Israel maintains a shadowy hospital in the desert for Gaza detainees. Critics allege mistreatment

Patients lying shackled and blindfolded on more than a dozen beds inside a white tent in the desert. Surgeries performed without adequate painkillers. Doctors who remain anonymous.

These are some of the conditions at Israel’s only hospital dedicated to treating Palestinians detained by the military in the Gaza Strip, three people who have worked there told The Associated Press, confirming similar accounts from human rights groups.

While Israel says it detains only suspected militants, many patients have turned out to be non-combatants taken during raids, held without trial and eventually returned to war-torn Gaza.

Eight months into the Israel-Hamas war, accusations of inhumane treatment at the Sde Teiman military field hospital are on the rise, and the Israeli government is under growing pressure to shut it down. Rights groups and other critics say what began as a temporary place to hold and treat militants after Oct. 7 has morphed into a harsh detention center with too little accountability.

The military denies the allegations of inhumane treatment and says all detainees needing medical attention receive it.

The hospital is near the city of Beersheba in southern Israel. It opened beside a detention center on a military base after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel because some civilian hospitals refused to treat wounded militants. Of the three workers interviewed by AP, two spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared government retribution and public rebuke.

“We are condemned by the left because we are not fulfilling ethical issues,” said Dr. Yoel Donchin, an anesthesiologist who has worked at Sde Teiman hospital since its earliest days and still works there. “We are condemned from the right because they think we are criminals for treating terrorists.”

The military this week said it formed a committee to investigate detention center conditions, but it was unclear if that included the hospital. Next week Israel’s highest court is set to hear arguments from human rights groups seeking to shut it down.

Israel has not granted journalists or the International Committee of the Red Cross access to the Sde Teiman facilities.

Israel has detained some 4,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, according to official figures, though roughly 1,500 were released after the military determined they were not affiliated with Hamas. Israeli human rights groups say the majority of detainees have at some point passed through Sde Teiman, the country’s largest detention center.

Doctors there say they have treated many who appeared to be non-combatants.

“Now we have patients that are not so young, sick patients with diabetes and high blood pressure,” said Donchin, the anesthesiologist.

A soldier who worked at the hospital recounted an elderly man who underwent surgery on his leg without pain medication. “He was screaming and shaking,” said the soldier.

Between medical treatments, the soldier said patients were housed in the detention center, where they were exposed to squalid conditions and their wounds often developed infections. There was a separate area where older people slept on thin mattresses under floodlights, and a putrid smell hung in the air, he said.

The military said in a statement that all detainees are “reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activity.” It said they receive check-ups upon arrival and are transferred to the hospital when they require more serious treatment.

A medical worker who saw patients at the facility in the winter recounted teaching hospital workers how to wash wounds.

Donchin, who largely defended the facility against allegations of mistreatment but was critical of some of its practices, said most patients are diapered and not allowed to use the bathroom, shackled around their arms and legs and blindfolded.

“Their eyes are covered all the time. I don’t know what the security reason for this is,” he said.

The military disputed the accounts provided to AP, saying patients were handcuffed “in cases where the security risk requires it” and removed when they caused injury. Patients are rarely diapered, it said.

Dr. Michael Barilan, a professor at the Tel Aviv University Medical School who said he has spoken with over 15 hospital staff, disputed accounts of medical negligence. He said doctors are doing their best under difficult circumstances, and that the blindfolds originated out of a “fear (patients) would retaliate against those taking care of them.”

Days after Oct. 7, roughly 100 Israelis clashed with police outside one of the country’s main hospitals in response to false rumors it was treating a militant.

In the aftermath, some hospitals refused to treat detainees, fearful that doing so could endanger staff and disrupt operations. They were already overwhelmed by people wounded during the Hamas attack and expecting casualties to rise from an impending ground invasion.

As Israel pulled in scores of wounded Palestinians to Sde Teiman, it became clear the facility’s infirmary was not large enough, according to Barilan. An adjacent field hospital was built from scratch.

Israel’s Health Ministry laid out plans for the hospital in a December memo obtained by AP.

It said patients would be treated while handcuffed and blindfolded. Doctors, drafted into service by the military, would be kept anonymous to protect their “safety, lives and well-being.” The ministry referred all questions to the military when reached for comment.

Still, an April report from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, drawing on interviews with hospital workers, said doctors at the facility faced “ethical, professional and even emotional distress.” Barilan said turnover has been high.

Patients with more complicated injuries have been transferred from the field hospital to civilian hospitals, but it has been done covertly to avoid arousing the public’s attention, Barilan said. And the process is fraught: The medical worker who spoke with AP said one detainee with a gunshot wound was discharged prematurely from a civilian hospital to Sde Teiman within hours of being treated, endangering his life.

The field hospital is overseen by military and health officials, but Donchin said parts of its operations are managed by KLP, a private logistics and security company whose website says it specializes in “high-risk environments.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Because it’s not under the same command as the military’s medical corps, the field hospital is not subject to Israel’s Patients Rights Act, according to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.

A group from the Israeli Medical Association visited the hospital earlier this year but kept its findings private. The association did not respond to requests for comment.

The military told AP that 36 people from Gaza have died in Israel’s detention centers since Oct. 7, some of them because of illnesses or wounds sustained in the war. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel has alleged that some died from medical negligence.

Khaled Hammouda, a surgeon from Gaza, spent 22 days at one of Israel’s detention centers. He does not know where he was taken because he was blindfolded while he was transported. But he said he recognized a picture of Sde Teiman and said he saw at least one detainee, a prominent Gaza doctor who is believed to have been there.

Hammouda recalled asking a soldier if a pale 18-year-old who appeared to be suffering from internal bleeding could be taken to a doctor. The soldier took the teenager away, gave him intravenous fluids for a few hours, and then returned him.

“I told them, ‘He could die,'” Hammouda said. “‘They told me this is the limit.’”

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Watch | Israel’s Rafah invasion | Explained

The pre-war population of Rafah, the southernmost city of the Gaza strip sharing a border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, was 1,70,000. Today, seven months after Israel launched its war on Gaza, as many as 1.5 million people are living in Rafah. Many of them are camped on the streets and beaches, while others are cramped into filthy, overcrowded makeshift shelters.

Rafah is now a “gigantic refugee camp”, says the Norwegian Refugee Council. According to a doctor who served in Rafah, the city is a “closed jail”. Medics are struggling to supply even basic aid and prevent the outbreak and spread of diseases. According to Action Aid, every single person in Gaza “is now hungry and people have just 1.5 to 2 litres of unsafe water per day to meet all their needs”. A majority of Gaza’s population is now jammed in Rafah. It is in this Rafah, Israel is carrying out its latest offensive.

Rafah has always been a flashpoint in the Israel-Palestine conflict, given its territorial proximity to Egypt. After the 1948 Arab-Israel war, Rafah came under Egyptian rule along with other parts of the Gaza Strip. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced from their homes when Israel was created were settled in Gaza.

