As Israel Defense Forces troops neared Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital, with fierce battles in the surrounding streets, a number of current and former Israeli defense and intelligence officials described, in a report published Sunday, the Hamas command center they believe the soldiers will find underneath the medical center.
Israel has long said the terror group’s main base of operations is under Shifa Hospital, and last month the IDF provided visuals and intercepted audio as evidence of the terror organization’s activities.
The eight officials, speaking anonymously, told The New York Times that while Hamas originally appropriated basement areas in the hospital — which was built by Israel when it still ruled Gaza — the terror group has since then dug several further floors and added tunnels to make the site a hub in its vast underground labyrinth.
A former Shin Bet official and two other Israeli officials told the newspaper that there were several floors dug underneath Shifa that held meeting areas, living spaces and storage facilities.
The officials said the subterranean area, built over the past 16 years, can hold at least several hundred people.
Israel says the site is powered by electricity that is diverted from the hospital, and that there are a number of entrances to it within the medical center and in the area around it.
The Times said it reviewed images provided by senior Israeli intelligence officials that they said showed secret entrances from within the hospital.
The report said that while there were signs in the images that identified the location as Shifa, the photos could not be independently verified.
The report also cited officials from the United States who said they believe that the Hamas terror group has used its network of tunnels under hospitals, chief among them Shifa, to store weapons and for use as command centers.
The US officials said that Israel and the US had reached the same conclusions about Hamas using the tunnels under Shifa through independent intelligence.
The Times cited its own earlier reporting of Hamas gunmen walking around Shifa Hospital while wearing civilian clothes during a previous round of fighting between Israel and the terror group in 2008. The report said that while the gunmen claimed to be security guards, they were seen killing individuals accused of collaborating with Israel.
It said that in 2014, Hamas often held news conferences on the hospital grounds and used them as a place to meet with journalists.
The newspaper also cited an Amnesty International report that Hamas used parts of Shifa, “including the outpatients’ clinic area, to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects, even as other parts of the hospital continued to function as a medical center.”
Hamas has continuously denied the accusations.
On Sunday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration has shared concerns with Israel about potential civilian casualties in the IDF operation at Shifa Hospital.
“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 the CBS News program “Face the Nation.”
Sullivan noted the IDF has said it’s working to ensure the safety of patients “while they also try to figure out a way to try to deal with the fact that Hamas is operating in a way that is outside the bounds of any civilized concept of how you would think about using a hospital, using human shields.”
“It’s an active conversation, but the bottom line is that we do not want to see firefights in hospitals,” he added.
Gaza health officials allege thousands of medics, patients and displaced people are trapped in the area surrounding Shifa Hospital, with no electricity and dwindling supplies. The IDF has denied they are trapped, saying the east side of the hospital is open for the safe passage of Gazans who wish to leave. The IDF said it was in contact with staff at hospitals in northern Gaza to aid them in safely evacuating, and denied that it had besieged Shifa, labeling such claims misinformation.
Sullivan also appeared to back Israeli allegations about Hamas’s use of Shifa.
“Without getting into intelligence information, we can just look at the open source reporting that Hamas is using hospitals as it uses many facilities for command-and-control, for weapons storage, to house its fighters, and this is a violation of the laws of war,” he said.
Last month, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israel has intelligence that there are several tunnels leading to the underground base from outside the hospital so that Hamas officials do not need to enter the hospital to reach it. But Hagari added that there is also an entrance to the underground complex from within one of the wards.
According to the IDF, Hamas’s internal security also has a command center inside Shifa Hospital, from which it directs rocket fire on Israel and stores weapons.
The hospital’s energy infrastructure is also exploited by Hamas’s underground base, Hagari said, accusing the terror group of using the hospital and its occupants — with 1,500 beds and some 4,000 staff — as human shields.
The information on Hamas’s use of the hospital is based on a wide range of intelligence sources collected by the Military Intelligence Directorate and the Shin Bet security agency.
The military spokesperson said Israel has “concrete evidence” that “hundreds of terrorists flooded into the hospital to hide” following the October 7 onslaught in which some 3,000 terrorists burst through the border under cover of a deluge of rockets, and rampaged through more than 20 Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip.
They killed some 1,200 people, the vast majority of them civilians, massacring them in their homes and at an outdoor music festival. They also abducted over 240 people to the Strip as hostages, many of whom are believed to be held in the tunnel system.
On Sunday, the IDF said it had supplied 300 liters of fuel to Shifa Hospital, in coordination with its staff, but that Hamas had prevented the embattled medical center from accepting it. It was unclear how much fuel the hospital would need to run essential services.