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

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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, the territory's biggest, since March 18, 2024.
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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