a deal to exchange Palestinian prisoners in Israel for some of the hostages abducted on Oct. 7, according to officials and diplomats briefed on the negotiations.