During the Suez Crisis, Rafah came under attack when the Israeli troops were marching towards Sinai through Gaza. On November 12, 1956, the IDF raided a refugee camp in Rafah, killing at least 111 Palestinians, which came to be known as the Rafah massacre.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, the entire Gaza, including Rafah, came under Israel’s direct military occupation. Israel would retain its direct control over the enclave until 2005.

After the latest war began on October 7, 2023, Israel ordered over 1 million Palestinians living in the northern Gaza to evacuate. Most of them fled their homes and moved to southern cities such as Khan Younis and Rafah. When Khan Younis was attacked, there was another flight of refugees towards the south. Today, the lion’s share of Rafah’s population are internally displaced Palestinians.

Before Israel launched the Rafah offensive, there were dramatic developments. The U.S. had warned Israel against launching a full-scale invasion of Rafah, arguing that such an attack would kill more Palestinian civilians. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel would go ahead with the plan to invade Rafah, defying international pressure, warnings and pleas. But Mr. Netanyahu is also under pressure to bring the remaining hostages back. Israel says 128 hostages abducted on October 7 are still in Hamas’s captivity, though many of them are feared dead. There are growing protests in Israel, asking the government to strike a deal with Hamas to bring the hostages back. Israel and Hamas, helped by mediators such as the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, had held multiple rounds of talks in Cairo for a ceasefire deal.

While the fine details of the ceasefire proposal were not made public yet, reports in Egyptian and Saudi media suggested that the mediators had proposed a three-phase deal that would see the release of all hostages and Palestinian prisoners and eventually bring the war to an end. In the first phase, Israel was expected to cease fire for 40 days and free Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of 33 hostages.

In the second phase, the ceasefire would be extended by 42 more days, while all the remaining living hostages would be released.

The third phase proposals were the most contentious. Israel wanted Hamas to release the bodies of all hostages and Hamas wanted a comprehensive, lasting ceasefire and full withdrawal from Gaza.

Israel says no to both Hamas demands. Israeli troops have been deployed in northern and central Gaza, effectively carving the northern tip of the strip as a buffer zone between Israel proper and Gaza’s population. If the Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza, Israeli officials say, Palestinians as well as Hamas militants would return to the areas close to the Israeli border. And if Israel agrees to a lasting ceasefire, the remaining Hamas battalions would survive.

When Israel launched the war on October 7, it made its twin objectives public: dismantle Hamas and release the hostages. Seven months after the war, in which roughly 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, Israel has not met either of the objectives. One practical solution to the hostage crisis is to strike a deal with Hamas. But Hamas would release the hostages only in return for a ceasefire. And if Israel agrees for a ceasefire, Hamas would survive. This is the dilemma Mr. Netanyahu is facing.

Earlier, Biden administration officials had said Hamas was the major stumbling block for a ceasefire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on May 4 that “the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas”. But on May 6, Hamas’s Doha-based leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group accepted the ceasefire proposal suggested by the mediators in Cairo. The Hamas announcement came hours after the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) ordered at least 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from Rafah. Mr. Netanyahu’s government immediately rejected the Hamas offer, saying it did not meet Israel’s core demands. The Prime Minister later said Israel would never agree to end the war in Gaza as part of a deal with Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu’s tough line on Rafah has created tensions in Israel’s ties with the U.S. Earlier President Biden had said a full-scale attack on Rafah without a proper plan to protect civilians would be a redline for him. The United Nations has repeatedly warned that any attack on the overcrowded Rafah would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. If he abandons the plan to attack Rafah and cuts a deal with Hamas for hostages, Netanyahu’s government could fall as his far-right allies such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have already warned against such a move. If he goes ahead with the plan to invade Rafah, more Palestinian civilians would be killed, Israel would further be isolated globally and tensions would rise in ties with the U.S. But Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t seem to bother.

“If Israel has to stand alone, it will stand alone,” he said on May 10, less than a month after American, British, French and Jordanian defence systems, along with the IDF, shot down most of the drones and cruise and ballistic missiles launched by Iran towards Israel.

Read more: Rafah | Opening the gates of hell

Read more: Israel’s ‘limited’ military operation in Rafah | Explained

Script and presentation: Stanly Johny

Video: Thamodharan B.

Production: Ravichandran N.

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U.S. military says Gaza Strip pier project is completed, aid to soon flow as Israel-Hamas war rages on

The U.S. military finished installing a floating pier for the Gaza Strip on May 16, with officials poised to begin ferrying badly needed humanitarian aid into the enclave besieged over seven months of intense fighting in the Israel-Hamas war.

The final, overnight construction sets up a complicated delivery process more than two months after U.S. President Joe Biden ordered it to help Palestinians facing starvation as food and other supplies fail to make it in as Israel recently seized the key Rafah border crossing in its push on that southern city on the Egyptian border.

Fraught with logistical, weather and security challenges, the maritime route is designed to bolster the amount of aid getting into the Gaza Strip, but it is not considered a substitute for far cheaper land-based deliveries that aid agencies say are much more sustainable. The boatloads of aid will be deposited at a port facility built by the Israelis just southwest of Gaza City and then distributed by aid groups.

U.S. troops will not set foot in Gaza, American officials insist, though they acknowledge the danger of operating near the war zone.

Heavy fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants on the outskirts of Rafah has displaced some 600,000 people, a quarter of Gaza’s population, U.N. officials say. Another 100,000 civilians have fled parts of northern Gaza now that the Israeli military has restarted combat operations there.

Pentagon officials said the fighting in Gaza wasn’t threatening the new shoreline aid distribution area, but they have made it clear that security conditions will be monitored closely and could prompt a shutdown of the maritime route, even just temporarily. Already, the site has been targeted by mortar fire during its construction and Hamas has threatened to target any foreign forces who “occupy” the Gaza Strip.

The “protection of U.S. forces participating is a top priority. And as such, in the last several weeks, the United States and Israel have developed an integrated security plan to protect all the personnel who are working,” said Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, a deputy commander at the U.S. military’s Central Command. “We are confident in the ability of this security arrangement to protect those involved.”

U.S. troops anchored the pier at 7:40 a.m. local time on May 16, the military’s Central Command said in a statement, which stressed that none of its forces entered the Gaza Strip.

“Trucks carrying humanitarian assistance are expected to begin moving ashore in the coming days,” the statement said. “The United Nations will receive the aid and coordinate its distribution into Gaza.”

It wasn’t immediately clear which U.N. agency would be involved.

Israeli forces will be in charge of security on the shore, but there are also two U.S. Navy warships near the area in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Paul Ignatius. Both ships are destroyers equipped with a wide range of weapons and capabilities to protect American troops off shore and allies on the beach.

Aid agencies say they are running out of food in southern Gaza and fuel is dwindling, which will force hospitals to shut down critical operations and halt truck deliveries of aid. The United Nations and other agencies have warned for weeks that an Israel assault on Rafah, which is on the border with Egypt near the main aid entry points, would cripple humanitarian operations and cause a disastrous surge in civilian casualties.

