Israel tightens siege on Gaza hospitals amid rising tensions with Hezbollah

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees says that it is running out of fuel reserves for its humanitarian operations in the enclave, while Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has threatened to attack Beirut

Guerra Israel-Gaza
An injured child receives treatment at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital following attacks by the Israeli army, in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, on Monday.Ali Jadallah (Anadolu/Getty Images)
Antonio Pita

The Israeli siege on the Al Shifa hospital is intensifying, with tanks surrounding the medical center in Gaza. The hospital — the largest in the Palestinian enclave — is Israel’s main objective in the north of Gaza, as it believes it is the epicenter of Hamas’s network of tunnels. According to Hamas government health authorities, more than 30 patients, three of them premature babies, have died in the last three days due to the blockade.

The situation is so serious that the United States, Israel’s main ally, asked the Israeli government to protect the health facility. U.S. President Joe Biden said he is in contact with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure that there will be “less intrusive actions relative to hospitals.”

As the humanitarian crisis becomes more dire in the Gaza Strip, tension on the different fronts of the war is increasing. Skirmishes between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have spiked to the point where Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant threatened to attack Beirut. Attacks against international forces in northeast Syria, led by the United States, have also increased: there have been four — with drones and rockets — in less than 24 hours, although no injuries were reported.

In Al Shifa, there are still some 650 patients and thousands of civilians taking refuge from the bombings. But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, warned that the hospital is no longer “functioning.” “The situation is dire and perilous. It’s been three days without electricity, without water and with very poor internet which has severely impacted our ability to provide essential care. The constant gunfire and bombings in the area have exacerbated the already critical circumstances,” he said in a message on X, formerly Twitter.

A surgeon at the center, Ahmed El Mokhallalati, said the hospital was under a “full blockade.” “They bombed the [water] tanks, they bombed the water wells, they bombed the oxygen pump as well. We tell everyone, the hospital is no more a safe place for treating patients. We are harming patients by keeping them here,” he told Reuters. Authorities released photos showing a dozen babies together on a stretcher covered with aluminum foil to try to maintain their body temperature.

Al Quds, the second-largest hospital in the north of the Strip, is also no longer operational. It is unable to admit patients after running out of supplies. On Monday, the Israeli army claimed to have killed “21 terrorists” at the hospital when responding to the launch of a grenade from the entrance of the center. The Indonesian Hospital, also in the north, continues to operate, although at minimum levels, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

In addition to Biden, White House national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, also spoke of the critical situation in Gaza’s hospitals, saying that the Israeli government has informed Washington that it is prepared to supply hospitals with fuel so that they can continue to function.

“The United States does not want to see firefights in hospitals, where innocent people, patients receiving medical care, are caught in the crossfire, and we’ve had active consultations with the Israel Defense Forces on this,” Sullivan told Face the Nation on Sunday. According to the news agency EFE, Sullivan said that Israel had informed the U.S. that there would be more rounds of evacuations.

Israel’s heavy bombings have killed more than 11,240 people since October 7, including 4,630 minors and 3,130 women, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, which noted that it had difficulty recovering corpses over the weekend to update the count. Bombs have also reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble. More than half of the buildings in Gaza are damaged, and hundreds of thousands of people cannot return to their homes. On orders from the Israeli army, most Gazans have moved to the south of the enclave, the only area where Israel allows very limited humanitarian aid.

UNRWA to halt operations

On Monday, the United Nations agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) announced that it will be forced to stop its humanitarian operations in Gaza in the next 48 hours, after exhausting its strategic reserves.

Israel has prevented fuel from entering Gaza since October 7, when it began its offensive following the Hamas attack. In a videoconference from Rafah, in the south of Gaza, UNRWA’s Gaza chief Thomas White said that the organization had reached an agreement with Israel to access 200,000 liters of fuel, and shared information about its destination through a “mechanism with a high level of transparency and accountability.” This was intended to show that it would not end up in the hands of Hamas.

Now, said White, UNRWA needs to refill those deposits through an oil pipeline that is in Egypt via the same mechanism. He has been negotiating to do this for more than two weeks with the Israeli army. “Unfortunately, those talks are on hold, because they have been taken to the highest levels in the Israeli government […] We have a plan to prioritize usage, but the truth is there is nothing we can do. In the next 48 hours, [humanitarian operations] will simply stop,” if no fuel comes in, he said. White insisted that he was referring only to fuel to “carry out the most basic operations,” not to meet the needs of the entire population.

White also explained that UNRWA’s two main water distribution contractors informed him that they have no fuel left to make deliveries, which will affect around 200,000 people. “In a way, you can be without electricity, even a few days without food. But not without running water,” said White, who added the risk of a choleric epidemic from untreated water would be “really catastrophic” at a time when hospitals are running out of fuel.

Attack Beirut

In Israel, meanwhile, attention is shifting from Gaza to Lebanon. Skirmishes with the Hezbollah militia have been increasing in recent days, as Israel elevates its tone on Lebanon. Last Saturday, Gallant was asked what red line Hezbollah would have to cross to trigger an open conflict. “If you hear that we have attacked Beirut, you will understand that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah has crossed that line,” he responded.

On Monday, the four main national Hebrew-language newspapers dedicated their front pages to the so-called “northern front.” The issue poses a dilemma for Israel in the medium term: either it keeps tens of thousands of residents of the border towns evacuated — civilians who will not be able to return to their homes without a prior diplomatic agreement, through mediators — or it launches a new war.

IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari hinted at the latter direction on Sunday, mentioning vaguely in a press appearance that the Israeli military has “action plans to change the security situation in the north.” He said Hezbollah and the Lebanese government will bear responsibility for any attacks from Lebanon. “Lebanon’s citizens will bear the cost of this recklessness, and of Hezbollah’s decision to be the defender of Hamas-ISIS,” he said. “The security situation will not remain one in which northern residents do not feel secure in returning to their home.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS