Wounded people receive treatment at the Aqsa Indonesia Hospital

Wounded people receive treatment at the Aqsa Indonesia Hospital after an Israeli attack on the Jibalia refugee camp on November 13, 2023.

(Photo: Fadi Alwhidi/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Amid War Crimes Charges, Human Rights Watch Says Israel Must 'End Attacks on Hospitals'

"Israel's broad-based attack on Gaza's healthcare system is an attack on the sick and the injured, on babies in incubators, on pregnant people, on cancer patients. These actions need to be investigated as war crimes."

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday demanded that the Israeli government immediately cease its deadly attacks on Gaza's hospitals, arguing they're part of a far-reaching and unlawful assault on the territory's crumbling healthcare system.

In a new report, HRW examines the impacts of the Israeli bombing campaign, ground invasion, and siege on Gaza's medical personnel and facilities, a majority of which have stopped functioning due to airstrike damage or lack of critical supplies, from fuel to anesthetics.

"Israel's repeated attacks damaging hospitals and harming healthcare workers, already hard hit by an unlawful blockade, have devastated Gaza's healthcare infrastructure," said A. Kayum Ahmed, special adviser on the right to health at Human Rights Watch. "The strikes on hospitals have killed hundreds of people and put many patients at grave risk because they're unable to receive proper medical care."

Over the past week, Israeli forces have surrounded and intensified their bombardment of several hospitals in northern Gaza including al-Shifa, the enclave's largest medical facility. Israel has also bombed ambulances and people desperately attempting to flee hospitals as they've come under attack.

"On November 3, the Israeli military struck a marked ambulance just outside of Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital," HRW said. "Video footage and photographs taken shortly after the strike and verified by Human Rights Watch show a woman on a stretcher in the ambulance and at least 21 dead or injured people in the area surrounding the ambulance, including at least 5 children."

"An IDF spokesperson said in a televised interview that day: 'Our forces saw terrorists using ambulances as a vehicle to move around. They perceived a threat and accordingly we struck that ambulance,'" the group added. "Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that the ambulance was being used for military purposes."

HRW similarly questioned Israeli assertions that Hamas is using Gaza's hospitals, including al-Shifa, for military operations.

Targeting hospitals is a war crime under international law, but medical facilities can lose their protected status if they're used to commit an "act harmful to the enemy," according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

HRW argued that Tuesday that "no evidence put forward" by the Israeli government thus far "would justify depriving hospitals and ambulances of their protected status under international humanitarian law."

"When a journalist at a news conference showing video footage of damage to the Qatar Hospital sought additional information to verify voice recordings and images presented, the Israeli spokesperson said, 'Our strikes are based on intelligence,'" HRW said. "Even if accurate, Israel has not demonstrated that the ensuing hospital attacks were proportionate."

The group said Israel "should end attacks on hospitals" and urged the United Nations' Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the International Criminal Court to investigate.

"Israel's broad-based attack on Gaza's healthcare system is an attack on the sick and the injured, on babies in incubators, on pregnant people, on cancer patients," said Ahmed. "These actions need to be investigated as war crimes."

The new analysis came amid horrific reports of the impact that Israel's assault is having on healthcare workers, patients, and displaced people seeking refuge from near-constant airstrikes.

Reutersreported that people trapped inside al-Shifa Hospital "plan to start burying bodies within the hospital compound" on Tuesday "because the situation has become untenable." The World Health Organization said over the weekend that the facility is "not functioning as a hospital anymore" due to power outages and a lack of supplies, which have caused the deaths of a number of patients—including premature babies.

Dr. Ahmed Al Mokhallalati, a surgeon at al-Shifa, told Reuters that "the bodies were generating an unbearable stench and posing a risk of infection."

"Unfortunately there is no approval from the Israelis to even bury the bodies within the hospital area," he said. "Today ... civilians started digging within the hospital to try and bury the bodies on their own responsibility without any arrangements by the Israeli side. Burying 120 bodies needs a lot of equipment, it can't be by hand efforts and by single-person efforts. It will take hours and hours to be able to bury all these bodies."

Doctors Without Borders, known internationally as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said that on Tuesday morning, "bullets were fired into one of three MSF premises located near al-Shifa hospital and sheltering MSF staff and their families—over 100 people, including 65 children, who ran out of food last night."

"Thousands of civilians, medical staff, and patients are currently trapped in hospitals and other locations under fire in Gaza City; they must be protected and afforded safe passage if they wish to leave," the group added. "Above that, there must be a total and immediate cease-fire."

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