More than 1.4 million Palestinians — half of Gaza’s population — have been sheltering in Rafah, most after fleeing Israel’s offensives elsewhere.

The first cargo ship loaded with 475 pallets of food left Cyprus last week to rendezvous with a U.S. military ship, the Roy P. Benavidez, which is off the coast of Gaza. The pallets of aid on the MV Sagamore were moved onto the Benavidez. The Pentagon said moving the aid between ships was an effort to be ready so it could flow quickly once the pier and the causeway were installed.

The installation of the pier several miles (kilometers) off the coast and of the causeway, which is now anchored to the beach, was delayed for nearly two weeks because of bad weather and high seas. The sea conditions made it too dangerous for U.S. and Israeli troops to secure the causeway to the shore and do other final assembly work, U.S. officials said.

According to a defense official, the Sagamore’s initial shipment was estimated to provide enough to feed 11,000 people for one month. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details not yet made public.

Military leaders have said the deliveries of aid will begin slowly to ensure the system works. They will start with about 90 truckloads of aid a day through the sea route, and that number will quickly grow to about 150 a day. But aid agencies say that isn’t enough to avert impending famine in Gaza and must be just one part of a broader Israeli effort to open land corridors.

Biden used his State of the Union address on March 7 to order the military to set up a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza, establishing a sea route to deliver food and other aid. Food shipments have been backed up at land crossings amid Israeli restrictions and intensifying fighting.

Under the new sea route, humanitarian aid is dropped off in Cyprus where it will undergo inspection and security checks at Larnaca port. It is then loaded onto ships — mainly commercial vessels — and taken about 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the large floating pier built by the U.S. military off the Gaza coast.

There, the pallets are transferred onto trucks, driven onto smaller Army boats and then shuttled several miles (kilometres) to the floating causeway, which has been anchored onto the beach by the Israeli military. The trucks, which are being driven by personnel from another country, will go down the causeway into a secure area on land where they will drop off the aid and immediately turn around and return to the boats.

Aid groups will collect the supplies for distribution on shore, with the U.N. working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up the logistics hub on the beach.

Sabrina Singh, the Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters that the project will cost at least $320 million, including the transportation of the equipment and pier sections from the United States to the coast of Gaza, as well as the construction and aid delivery operations.

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Palestinian athletes will ‘represent a country, a history, a cause’ at the Paris Olympics

Nearly six months into a deadly war that has ravaged Gaza, the Palestine Olympic Committee is battling against formidable odds to ensure its athletes take part in the Paris Games this summer. Its technical director Nader Jayousi tells FRANCE 24 his country’s delegation will bring a “message of peace” to the world and inspire Palestinian children “whose dreams have been shattered by bombs”.  

Palestinian athletes have taken part in every Summer Olympics since they were first admitted to the Atlanta Games in 1996. Each participation has carried a special significance for residents of the Palestinian Territories and the Palestinian diaspora, giving the stateless people a venue in which to compete with the rest of the world.  

Taking part in Paris will be all the more significant in the context of the war that has devastated most of the Gaza Strip and killed at least 33,000 people, according to health officials in the Hamas-held enclave, including some of the athletes who had set their sights on the Olympic Games this summer.   

“Between athletes, coaches and club staff, the Palestinian sports scene has lost at least 170 people,” said Jayousi, speaking from the headquarters of the Palestine Olympic Committee near Jerusalem. Victims included Olympic football team coach Hani Al-Masdar and volleyball star Ibrahim Qusaya, both of them killed by Israeli bombs in Gaza. 

“To these tragedies must be added the destruction of infrastructure: the Yarmouk stadium, the Olympic Committee’s offices in Gaza, and several other stadiums,” he added. “If the war ended today, at least 70% of the Gazan population would be homeless, let alone practising a sport.” 

Jayousi said the war had forced the Palestinian committee to scale back its ambitions, putting an abrupt end to a pioneering programme aimed at boosting the number of athletes who qualify for the Olympics. Despite the huge setback, Palestinian hopes got a major boost last month when Omar Ismail secured a first ticket for the Games in men’s taekwondo – a feat Jayousi hopes other athletes will match in the coming weeks.  

The Palestinian delegation fielded a record five athletes at the last Games in Tokyo. Jayousi said the aim was to “top that number”. He remains confident that wild cards will help his country present its largest delegation yet in the history of the Olympics. 


What were your aims for the Paris Olympics and how has the outbreak of war impacted your preparation? 

You have to understand that the sports scene in Palestine has been on complete stoppage since October 7. When these events started, we were with our delegation at the Asian Games in China, securing a historical achievement with Palestine’s first ever bronze medal for Hala Alqadi, in karate. Since then, we have spent our time trying to ensure the safety of our athletes, some of whom are from Gaza. 

We had been running a pilot programme, focusing for the first time on a group of elite athletes to try to secure their qualification for the Olympics. But the stoppage came at the worst possible time, in the final stretch of preparations, the most important time in the Olympic cycle. It’s devastating for the athletes. 

We tried to adapt by shortening the list of athletes, sending them to train in friendly countries. We pushed ahead and we succeeded in accomplishing our goal: we have qualified for the Paris Games, in taekwondo. It’s historic. 

Have you been able to train at all over the past six months? 

It took us 40 days to get our weightlifting champion, Muhammad Hamada, out of Gaza, with his brother, who is also his coach. He is a former junior world champion and was very close to securing qualification for the Olympics. Unfortunately, when this tragedy began he was in northern Gaza, one of the first areas to be invaded. 

Mentally, he is extremely strong. He actually kept up the training in the first months of the war. We have footage of him training in his house and you can hear the military planes and the drones. But then the famine started and he lost about 15-17 kilos, which is extremely damaging if you’re a weightlifter.  

Read moreIn northern Gaza, ‘people have nothing left to eat’

Right now he is in Thailand, for the Olympic qualifiers, trying his very best. If he doesn’t make it, hopefully we can get him a wild card for Paris. It’s just one example. We are here for all our athletes, at their service, to give them a chance to compete.  

How do the athletes keep their focus on the sport when there’s so much suffering at home? 

It’s the mental base we have built our athletes on. They have enough awareness and maturity to understand that this is not just an individual dream. They don’t represent only themselves; they represent a country, a history, a cause.  

This is the way our athletes stay focused and keep their heads. We have been going through this for 75 years. If we let it mess with our heads we will be beaten in two days. We have to be mentally very strong. We can get over it, we have got over it. We will be at the Olympics. 

What kind of support have you received from other countries or the IOC? 

We have good support from our brotherly Arab countries, who have hosted training camps for our teams. Our national football team secured a historic achievement by reaching the round of 16 at the Asian Cup in January. They trained in Saudi Arabia, in Doha (Qatar), in Kuwait. We have massive support from countries around the world who believe in the Palestinians’ aspirations to succeed in sports.  

Regarding the IOC, we are always in touch with them, and (IOC President) Thomas Bach himself said they will be trying their best to secure Palestine’s participation in the Paris Olympics. They consider it very important to give Palestine the chance, like any other country, to be at the Games. And we have just renewed our 100% commitment to the Olympic Charter and IOC regulations.  

