Palestinians flee from central Gaza’s main hospital as fighting draws closer and aid groups withdraw

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Deir Al-Balah (Gaza Strip): Medics, patients and displaced people are fleeing from the main hospital in central Gaza as the fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants draws closer, witnesses said on Monday.

Losing the facility would be another major blow to a health system shattered by three months of war.

Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups withdrew from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah in recent days, saying it is too dangerous. That spread panic among people sheltering there, causing many to join the hundreds of thousands who have fled to the south of the besieged territory.

Israel says it has largely wrapped up major operations in northern Gaza and is now focusing on the central region and the southern city of Khan Younis. Israeli officials have said the fighting will continue for many more months as the army seeks to dismantle Hamas and return scores of hostages taken during the militant group’s October 7 attack that triggered the war.

The offensive has already killed over 22,000 Palestinians, devastated vast swaths of the Gaza Strip, displaced nearly 85 per cent of its population of 2.3 million and left a quarter of its residents facing starvation.

It has also threatened to ignite a wider war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militant groups allied with Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the region this week. The US, which has provided crucial military and diplomatic support for the offensive, has called on Israel to take greater measures to spare civilians but has also joined it in rejecting international calls for a cease-fire.

Tens of thousands of people have sought shelter in Gaza’s hospitals, which are also struggling to treat dozens of people wounded each day in Israeli strikes. Only 13 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are even partially functioning, according to the UN humanitarian office.

Omar al-Darawi, an employee at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, said the facility has been struck multiple times in recent days. He said thousands of people left after the aid groups pulled out, and that patients have been concentrated on one floor so the remaining doctors can tend to them more easily.

“We have large numbers of wounded who can’t move” he said. “They need special care, which is unavailable.”

More dead and wounded arrive each day as Israeli forces advance in central Gaza following heavy airstrikes. The Health Ministry said early Monday that 73 bodies and 99 wounded were brought to the hospital in just the last 24 hours.

World Health Organisation staff who visited on Sunday saw “sickening scenes of people of all ages being treated on blood-streaked floors and in chaotic corridors”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the UN agency, said in a statement. “The bloodbath in Gaza must end.”

The situation is even more dire in northern Gaza, which Israeli forces cut off from the rest of the territory in late October.

Entire neighbourhoods have been demolished, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled, while those who remain face severe shortages of food and water. The WHO said late Sunday it has not been able to deliver supplies to northern Gaza in 12 days.

Even there, Israel is still battling what it describes as pockets of militants.

An airstrike early Sunday flattened a four-story home filled with displaced people in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp, killing at least 70, including women and children, according to Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s civil defence.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Health Ministry, which has struggled to maintain its operations in the north.

Search efforts were still underway on Monday. The civil defence circulated a graphic video showing the aftermath of attack, with several bodies scattered among the rubble.

Jabaliya, which was built for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation and is now a dense, built-up neighbourhood, has seen weeks of heavy fighting.

More than 22,800 Palestinians have been killed, and more than 58,000 wounded, since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Health officials say about two-thirds of those killed have been women and minors.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group operates in heavily populated residential areas, but the military rarely comments on individual strikes. The military says it has killed some 8,000 militants, without providing evidence, and that 176 of its own soldiers have been killed in the offensive.

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