In the Gaza war, now probably winding down, when you’re not hearing that Israel is supposedly attacking a school you’re hearing that it’s supposedly attacking a hospital. What’s going on? Is Israel really a monstrously aggressive country?
Seemingly hospitals, of all institutions, should be immune from war. Hospitals are the only place where some of the harms of war, physical harms caused to individual human beings, can be remedied. Hospitals are for healing, not combat.
So what’s happening? Why do hospitals seem to be part of the fighting? A look at some recent, and less recent, scenarios from this conflict will help give an answer.
On Friday, August 1, a Finnish reporter let the cat out of the bag, openly acknowledging something that others among the myriad reporters now swarming in Gaza have not been eager to disclose. This TV correspondent for the Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat tells her viewers that “right in the back parking lot of Shifa Hospital [in Gaza], a rocket was launched at two o’clock in the morning… the sound of it was really loud.”
A onetime event? Not at all: “It’s true,” she states, “that rockets are launched here from the Gazan side into Israel.”
In conveying that simple fact, the reporter was breaking protocol. As Algemeiner notes:
The Al Shifa Hospital, in particular, has been an area of focus after journalists reported that Hamas was using the hospital as a headquarters, but many of their reports were withdrawn, deleted on social media or actually taken off their newspaper websites because of fears for their safety and retribution from Hamas for reporting the truth.
For her part the Finnish reporter, Aishi Zidan, later complained bitterly that her story “became quickly a tool of propaganda” for people “just looking for excuses to Israeli actions in Gaza.” Well, people can use facts for whatever propaganda purposes they want. Isn’t it supposed to be the intrepid media’s job to give us the facts in the first place?
Shifa, indeed, is not just a rocket-launching site for Palestinian “militants” but also, as the Washington Post’s William Booth reported in July, a “de facto headquarters for Hamas leaders, who can be seen in the hallways and offices.” It’s one way for these leaders to stay safe from Israeli strikes; they know Israel isn’t going to attack them as long as they’re in a hospital, or in Hamas’s command-and-control bunker located just beneath it.
The above excerpt from a 2006 PBS documentary tells us that, even back then, “armed militants inside Shifa are one of the hospital’s biggest problems…and they all try to use their military muscle to get special treatment.” We then see a “militant” try to bully and threaten a doctor into giving two of his friends a private room; the doctor, to his credit, stands his ground.
On July 28 NBC News reported (the story has meanwhile been revised in light of Israel’s objections) that Israel had launched a drone strike at Shifa. Now what would Israel—already under concerted pro-Hamas media assault along with fierce public criticism from U.S., UN, European, and other leaders—stand to gain from targeting a hospital? Even if there were “militants” inside, seemingly the resulting U.S. and world outrage would overwhelm any military benefits. But you know those Israelis, cruel and sadistic just for the hell of it.
It turned out, of course, that on that same day the Israel Defense Forces released aerial photos showing that the hospital, along with the Shati refugee camp, was hit by misfired Hamas rockets. The IDF’s version was later confirmed by a Spanish reporter.
Shifa is not the only Gaza hospital Hamas has used for warfare purposes. Earlier in the war it was using Wafa Hospital as a command center and for repeated firing on Israeli troops. As we see and hear in this clip, before targeting parts of the hospital, Israel contacted its administration to give advance warning and make sure all patients had been transferred elsewhere (report here).
Hospitals have indeed been part of this conflict for a long time—but not necessarily hospitals in Gaza, and not necessarily in the way I’ve outlined so far.
In 2005, a 21-year-old woman from Gaza named Wafa al-Biri was treated at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva, Israel, for severe burns sustained in an accident. Although her family wrote a thank-you note to the hospital, al-Biri didn’t show much appreciation for her treatment. On her way back to Soroka for follow-up tests, she was detained at a checkpoint carrying a 20-pound bomb with which, she said, she had hoped to kill 30 to 50 Jews once inside the hospital.
Al-Biri, by the way, was not sent to fulfill that mission by Hamas but by the Al-Aqsa Brigades—the military wing of Fatah, the supposedly moderate Palestinian faction.
Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror writes that while the toll of civilian dead and wounded in Gaza “is of Hamas’s own making… Israel must not ignore it.”
Israel has indeed not been ignoring it; two weeks ago it set up a field hospital for injured Gazans at the Erez Crossing. The fact that Israel, since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, has kept providing the belligerent enclave with electricity, water, and gas, with food, medical, and other supplies, is controversial in Israel; the rationale is that otherwise Gaza will face a severe humanitarian crisis. In any case, the field hospital is a simple charitable gesture, an acknowledgment that there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza right now, caused by the war, and that Israel can help do something about it.
Here, two weeks after the hospital was set up, Israel’s GPO (Government Press Office) conducts a tour of it for foreign reporters—who, of course, have all but ignored it. The speaker for COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) tells his audience that out of 400 injured Palestinians who have come to the hospital so far, most—fearing Hamas retaliation—have refused treatment and were sent on to hospitals in Israel instead. Israeli hospitals actually treat over 100,000 Palestinian patients from the West Bank and Gaza annually.
Israel, of course, should not have to make such efforts to prove that it does not target civilians, and that the difference between it and the terrorist organizations it fights is the difference between hospitals as places for healing and hospitals as fortresses for sowing death. But getting such realities through the slanderous media din is an ongoing struggle.