So I think we’re doing good in terms of support from friendly countries, including Western countries, for sure.  


Palestinian Hala Alqadi (right) won a historic bronze medal at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. © William West, AFP

The IOC has ruled out sanctions for the Israeli delegation over the war in Gaza, rejecting comparisons with the sanctions imposed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Do you agree with this decision?

As members of an Olympic Committee, we avoid talking about political issues. Our field is sports. I don’t have any comment regarding Russia and Ukraine. And Israel’s presence at the Olympics is not a matter we discuss. If our leadership has something to say on this subject, you will hear it in the media.  

I can answer any technical question regarding our athletes, that’s the scope of our work. We don’t intervene in politics in any way, not even our own. 

The Games could see Palestinian and Israeli athletes go face to face. Is this something you discuss with your team? 

Do you think it rattles Palestinians when they encounter Israelis? We encounter Israelis every day, in our cities, our streets, our schools. And we usually encounter them with their guns. So the idea of encountering them at the Olympics, it’s not something we are concerned about.  

We will go to the Olympics to compete and represent our country in the best way possible. We are not worried about encountering anybody.  

What will it mean to see the Palestinian flag carried by your delegation during the opening ceremony on July 26? 

In the middle of all these atrocities and all these tragedies, people will see athletes who insist on making their dream come true, on representing a country and a cause. 

I think it represents a great message of peace, showing the world what Palestinians are aspiring to. It is also a message to future generations, to our children whose dreams have been shattered by bombs and rockets. These kids will see role models and will aim to be just like our athletes who competed at the Olympic Games in Paris.  

There is a big message we need to get across, which is that we are not surrendering, we are not quitting. We will preserve the Palestinian identity, through sports, and show we are a peaceful people full of pride and respect for other nations.  

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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In the Israel-Hamas war, an emblematic battle for Al Shifa hospital

Fighting raged around Gaza City’s main Al Shifa hospital on Friday in the 12th day of operations by the Israeli military around the hospital complex. It is the second time in six months that Israeli forces have sought to oust Hamas fighters from the area.

Fighting around the Al-Shifa hospital in the Gaza Strip continued on Friday in what is now the Israeli army’s longest-running “targeted operation” in its war against Hamas. This is Israel’s second assault on this hospital complex, the largest and oldest in the Palestinian enclave, since the start of the war on October 7.

Around a thousand Israeli soldiers, backed by tanks, entered the Al Shifa hospital complex on March 18, in the second offensive to “cleanse” the hospital of fighters from Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad.

A tactical success

This second incursion should have been swift, since the Israeli army had already announced in November, during the first assault, that it had “emptied” the premises of Hamas combatants. The first operation was also supposed to have enabled Israel to block a maze of tunnels under the hospital used by Palestinian fighters.


Fighting has rocked the Gaza City district around Al Shifa Hospital since March 18, 2024. © France Médias Monde graphics studio

 

Not only has the current Israeli attack dragged on, but fighting has also spread to the area around the gigantic hospital complex. Hamas was able to launch 70 attacks against Israeli forces from both inside and outside the hospital in recent days, according to the Institute for the Study of War, an American think-tank which works with the Critical Threats project to provide daily summaries of events in the Israel-Hamas war.

Despite intense fighting in a supposedly “cleared” area, the Israeli army presented the operation as a success. It stressed that it had been able to “eliminate dozens” of enemy fighters and locate new “infrastructure and weapons caches” in the hospital.

“The actual operation was a tactical success,” confirms Veronika Poniscjakova, a specialist in international security issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Portsmouth in the UK. The Israeli army “let Hamas think that they would attack elsewhere – in the central refugee camps of the Strip – and when Hamas returned to Shifa, the Israelis closed in on them”, and took many prisoners, according to Ahron Bregman, a specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at King’s College London.

The Israeli action enabled Israel to recover “extremely valuable intelligence” about their enemy, as suggested by the images and videos of the interrogations that the Israeli army has made public, notes Omri Brinner, an analyst and specialist in Middle East geopolitics at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, Italy.

The Israel-Hamas PR war

The operation’s progress appears to be slow, as the Israeli army seeks to avoid the media backlash associated with a previous operation launched at Al Shifa. Last November, Israeli-initiated fighting at the hospital caused the death of more than 20 patients, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The assault also led to a health disaster for Gazans, who were deprived of the enclave’s most important hospital complex. Washington openly expressed concern to its Israeli ally about civilians being caught in the crossfire at a hospital.

The current Israeli operation at Al Shifa has once again attracted international attention. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), described the conditions in the hospital as “totally inhumane” for patients and health personnel.

But in the current offensive, “the Israelis have been far more sophisticated in the way they are presenting this operation” and “they are using a much more precise way to message to the world that the threat inside the complex is real and credible,” says Clive Jones, a specialist in Israel and the Middle East at Durham University in the UK. The army is using drone footage of gun battles and photos of the discovery of weapons caches to “try to convince international opinion that they had legitimate reasons for returning to fight in this hospital”, adds Jones.

Israel also needs to prove it has the ability to carry out this type of highly sensitive operation with as few civilian casualties as possible. The precedent of the US-Iraq war in 2003 shows that “as soon as an army leaves an area, insurgents seek to return”, says Bregman. This view is shared by other analysts. “We can expect Hamas to do the same thing in other hospitals, but also in schools or refugee camps where there are civilian populations”, notes Shahin Modarres, an independent expert on international security and the Middle East.

By taking its time in the Al Shifa operation, the Israeli army is “signaling to Hamas that it will target it even if it harbours in places considered safe havens, such as hospitals, UNRWA compounds, mosques and schools”, says Brinner. At the same time, it’s trying to prove to the international community that it knows how to do it” with a level of restraint.

Strategic failure

But if this current battle looks like an “operational success, it’s also a strategic failure for Israel”, says Jones.

After the fighting in northern Gaza at the start of the war, and the first assault on the Al Shifa hospital, it must be worrying for the Israeli military leadership “that Hamas still had the possibility to operate” from the hospital complex with “so many troops”, explains Poniscjakova.

Hamas is still able to carry out guerrilla operations aimed at “frustrating Israeli soldiers, who are forced to retrace their steps, while seeking to distract them long enough in the hope that international pressure will push Israel to accept a ceasefire“, notes Modarres.

The fact that Hamas adopted this strategy was certainly expected, say the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24. But the intensity of the fighting around the hospital “says something about Hamas’s ability as a guerilla organisation to regroup, and Israel might have underestimated it”, says Jones.

According to Jones, the renewed battle for Al Shifa illustrates the political flaw in the Israeli advance into Gaza – the lack of any plan for how the territory would be governed in areas where the Israeli army is not present.

“It’s a political issue because Netanyahu’s strategy has left a governance vacuum enabling a quick Hamas reorganisation in the north” of the enclave.

“You have to remember that the level of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip has been vastly reduced,” Jones adds.

“It’s a classic chicken and egg problem,” explains Poniscjakova. “What should come first: governance or destroying Hamas?”

Israel’s choice, she says is to either push for a new governance structure in northern Gaza and other areas “cleared” of Hamas control, or to prioritise an assault on Hamas in southern Gaza and then try to negotiate an overall political deal with the Palestinians.

For now, the consensus of analysts seems to be that the fighting at Al Shifa shows that the Israeli army is still far from achieving its main objective: the destruction of Hamas.

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Israel bombs Gaza as UN chief calls for end to ‘horror and starvation’

Air and artillery strikes pounded targets in Gaza Sunday as UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a surge of aid into the besieged territory he said was stalked by “horror and starvation”.

Other world leaders added their voices to that of Guterres in appealing for an immediate ceasefire and a halt to Israeli plans to send in troops against militants in Gaza‘s crowded southern city of Rafah.

Talks aimed at a deal for a truce and release of hostages were taking place in Qatar but the heads of the Israeli and US spy agencies involved in the negotiations have now left the Gulf emirate for consultations, an informed source told AFP.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip said Sunday that another 84 people had been killed over the previous 24 hours, raising the total death toll in the territory during nearly six months of war to 32,226, most of them women and children.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to reporters at El-Arish International Airport in Egypt, visited the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing and urged an end to Gaza’s ‘nightmare’ © Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

The Gaza war began with an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Israel has vowed to destroy the militants, who also seized about 250 hostages, of whom Israel believes around 130 remain in Gaza, including 33 presumed dead.

Palestinian children, some with heads bandaged, others more severely wounded in the latest bombardments, were rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings and rushed to Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah.

Guterres, on a visit to Egypt, urged an end to the “non-stop nightmare” endured by Gaza’s 2.4 million people in the territory’s worst-ever war.

“Looking at Gaza, it almost appears that the four horsemen of war, famine, conquest and death are galloping across it,” the UN secretary-general said, visiting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

People sit together for a mass 'iftar' (fast-breaking) meal organised by members of the Barbara refugee camp during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah
People sit together for a mass ‘iftar’ (fast-breaking) meal organised by members of the Barbara refugee camp during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Rafah © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

“The whole world recognises that it’s past time to silence the guns and ensure an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

With the United Nations warning of imminent famine in Gaza, Guterres urged Israel to allow in more humanitarian aid via the Rafah border crossing whose Egyptian side he visited, saying trucks were “blocked”.

On social media, Israel’s military responded that the UN should scale up its logistics and “stop blaming Israel for its own failures”.

‘Extreme danger’

Combat has flared for almost a week in and around Gaza’s biggest hospital complex, Gaza City’s Al-Shifa.

The UN on Friday had reported “intensive exchanges of fire” involving Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in the area.

An Israeli tank moving along the border with the Gaza Strip
An Israeli tank moving along the border with the Gaza Strip © JACK GUEZ / AFP/File

The Hamas government media office said 190 people had been killed in the Al-Shifa operation, and 30 nearby buildings destroyed.

The army said its forces had killed more than 170 militants and detained about 480 militants affiliated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is fighting alongside Hamas.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Sunday that Israeli forces were also besieging Nasser and Al-Amal hospitals in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis city.

The Red Crescent said messages broadcast from drones demanded that everyone in Al-Amal leave naked, while forces blocked the gates of the hospital with dirt barriers.

“All of our crews are currently under extreme danger and cannot move at all,” the Red Crescent added.

In response to AFP’s request for comment, the military said it was operating in the Al-Amal area but “not currently… in the hospitals”.

A Palestinian boy sits between a blood-stained mattress and body bags at Rafah's Al-Najjar hospital
A Palestinian boy sits between a blood-stained mattress and body bags at Rafah’s Al-Najjar hospital © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

The military said the operation began with air force strikes on about 40 targets, including military compounds and tunnels.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II stressed in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron the need for “an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza and protecting innocent civilians”, the palace said.

He also called for more aid to reach Gaza as his country’s planes again airdropped relief supplies with aircraft from the United States, Egypt, Germany and Singapore.

Munitions

Tensions have grown between Israel and Washington, which provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel but has become increasingly vocal about the war’s impact on civilians.

Prior to taking off for an official visit to the United States, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his focus will include “preserving the qualitative military edge” and “our ability to obtain platforms and munitions”.

Northern Gaza Strip and Al-Shifa hospital
Northern Gaza Strip and Al-Shifa hospital © Nalini LEPETIT-CHELLA, Jean-Michel CORNU, Hervé BOUILLY / AFP

He is set to meet Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and other senior US officials.

A source of tension between the two countries is Israel’s plan to extend its ground invasion into Rafah city on the Egyptian border, where around 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge, mostly in overcrowded shelters.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a major ground operation in Rafah was not necessary to deal with Hamas, and “there is no place” for civilians there to get out of harm’s way.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a coalition including religious and ultra-nationalist parties, has vowed to go ahead with a Rafah invasion even without Washington’s support.

Macron, in a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday, repeated his opposition to any Israeli military operation against Hamas in Rafah and said forced transfer of Rafah’s population would be “a war crime”.

Israeli settlers dressed in Purim costumes on Al-Shuhada Street, which is largely closed to Palestinians in the divided city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim
Israeli settlers dressed in Purim costumes on Al-Shuhada Street, which is largely closed to Palestinians in the divided city of Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim © HAZEM BADER / AFP

Macron urged Israel to open all crossing points into Gaza, which could help the aid flow, and said he intended to bring a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling for “an immediate and lasting ceasefire”.

Russia and China on Friday vetoed a US-led draft resolution for the Council to support “the imperative” of a ceasefire.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was on Sunday to begin a visit to Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Before leaving Germany she appealed for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.

The latest negotiations had “focused on details and a ratio for the exchange of hostages and prisoners”, a source briefed on the talks said, adding that technical teams remained in Qatar.

(AFP)

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Heavy fighting rages around Gaza’s biggest hospital as Israel raids it for a second day

Explosions and shootings shook the Gaza Strip’s biggest hospital and surrounding neighborhoods as Israeli forces stormed through the facility for a second day Tuesday. The military said it had killed 50 Hamas militants in the hospital, but it could not be independently confirmed that the dead were combatants.

The raid was a new blow to the Shifa medical complex, which had only partially resumed operations after a destructive Israeli raid in November. Thousands of Palestinian patients, medical staff and displaced people were trapped inside the sprawling complex on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, as heavy fighting between troops and Hamas fighters raged in nearby districts.

“It’s very hard right now. There’s heavy bombardment in the area of Shifa, and buildings are being hit. The sound of tank and artillery fire is continuous,” Emy Shaheen, who lives near the hospital, said in a voice message with repeated booms of shelling audible in the background. She said a large fire had been raging for hours near the hospital.

The Israeli military said it raided Shifa early Monday, March18, because Hamas fighters had grouped in the hospital and were directing attacks from inside.

The claim could not be confirmed, and the Hamas media office said all those killed in the assault were civilians. But the surge in fighting in Gaza City underscored Hamas’ continued presence in northern Gaza months after Israeli ground troops claimed they largely had control over the area.

