Israeli troops again entered the al-Shifa Hospital en masse on Thursday, for the second time in as many days.
Their searches so far appear to have failed to uncover the alleged Hamas underground command centre that the Israeli side adamantly insists lies below the medical facilities.
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Hamas, the hospital staff and several international organisations that had access to the hospital all assert that there are no military installations or soldiers at al-Shifa. They have said it only houses exhausted doctors and overworked nurses tending to the swelling numbers of patients in ever more difficult conditions, exacerbated by hundreds of terrified Palestinians who escaped from the destruction of their homes to the relative safety of the compound.
One of Israel’s main claims, obviously intended to justify the attacks against Gaza hospital compounds, was that Hamas had nullified the protected status of medical facilities, using them for military purposes, thus giving Israel the right to attack and enter hospitals, all while blaming the Palestinian armed group.
The Israeli army went to great lengths to “prove” their allegations but the results so far don’t back those up. Earlier this week reporters from a US TV station embedded with the invading forces were taken to al-Rantisi Children’s Hospital by none other than its chief spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. The news team was shown a few Kalashnikovs and a motorcycle, of all things. Hagari bent over backwards trying to convince the media and the world that those were proof of his side’s allegations.
His claims were mirrored at al-Shifa by his subordinate, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, who presented as “evidence of terrorist activities” half a dozen AK assault rifles with magazines removed, a laptop and, in a Monty Pythonesque moment, two cans of WD40 anti-rust spray.
Anyone who spent time in the Middle East or in any war knows that the venerable Kalashnikovs are present virtually everywhere. It is normal, and legal, for hospitals to have armed guards to protect them from criminals, looters and anyone wanting to misuse them.
But apart from the ignorance of these claims and the huge discrepancy between demonstrating a few guns and claiming a main command centre from where Hamas conducted its operations, the location where those guns were allegedly found is curious: the gloating Conricus was adamant that they were hidden in the MRI room.
Anyone who has been examined by an MRI machine knows that they have had to remove every metallic object.
I asked a radiology specialist whether it would be possible to hide guns in that room. The response: “The moment the machine was turned on, it would pull the guns and attach them to itself.” The MRI machine cannot function with rifles on it. Asking someone to believe that any hospital in Gaza would relinquish one of its main diagnostic machines to hide a grab bag with a few guns is simply absurd.
The Israeli army has been successful in taking the ground in Gaza, at least on the fringes of the city proper with a few incursions deeper into the urban areas, like the advance to al-Shifa, with fairly low numbers of casualties and limited material losses.
But it has failed to uncover – and show – any underground command centres or major tunnels. It was seen and filmed going down a few shafts, unopposed, but it did not appear to have gone underground in earnest.
Failing to produce the underground command centre, late on Thursday, the Israeli army showed a hole in the ground claiming it to be the entrance of a Hamas military tunnel. Until the media is allowed to enter and check for itself, it will have to balance that claim against the counter-suggestion that it is an access point for an underground electrical cable.
I have no doubt that there are Hamas underground bunkers, communications nodes, power stations, storage facilities and – command centres.
If you take your cause underground, as Hamas obviously has, dedicating substantial resources and huge efforts to building the network, then you do construct an integrated network. Anything short of building several command facilities deep underground would be amateurish and outright foolish.
Every expert must be certain that such a “beating heart of Hamas”, as the Israeli army called it, is indeed ticking somewhere under Gaza. But apparently, maybe even certainly, not under al-Shifa Hospital.
As the aerial bombardment continues, many observers have failed to notice that apart from the raids on the hospitals, there has been very little movement on the ground for almost a week now. Big Israeli columns are dug in awaiting orders, but nothing indicates when they might advance further, nor in what direction and by what means.
For its part, Hamas has also been very quiet. It had put up some resistance to the initial Israeli advance, but kept it limited to opportunistic attacks that were intended more to probe the enemy and show the flag than to really stop the army before it got to the city. Its Qassam Brigades seem set to remain low-key, knowing that sooner or later the Israeli army will have to move under the ground to find and destroy the tunnels and command centres. They cannot win by remaining on the ground.
So, what happens next?
If the fighting is to continue, Israel will have to move first. Hamas can wait longer than the Israeli army. The Palestinians can let the Israelis simmer in their own stew, knowing that the displeasure at the failure to produce tangible results will further strengthen the voices of protest and opposition to the continuation of war.
There are signs that the army is aware of the need to show some success to the domestic public in Israel and is resorting to classic public relations stunts.
On Wednesday evening the 35th Paratroopers Brigade awarded the maroon berets to new recruits inside Gaza territory. There is hardly any military justification in choosing to hold the ceremony amid destroyed and depopulated buildings.
But someone in the Israeli army obviously hopes that the sentiment aroused by the symbolic raising of Israeli flags on occupied Palestinian territory – and several more flags were raised among the Gaza rubble on Thursday – might buy them some time before the public starts asking the unpopular question: “Are we beating Hamas?”