Israel Says Gaza Hospital Held Hamas Command Center: What We Know So Far


Israel is trying to produce solid evidence for its assertion that Hamas has been using tunnels under Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza as a command center. But an Israeli military-led tour of the hospital grounds with journalists Thursday night showed directly only a shaft in the ground with a staircase, which did not settle the issue.

A definitive answer is almost certain not to come overnight, military experts said.

Both Israel and the Biden administration say they have evidence that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are operating command centers and ammunition depots under hospitals in Gaza, as part of an effort to turn civilians using the hospitals into human shields.

Thursday night’s Israeli military tour showed that the shaft had electrical wiring, along with a metal staircase. In the darkness, it was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went. The military said it had sent a drone down at least several meters into the shaft, which it said was found in the sand on the northern perimeter of the hospital complex.

Israel has also released a pair of videos from inside Gaza’s main children’s hospital that Israel said showed weapons and explosives found in the medical center, and a room where the military said hostages were kept. The videos contain a series of assertions that could not be independently verified.

The Israeli military said that soldiers had also found weapons at Al-Shifa and had recovered the bodies of two Israelis taken hostage in locations adjacent to the hospital.

Palestinian officials and doctors at Al-Shifa have denied that the hospital has been used by Hamas’s military.

American officials said this week that they have intelligence, separate from Israeli intelligence, that confirms that Hamas is operating command centers and ammunitions depots under hospitals. One official said that the intelligence is based on intercepts from fighters.

But the sensitive nature of the intelligence means that American officials have not described exactly what the intercepted communications say. Nor have they shown the intercepts to journalists.

It could take weeks, months, or could never come, American military officials said on Friday.

American and Israeli officials said that many of the tunnels could be booby-trapped with bombs either remotely triggered or set to explode when something crosses a tripwire. In 2013, six Israeli soldiers were wounded, and one was blinded, when a booby trap exploded as they tried to shove a camera into a Hamas tunnel.

Whether this is the case under Al-Shifa Hospital or not, Israeli forces will view sending soldiers down into the tunnels as a measure of last resort, one Pentagon official said Friday.

Col. Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s Seventh Brigade, said it might be days before troops descended into the shaft.

Pentagon officials privately said there was frustration that Israel did not take more time to plan the Gaza invasion, which could have allowed the Israeli Defense Forces to evacuate civilians. The lead-up to the American and Iraqi fight to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State in 2016, American officials said, took nine months, in part so that officials could work out how to limit civilian casualties.

By going in with no strategy for how they would minimize civilian casualties, one senior U.S. official said, Israel put itself in the position of trying to justify the high civilian death toll by proving that Hamas was using the hospital as a command center. That puts pressure on Israel, the official said, to make a case that could take months.

Israel and Hamas are not just in a physical war — which Israelis say killed 1,200 Israelis in Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 attack, and which the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says has killed 11,000 Palestinians. The two sides are also in a war for global public opinion. That second war has put Israel under pressure.

A big part of the Israeli narrative is that Hamas is operating command headquarters under hospitals — essentially making human shields out of civilians, a war crime. But targeting a hospital is also a war crime in most circumstances.

So both sides are trying to show the other to be culpable in putting civilians at risk. Global opinion has shifted against Israel as the Palestinian death toll has gone up.

Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say the Israeli government has been too expansive in its argument about human shields, since there are believed to be hundreds of tunnels all over Gaza, not just under the hospital.

“The notion of human shields, when applied so broadly, allows Israel to pre-emptively say everything is a legitimate target,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now president of the U.S. Middle East Project, a policy institute.

No one knows for sure. One U.S. official likened the tunnel network under Gaza to “miniature cities,” with subterranean pathways, rooms, cells and even roads for vehicles.

Hamas has spent years refining its tunnel network underneath the tiny coastal strip of more than two million people. Tunnels have been a part of life in Gaza for years, but they sharply multiplied after 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave and Israel tightened a blockade of the territory. Palestinians responded by building hundreds of tunnels to smuggle in food, goods, people and weapons.

Some analysts have put the number of miles of tunnels in the hundreds. Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said in 2021 that there were 310 miles of tunnels in Gaza.

In 2018, the Israel Defense Forces destroyed a tunnel that was more than a mile long.

One American military official said that it would likely take years for Israel to clear all of the Gaza tunnels.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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