Israel launched its offensive in Gaza vowing to destroy Hamas after the group’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel. More than 31,800 Palestinians have been killed in the bombardment and offensive since. Much of northern Gaza has been leveled, and an international authority on hunger crises warned on Monday that 70% of the people there were experiencing catastrophic hunger and that famine was imminent.

The mayhem in the north came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his determination to invade Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah – one of the last major towns not targeted by a ground assault.

Biden’s call to Netanyahu

A day earlier, in their first phone call in a month, U.S. President Joe Biden urged Mr. Netanyahu not to carry out a Rafah operation, urging “an alternative approach” to more precisely target Hamas fighters there.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has expressed concern over attacking Rafah because some 1.4 million people from across Gaza have crowded into the area. U.N. officials have warned of a massive death toll and the potential collapse of the humanitarian aid effort if troops moved into Rafah.

Mr. Netanyahu agreed to send a team of Israeli officials to Washington to discuss Rafah with Biden administration officials.

But on Tuesday, he told a parliamentary committee that while he would listen to U.S. proposals “out of respect” to Biden, “we are determined to complete the elimination of these (Hamas) battalions in Rafah, and there is no way to do this without a ground incursion.”

Airstrikes in Rafah overnight destroyed an apartment and several houses, killing at least 15 people, including six women and children, hospital officials said.

The army last raided Shifa Hospital in November after claiming that Hamas maintained an elaborate command center within and beneath the facility. The military revealed a tunnel leading to some underground rooms, as well as weapons it said were found inside the hospital. However, the evidence fell short of the earlier claims, and critics accused the army of recklessly endangering the lives of civilians.

The hospital, which is the heart of Gaza’s health system, was severely damaged in the assault and has only been able to resume limited operations since. Gaza officials say some 30,000 displaced people were taking refuge in the compound when the new Israeli assault began.

The raid came before dawn Monday when tanks surrounded the facility and troops stormed into multiple buildings.

The military on Tuesday said two of its soldiers had been killed in the operation. It said Tuesday that 300 suspects were detained, including dozens it accused of being fighters from Hamas and the smaller Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. Some patients were evacuated to nearby Ahli Hospital, said Mahmoud Bassal, civil defense spokesperson.

Abdel-Hady Sayed, who has been sheltering in the Shifa hospital, said troops had rounded up dozens in the hospital’s yard, blindfolding, handcuffing, and ordering them to strip their clothes before some were taken away.

He said those inside, especially men, were afraid to follow Israeli calls to evacuate the hospital. “They tell you to get out, it’s a safe corridor and once they see you they arrest you,” he said. “All are afraid here. The world should do something to stop them.”

The military has identified one person killed in the raid — Faiq Mabhouh, a senior officer in Gaza’s police force, which is under the Hamas-led government but distinct from the militant group’s armed fighting wing. The military said he was hiding in Shifa with weapons, but the Gaza government said he was in charge of protecting aid distribution in the north.

The raid prompted heavy fighting for blocks around Shifa. Hamas’ military wing said it struck two Israeli armored vehicles and a group of soldiers with rockets in the vicinity of the hospital.

Emergency services received multiple calls for help from people whose buildings had been bombed in the streets around Shifa, but rescue teams could not go to the scene because of the fighting, Bassal said.

Kareem al-Shawwa, a Palestinian living about a kilometer (less than a mile) from the hospital, said the past 24 hours had been “terrifying,” with explosions and heavy exchanges of fire. He said Israeli troops had told residents to evacuate the area, but he and his family were too afraid of getting arrested or caught in the fighting to leave their home.

Israel accuses Hamas of using hospitals and other civilian facilities to shield its fighters, and the Israeli military has raided several hospitals since the start of the war.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Monday that at least 31,726 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive. The ministry doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants in its count, but it says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead.

Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel that triggered the war and took another 250 people hostage. Hamas is still believed to be holding about 100 captives, as well as the remains of 30 others, after most of the rest were freed during a cease-fire last year.

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How charity ship Open Arms is delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza

The ship Opens Arms left Cyprus for the Gaza coast on October 12 with 200 tonnes of food supplies, the first ship to sail as part of a maritime aid corridor initiated by Cyprus, with the support of the European Union, the UK and the US. Given the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the charities leading the effort felt they couldn’t wait for the US military to complete a pier to deliver aid.

The 200 tonnes of food supplies transported by the Open Arms is already bringing hope to the people of Gaza. Some Gazans even rushed to the beach near Gaza City on Sunday, hoping to see the ship and its desperately needed cargo arrive, AFP reported.

Aid agencies have warned of looming famine in the Palestinian territory of 2.4 million inhabitants.

Israel has imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza since the start of its war with Hamas five months ago.  Given the humanitarian emergency that has resulted, the EU decided to push for a maritime aid route via Cyprus, the EU country closest to Gaza.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday said it was the first time a ship had been authorized to deliver aid directly to Gaza since 2005 and that the EU would work with “smaller ships” until the US military completes work on its floating port off the Gazan coast.

Open Arms, a Spanish charity, is partnered by the US charity World Central Kitchen (WCK), founded by the Spanish-American restaurateur José Andrés. Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza said that WCK’s teams in Gaza were “constructing a dock” to unload the Open Arms’s cargo. The charities have kept the location of the landing point secret for security reasons.

Under Israeli land, air, and sea blockade for sixteen years, Gaza has no functioning port.

“We have been working on this technical project for several weeks,” explained Lanuza.  

“We had to be imaginative and find a way to overcome all these obstacles related to the landing site that will be done from the platform we are transporting,” she said.

The barge, a floating platform carrying 200 tonnes of food, is currently being towed by the humanitarian ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. In a video filmed before the fleet’s departure from Cyprus and posted on X, the NGO WCK explains: “You can see behind me, we have this barge. It’s about 200 tonnes that we are currently loading with all kinds of food aid. Once it reaches its destination, it will be lifted by a crane. Then we will transport the supplies to the northern part of the Gaza Strip to help those in need at this time.”

Construction of a jetty in Gaza

WCK says its teams in Gaza are working “day and night” on the construction of a pier, leveraging the extensive experience it has providing humanitarian aid worldwide. “In Gaza, it already manages around 60 kitchens run by local residents, mainly women, who cook and prepare meals for those in need,” reports the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

However, “the influx of large quantities of goods will require special preparations –  warehouses, transportation, security, and supervision of distribution – which have not yet been organized”,  Haaretz points out.

Security is of the uppermost in people’s minds, after the tragedy on March 1 in which over 115 Palestinians were killed during a humanitarian aid delivery, crushed in a stampede and also hit by Israeli gunfire.

“We have to be careful. We have every guarantee that everything will be fine, but the reality in Gaza is changing all the time,” admits Lanuza. “We’re trying to avoid any danger to the population, of course.”

