The five-storey al-Quds hospital was hit as hundreds of people sheltered inside [AFP]


The rubble of the al-Quds hospital in Gaza City was still smouldering early on Friday as a relative lull in fighting gave Palestinians the opportunity to assess the devastation caused by the Israeli assault.

The hospital in the densely-populated Tal-Hawa neighbourhood was destroyed by Israeli tanks a day earlier after hundreds of frightened Gazans had taken shelter inside as Israeli ground forces pushed into the neighbourhood.

"They shelled the hospital building and it caught fire. We tried to evacuate the sick people and the injured and the people who were there taking refuge," a hospital medic, who did not give his name, said.

"Firefighters arrived and put out the fire which burst into flames again. They put it out again and it came back for a third time."

Palestinian doctors told Al Jazeera that the difficulty in putting out the blaze was consistent with the use by Israeli forces of white phosphorus, a chemical substance that reignites on contact with air after being extinguished.

Human rights groups have accused Israel of violating international law by using the munition in civilian areas.

'Frightening'

Sharon Locke, a volunteer aid worker at the al-Quds hospital, said that the entire hospital had to be evacuated.

"It took a while to get any co-ordination from the Israelis to allow the fire service to come so the fire spread hugely in that time," she told Al Jazeera.

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"We had to put everyone in the streets ... still with shelling going on in the area. It couldn't have been more frightening."

The patients were eventually taken to the already overwhelmed Shifa hospital in Gaza City. 

Health workers were sifting through the wreckage of the five-storey building on Friday, but there was little left for them to salvage.

Israel has repeatedly stated that it only targets Hamas fighters and their infrastructure, but the attack on the hospital was just one of many that have destroyed facilities vital to the 1.5 million inhabitants of the impoverished territory.

The headquarters of the UN relief agency, which distributes food aid to hundreds of thousands of people across the Strip, was hit several times on Thursday, setting fire to tonnes of medical and food aid supplies and damaging warehouses.

"It is a huge tragedy for the people who were waiting for the aid to come to our distribution centres, to our health centres," John Ging, the director of UN relief operations in Gaza, said.

"But they should be reassured that we are already up and running again, we are setting up new warehouse because we have to continue to help the people here."

It was the latest attack on a UN facility after a school where hundreds of Palestinians were taking refuge was hit by an Israeli bombardment last week, killing more than 40 people, and a Palestinian driver died when his aid convoy came under fire.

'Blatant disregard'

"It is one of the most alarming developments throughout these 21 days that Israel has either directly or indirect targeted so many of these facilities," Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Gaza City, said.

"Many people here are calling this a direct violation and blatant disregard of international law by Israel. There is no doubt, according to international law, that these facilities are protected."

A fire at the UN headquarters destroyed tonnes of food aid [AFP]
UN officials said that the shells which struck the compound on Thursday contained white phosphorus.

Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros also found apparent evidence of white phosphorus munitions, which create hundreds of fragments that can burn through flesh to the bone, when she visited Tal-Hawa in central Gaza.

Remnants of the munition were still burning on the ground across the neighbourhood.

Israel has said the weapons it uses are legal and has not confirmed the use of white phosphorus.

A residential building nearby was pockmarked from gunfire and partially collapsed after being shelled.

"Nobody can imagine what the last two days have been like, 13 of us eating, drinking and sleeping in the same room," one resident told Al Jazeera.

"We can't even look out the window. When our neighbour's son tried, they shelled the house," she said.

The Palestinian Statistics Bureau estimates that 20,000 residential buildings have been damaged in the Israeli bombardment. About 4,000 of those were believed to have been completely destroyed.

'Grave violation'

Sixteen health facilities, including al-Quds hospital, have also been damaged by shelling and fighting since the offensive began on December 27, World Health Organisation officials say.

"If this continues
it will be a humanitarian catastrophe, especially for the health care system"

Tony Laurance,
World Health Organisation 

Tony Laurance, the head of the UN agency's office in Gaza, said such attacks were a "grave violation of international humanitarian law".

"If this continues it will be a humanitarian catastrophe, especially for the healthcare system.

"Emergency rooms and intensive care wards are already at maximum capacity."

A storage facility for the Palestinian Red Crescent was also destroyed after being hit by Israeli fire. 

The Palestinian Statistics Bureau said that the Palestinian economy had lost at least $1.4bn due to the bombardment, with each additional day of the war costing a further $420,000.

More than 1,130 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive to date, more than half of them women and children.

The destruction of roads, power lines, water and sewage pipes will also make it difficult for Palestinians to get the Gaza Strip up and running again once the conflict is over.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies