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Anglican hospital hangs on in Gaza

16 November 2023

Relentless bombardment of hospitals ‘intolerable’ says Archbishop Welby


Buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing at Bureij refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on Monday

Buildings destroyed by Israeli bombing at Bureij refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, on Monday

THE Israel Defence Forces (IDF) entered Gaza’s largest hospital on Tuesday night, amid a health-care crisis in the besieged enclave and ongoing calls for a ceasefire.

The Anglican-run Al-Ahli Hospital is understood to be the last functioning hospital in northern Gaza, and to be caring for 500 wounded people.

On Wednesday, the Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, Canon Richard Sewell, described it as looking like “a field hospital . . . a hospital which is absolutely on the front line of doing lifesaving work, run by the diocese of Jerusalem, that is pleading to the world: ‘Please get us supplies so we can save lives and do essential operations,’ and nothing is happening.”

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) praised the “heroic efforts” of staff at Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Hospital, and warned that heavy rainfall and flooding in Gaza was exacerbating a “dire health crisis”. The UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) reported that fuel stocks had been exhausted, which had halted the delivery of aid across the border from Egypt.

A spokesman for the IDF, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said on Wednesday that, “based on intelligent information and an operational necessity”, the forces were carrying out a “precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa hospital”. He reiterated that Israel was “at war with Hamas, not with civilians”. The mission was being conducted “with the intent that no harm is caused to the civilians being used by Hamas as human shields”.

The IDF says that Hamas has established a command centre under the hospital. On Tuesday, the United States said that its intelligence supported the claim, which is denied by the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, and medical staff, who have asked for an independent investigation.

A spokeswoman for the WHO, Dr Margaret Harris, reported on Tuesday that the hospital had 700 patients, and had been without power since 11 November. It had been reported that as many as six premature babies had died in the past three days, owing to a lack of electricity for their incubators. All patients remaining at Al-Shifa required critical support to stay alive, she said.

The Hamas-run Ministry of Health also reported on Tuesday that 40 patients had died, and that a mass grave had been prepared inside the compound to bury 180 people.

On Saturday, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on social media: “The relentless bombardment of hospitals and civilians in Gaza is intolerable. It’s against international humanitarian law — it must stop and stop now. The misuse of hospitals by Hamas does not justify attacks by Israel. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

On Wednesday, Rear Admiral Hagari said that, in recent weeks, the IDF had “warned time and again that Hamas’s continued military use of Shifa hospital jeopardises its protected status under the international law”, and that the IDF had facilitated “widescale evacuation” of the hospital. Another social-media post said that the IDF had successfully delivered incubators, baby food, and medical supplies to the hospital.

Al-Ahli is now the only functioning hospital in the north. On Wednesday, Canon Sewell said that the IDF appeared to be giving it a “wide berth”, but that it was struggling to meet demand. It was not a general hospital, and had no A&E department or operating theatres. But an appeal for medics unable to serve in other hospitals had yielded additional staff, enabling emergency operations to take place.

Among the shortages was anaesthetics. This meant that many operations were being carried out without it, in an attempt to enable the most serious cases, such as amputations, to use it. Israel must allow the entry of essential medical supplies, Canon Sewell said, “to enable our hospital to do the operations and give the treatments that no one else is able to do at the moment”.

Driving rain and falling temperatures were exacerbating the situation, he said, including for family members of patients sheltering there. He said that one 80-year-old woman, a relative of a member of staff, had left the hospital to check on her house, and had been killed by a sniper on her return. She had been left to die in the road, as people feared being attacked.

In a blog on Monday, an IDF spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, wrote that more than 1000 trucks of aid had been allowed into Gaza since the start of the conflict (the UN has reported that the average before the conflict was 500 a day). The IDF had opened “humanitarian corridors”, allowing civilians to leave — 250,000 people had moved to the south of the enclave in the past week — and a series of “tactical pauses” had been enacted to allow this.

Hamas was refusing to let civilians — their “human shields” — evacuate, he said, and had prevented Al-Shifa Hospital from receiving 300 litres of fuel that the IDF had attempted to deliver.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Wednesday that there were allegations of beating, stripping, and other forms of violence. The WHO has said that hospitals in the south are already overwhelmed, and that UN camps are more than nine times over capacity.

On Wednesday of last week, charities, including CAFOD and Christian Aid, projected on to the Houses of Parliament images of a child and a call for a ceasefire, with the words: “How many killed is too many?”

Last week, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry was among the 30 American church leaders who joined Churches for Middle East Peace in writing to the US President, Joe Biden, to call on the US administration to support an “immediate ceasefire, de-escalation, and restraint by all involved”. It began by condemning the “brutal” 7 October attack, but continued: “The horrific violence of Hamas does not justify further violence against Palestinian civilians.”

Among those things that it called for “the demilitarization of the conflict rather than supplying additional military aid or arms to Israel at this time . . . The US already sends $3.8 billion per year in military assistance to Israel, for which, effectively, the U.S. has not imposed consequences for its gross violations of human rights as required in U.S. laws. Additional military aid will only prolong Israel’s offensive, will lead to more Palestinian civilian deaths, and will not likely be subject to any accountability.”

On Friday, The Guardian quoted from a letter from churches in Amman, Jordan, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which said: “We continue to have concerns, as expressed by others, that the British government’s relationships with Jewish leaders matter more to Anglican leaders than the basic principles of justice, freedom and the right of return for the oldest Christian community in the world. . . We ask for your support to speak truth to power for the sake of a just and lasting peace, and to avoid any remarks that can be interpreted as siding with Israeli politicians who seek to oppress and displace the Palestinian people or who seek to challenge a Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

In Gaza, 240 people seized by Hamas on 7 October remain hostage. On Tuesday, it was announced that an Israeli-Canadian peace advocate, Vivian Silver, 74, thought to have been taken hostage in Gaza, had been killed in the attack. Her remains had taken weeks to identify. She had spent decades campaigning for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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