Approved by Israel

The aid corridor, supported by Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates, has received approval from Israel. The ship’s cargo was inspected in advance by Israeli military personnel in Larnaca to ensure it did not contain any military equipment, weapons, or materials that could be used for military purposes, according to Haaretz.

Israel has also committed to participating in the construction project of a pier promised by the United States on the Gaza coast. The Pentagon specified that building this structure will take up to 60 days and likely involve over 1,000 soldiers. The temporary port “could provide over two million meals per day to the citizens of Gaza”, according to Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryde.

A US Navy ship has departed from the United States with the necessary equipment for the construction of the pier. The Israeli military spokesperson, Rear Admiral  Daniel Hagari, stated that Israel is “coordinating the establishment” of this infrastructure.

Israel’s Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant, posting on X, said that aid from the maritime corridor “will help to achieve one of the main goals of the war: The collapse of Hamas rule. We will make sure that the aid goes to those who need it, and not to those who don’t.”

Israel accuses the Palestinian movement, which took control in Gaza in 2007, of diverting humanitarian aid within the territory.

A second humanitarian cargo ship in the starting blocks

The construction of a safe, temporary port should help ensure the arrival of aid by sea.

According to Gaza’s ministry of health, 25 people, mostly children, have already died from malnutrition and dehydration, as massive shortages leave the enclave on the brink of famine.

Open Arms is already preparing a second humanitarian aid ship from Cyprus with a much larger cargo.  Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said Tuesday that “if all goes according to plan… we have already put in place the mechanism for a second and much bigger cargo.

“And then we’ll be working towards making this a more systematic exercise with increased volumes,” he added.

The UN believes that sending aid by sea and increasing airdrops of food cannot replace the need for access to Gaza by road. While welcoming the news of the first humanitarian ship, Jens Laerke, the spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reiterated on Tuesday that it was “not a substitute for the overland transport of food and other emergency aid into Gaza and particularly northern Gaza. It cannot make up for that”.

The airdrop of parcels over the city of Gaza on March 9 resulted in the death of five people and the injury of 10, according to a hospital source. The Jordanian and American militaries denied that their aircraft were involved in the incident. Belgium, Egypt, France, and the Netherlands are also conducting aid drops in the territory.

(With AFP)

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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Protesting Israeli settlers breach checkpoint to enter Gaza

A small group of Israeli protesters briefly entered the Gaza Strip via the Erez border crossing in late February. A few days before this illegal incursion, several videos appeared online showing a group of Israeli farmers trying to drive into Gaza on their tractors. These protesters want to restore Israeli settlements in Gaza, 19 years after Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the zone, when the government dismantled 21 settlements that had been home to some 8,000 Israelis. 

More than 100 people gathered on February 29 to hold a “resettlement protest” in the Israeli city of Sderot. At least that’s where the protest began. Sderot is located just a few kilometres from Gaza and the protesters, who want to reestablish Israeli settlements in Gaza, said their aim was to “protest inside Gaza”. 

The march reached the Erez border crossing, which marks the dividing line between Israel and Gaza. Videos showed that, in spite of the soldiers present, a number of people managed to enter the Israeli military zone on the border. This zone is demarcated by a barrier and then a wall, which separate Israel from Gaza. 


Video of the Erez border post filmed on February 29 by journalist Oren Ziv with the Israeli media outlet +972.

A small number of the protesters slipped past the soldiers and made it some 500 metres into Gaza. “We will all soon return here,” one of the protesters is heard saying in an amateur video as soldiers with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) herd them back to the border. “Even the soldiers evacuating us want to be here,” he adds.

At one point, the man filming the video refers to Gush Katif, a bloc of former Israeli settlements in Gaza that was dismantled back in 2005 as part of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Now, however, a number of settler movements want to bring Gush Katif back.


This video shows protesters who got into Gaza through the Erez passage on January 29.

The IDF published a statement that night, recognising that about 20 protesters “violently broke through an IDF checkpoint manned by soldiers” and had “crossed into Gazan territory”. 

‘To establish a Jewish settlement’ 

The protesters were decked in bright orange t-shirts – the same colour worn by people who opposed the Israeli disengagement plan back in 2005. Other protesters managed to stay in the military zone between the wall and barrier for several hours, long enough to build several wooden structures along the wall that separates Gaza from Israel. The army did not stop them erecting the structures. 


The image at the left shows the structures built in the Erez military zone on February 29. The image at the right is a screengrab of a video circulated on Twitter by a protester who filmed the construction of these structures. © Twitter © Twitter

The structures put together by the protesters were prefabricated, built to look like the outposts common in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In a video showing the protesters building these structures, the person filming says “Gaza belongs to the Israeli people”.

Before the protest began, our team spoke to an organiser of the protest, Yair Ben Baruch, and asked him about its objectives. 

“Our aim is to march to the Gaza Strip and even enter it, demanding Jewish settlement,” he said. 

Ben Baruch, who said that he grew up in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, said that he ran an organisation called “Shavei Aza” [Editor’s note: “Those who return to Gaza”], whose aim is to “establish a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip”. 

The protesters who entered Gaza were taken into custody by the police according to the IDF, but were then released without charges. The IDF did not explain how so many protesters were able to stay in the military zone for several hours. 

Tractors at the border

This is not an isolated incident. On February 22, a group of farmers from the Golan Heights who call themselves the “Portrait of Victory” also tried to enter the Gaza Strip. 

Under the slogan “Where the plow passes, that’s where the border will be set”, farmers called on others to seize fields in Gaza by simply moving in and beginning to plough them. 

Several videos of their protests, which were supposedly supervised by the IDF, show farmers driving alongside the border fence and then crossing into the no-go military zone. 

This is a screengrab of a video showing tractors crossing over one of the two metal barriers that separate Israel from Gaza. The video was filmed on February 22.
This is a screengrab of a video showing tractors crossing over one of the two metal barriers that separate Israel from Gaza. The video was filmed on February 22. © Portrait of Victory

Some posts on Telegram and Twitter claimed that the tractors entered Gaza and then ploughed fields within the territory. 

When our team spoke to the IDF, however, they said that the protesters “at no point” entered Gaza. However, they did say that the farmers’ tractors entered the no-go Israeli military zone and were just a few steps from the separation between Gaza and Israel, “contrary to instructions”. 

‘The idea of resettling Gaza isn’t new’

Ori Givati, advocacy director for the NGO Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli veterans who want to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, says that many of Israel’s politicians support these protests – and resettlement in general. 

“These groups are new, but this idea is not a new idea, as we’ve always heard of people willing to resettle in Gaza. What is new is the legitimization given to it by the government, by Knesset members and maybe worst of all, by a lot of Israeli society”. 

Eleven ministers from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government took part in a conference on January 28, calling for the return of Israeli settlements in Gaza and the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians. 

“It would be a shame to wait another 15 years to go back to Gush Katif. This is the time to return to home, to build settlements, for the death penalty for terrorists and the time for victory,” said far-right Israeli politician and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir in his speech at the conference.

During this event, a map of Gaza set up in the reception showed different locations in the Strip where these politicians want settlements. 

