By Bill McLoughlin
GAZA STRIP - Gaza's largest hospital was evacuated on Saturday, health officials said, leaving behind only a skeleton crew to care for those too sick to move and Israeli forces in control of the facility.The exodus from Shifa Hospital in Gaza City came the same day internet and phone service was restored to the Gaza Strip, ending a telecommunications blackout that forced the United Nations to shut down critical humanitarian aid deliveries because it was unable to coordinate its convoys.
Israel continued to expand its offensive in Gaza City, with the military warning in a social media post in Arabic that residents of two neighborhoods in the east and north and the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya must evacuate for their safety.
"We're asking people to relocate. I know it's not easy for many of them, but we don't want to see civilians caught up in the crossfire," Mark Regev, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told MSNBC on Friday.The military said it would activities would be paused briefly to allow them to leave.
Earlier in the week, the Israeli defense minister had said troops had completed operations in the west of Gaza City.Attacks also continued in the south of the Gaza Strip, with an Israeli airstrike hitting a building on the outskirts of the town of Khan Younis, killing at least 26 Palestinians, according to a doctor at the hospital where the bodies were taken.
Israel's military has been searching Shifa Hospital for traces of a Hamas command center that it alleges was located under the building — a claim Hamas and the hospital staff deny - and urging the several thousand people still there to leave.On Saturday, the military said it had been asked by the hospital's director to help those who would like to leave do so by a secure route.The military said it did not order any evacuation, and that medical personnel were being allowed to remain in the hospital to support patients who cannot be moved.
But Medhat Abbas, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza, said the military had ordered the facility cleared, giving the hospital an hour to get people out.After it appeared the evacuation was mostly complete, Dr. Ahmed Mokhallalati, a Shifa physician, said on social media that there were some 120 patients remaining who were unable to leave, including some in intensive care and premature babies, and that he and five other doctors were staying behind to care for them.
It was not immediately clear where those who left the hospital had gone, with 25 of Gaza's hospitals non-functional due to lack of fuel, damage and other problems and the other 11 only partially operational, according to the World Health Operation.Israel has said hospitals in northern Gaza were a key target of its ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas, claiming they were used as militant command centers and weapons depots, which both Hamas and medical staff deny.Israeli troops have encircled or entered several hospitals, while others stopped functioning because of dwindling supplies and loss of electricity.
The war, now in its seventh week, was triggered by Hamas' October 7 attack in southern Israel, in which militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted some 240 men, women and children. Fifty-two soldiers have been killed since the Israeli offensive began.More than 11,400 Palestinians have been killed in the war, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to Palestinian health authorities.
Another 2,700 have been reported missing, believed buried under rubble. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, and Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.The UN has warned that Gaza's 2.3 million people are running critically short of food and water, but it was not immediately clear when the agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, would be able to resume the delivery of aid that was put on hold Friday.
The Palestinian telecommunications provider said it was able to restart its generators after UNRWA donated fuel.
The end of the communications blackout meant a return to news and messages from journalists and activists in the besieged enclave on social media platforms as service began to return late Friday night.