This tweet by Israeli journalist Oren Ziv includes a video of the conference held by far right politicians. In the backdrop, you can see a map of Gaza. On it are locations that have been marked for future settlements.  © Oren Ziv / X
This tweet by Israeli journalist Oren Ziv includes a video of the conference held by far right politicians. In the backdrop, you can see a map of Gaza. On it are locations that have been marked for future settlements. © Oren Ziv / X © Oren Ziv / X

Positions like these directly oppose the plan for Israeli disengagement adopted by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, which closed down the 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza and rehoused the 8,000 displaced settlers. 

This led to a number of clashes between Israeli forces and the displaced population, some of whom still want to return to the settlements.

“In 2005 we did the disengagement plan and many are now using this fact to say that because of that the 7th of October happened”, Ori Givati says. “They are exploiting the 7th of October for their own needs in order to justify resettlement and put, of course, Palestinians in danger, and also Israelis and soldiers in danger, just to fulfill their messianic goals.”



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Unexploded bombs, a long-term threat to life in Gaza

The NGO Humanity & Inclusion has been working for decades to protect civilians from explosive weapons and has repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by the presence of Israeli explosive remnants of war in the Gaza Strip. The consequences of which are far-reaching: loss of life, disabling injuries, psychological trauma and delayed deliveries of humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. 

For more than five months, the Israeli army has been pounding the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the Hamas-led October 7 attack on Israel.

While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed to annihilate the Islamist movement governing the Palestinian territory, Israeli bombing has ravaged the Gaza Strip, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the Gaza health ministry. 

In addition to the daily intensive shelling and the famine that threatens to spread throughout the coastal strip already experiencing a major humanitarian crisis, unexploded ordnance is an equally lethal danger hanging over the Gazan population.

Explosive remnants of war (ERW) are munitions that have failed to explode on impact during a conflict, either due to a technical malfunction or because they were deliberately programmed to detonate at a later date. 

“Missiles, rockets, artillery shells, cluster munitions…These are all munitions that did not explode when they were launched or that are programmed to explode later and trap people or vehicles, such as anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines,” says Anne Héry, advocacy director at NGO Humanity & Inclusion. “These explosive remnants of war, which are extremely dangerous for anyone who comes into contact with or is close to them, continue to kill and mutilate people during and long after a conflict has ended and prevent displaced people from returning home.”

More than 2 million people trapped

Humanity & Inclusion has been working for several decades with populations exposed to the dangers of weapons, munitions and explosive devices in armed conflicts. It has repeatedly warned about explosive contamination amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.

“In Gaza, the population is being subjected to one of the most intense bombing campaigns in military history,” says Héry. “The number of strikes, bombings and artillery fire is absolutely phenomenal in terms of pace and concentration. According to our estimates, over the course of this five-month war, we are now at a rate of 500 bombs a day.”

Read moreIn northern Gaza, ‘people have nothing left to eat’

Héry points out that the Palestinian enclave is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and one of the most vulnerable because of the extent of the destruction caused by the bombardments, which have destroyed critical civilian infrastructure.

“It is a territory from which the 2.2 million inhabitants cannot flee and in which they find themselves trapped and subjected to extremely intense bombardments day and night,” she adds. By way of comparison, the Gaza Strip (360 square kilometres) is about twice the size of Washington, DC (177 square kilometres) and one-quarter the size of Greater London (1,579 square kilometres), but much more densely populated. 

An area already impacted by previous conflicts

Civilians account for 90% of the victims of explosive weapons when they are used in populated areas, says Humanity & Inclusion. Furthermore, it is very difficult to know the full extent of contamination caused by the remnants of war in Gaza because the conflict is still ongoing. 

“An estimated 45,000 bombs were dropped on the Gaza Strip in the first three months of the conflict. However, based on a failure rate of between 9% and 14%, it is possible that several thousand bombs did not work as planned and did not explode on impact, ending up scattered in the ruins and all over the territory,” says Héry.

According to Humanity & Inclusion, ERW is likely to cost more lives in Gaza and cause complex and disabling injuries – whether temporary or permanent – that require immediate medical attention, which is often impossible during war time. 

“Some injuries caused by explosive remnants of war require lifelong support, not to mention the psychological trauma that affects victims, sometimes entire communities, for many years,” says Héry. “And not just when you’ve been a victim or lost loved ones, but also when you’ve lived for weeks in fear of the bombs.”

It is also important to remember that the Gaza Strip was already contaminated by the ERW left over from previous conflicts between Hamas and the Israeli army.

“The Palestinian territory has been bombed many times in recent decades, so there was already a major problem of certain areas being contaminated before the current war,” says Héry. “Given that Gazans don’t have the means to clean up their territory themselves, heavy, complex and costly resources will need to be used to deal with this significant increase in explosive contamination.”

“Any conflict generates explosive remnants of war, which can remain underground in ruins for decades. In Syria and Ukraine’s cases, it will take several decades to clean up,” adds Héry. 

Long-term pollution

This is a global scourge as one in every two countries in the world is affected by ERW, according to Humanity & Inclusion. Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, Iraq and Yemen are the most contaminated nations, as vast swathes of their territories have been bombed and shelled over the long term.

“Even today in France, bombs dating back to World War I are still being found and mine clearance operations are still underway in Laos, even though the contamination dates back to the Vietnam War,” says Héry. “So we can imagine that it will take an extremely long time to clear up the pollution in Gaza once a ceasefire has been agreed.”

This long-term pollution is likely to have a heavy and lasting impact on the daily lives of the people of Gaza, Humanity & Inclusion’s advocacy director explains. Given Gaza’s urban environment – where buildings have collapsed, are in ruins or damaged – explosive remnants are not only a permanent danger, but will also have a long-term impact on Gazans’ daily lives and their territory’s socio-economic development.

“When it comes to clearing away layers of rubble strewn with potentially fatal remnants, which our mine clearance specialists have described in certain Syrian towns affected by the war as a torrent of bombs, or when it comes to rebuilding, it is extremely dangerous,” says Héry. “In the long term, these explosive remnants have an extremely strong impact because they hamper reconstruction, the delivery of humanitarian aid and the resumption of economic life by contaminating all access routes, restricting movement and rendering agricultural land and public or state infrastructure unusable.”

This difficult situation is causing frustration and risky behaviour. 

“The situation in Gaza is so desperate from a humanitarian perspective, due to very poor access to water and famine, that people sometimes want to return to their destroyed homes to find food, at the risk of adopting sometimes extremely dangerous behaviour that is exacerbated in contexts of extreme scarcity,” says Héry. “Our teams are trying to warn the population, through prevention and information campaigns on the dangers of war remnants.”

As Israel is not a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines, the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Humanity & Inclusion believes that it is obliged to do so under international humanitarian law.

“International humanitarian law requires States and belligerents to take every precaution to protect civilians, to avoid directly targeting people, buildings, equipment and property, and to ensure that there is no disproportionate damage to people or property in relation to the military advantage anticipated,” says Héry.

This article is a translation of the original in French

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