The assassinations at Jenin hospital should not surprise anyone

Israeli forces have been targeting Palestinian healthcare in clear violation of international law and committing blatant war crimes in hospitals for many years.

A bullet hole is pictured on a pillow covered in blood on a hospital bed at the Ibn Sina hospital in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on January 30, 2024. Israeli forces shot dead three Palestinians at the hospital early on January 30,[Zain Jaafar/ AFP]

This week, a video circulated on social media showing a dozen Israeli special forces soldiers disguised as Palestinian civilians entering Ibn Sina Hospital in the West Bank city of Jenin, where they proceeded to assassinate three Palestinian men – two of whom were brothers.

During the operation, they also attacked and terrorised hospital staff and other patients. In the video, they are seen forcing a bystander to kneel at gunpoint.

Witnesses insist there were no attempts to arrest the men and instead they were shot as they slept. One of the men was being treated for a spinal injury after being paralysed in an Israeli air strike on a cemetery in Jenin in November. A hospital spokesperson said that although the hospital has been attacked many times before, this was the first time an assassination had taken place on the hospital grounds.

However, this has happened elsewhere in the West Bank before. In 2015, undercover Israeli special forces soldiers invaded a hospital in Hebron, arrested an injured Palestinian, killed his cousin and threatened hospital staff at gunpoint.

These undercover forces are known colloquially as the “mustara’bim”, an Arabic word that literally means “those who live among Arabs”. In this context, it is used for Israeli agents who embed themselves in Palestinian communities or disguise themselves as Palestinians to collect intelligence or conduct operations.

Since 1948, this unit has been made up of agents, usually from Jewish-Arab backgrounds, who are trained to speak Palestinian Arabic, understand Palestinian customs and dress to blend in. They commonly infiltrate protests to create chaos and an atmosphere of paranoia, but they also occasionally participate in special operations like the one in the Jenin hospital.

In December, a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) report noted that there was a “staggering” increase in attacks against healthcare services in Jenin, including the obstruction of ambulances and tear-gassing of medical facilities. Access to hospitals has become so difficult that Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp have had to establish “trauma stabilisation points” – makeshift clinics where medical volunteers conduct first aid and severe trauma treatment.

Other areas of the West Bank have also seen deliberate disruptions to healthcare services. There has been several incidents in which Palestinian ambulances have been prevented from reaching critically wounded people and medical staff have been detained for long hours. The increase in the number of checkpoints and road closures across the West Bank since October has only made this worse.

The MSF report details what Palestinians have long known: Far from isolated incidents, the Israeli regime’s attacks on Palestinian healthcare are systematic and are part of a wider policy to disrupt Palestinian access to medical care and life-saving treatment.

Indeed, even before the genocide, Gaza’s health system had been in gradual decline as a result of the Israeli blockade on the strip, which, among many things, severely limited imports of medical equipment and medications. As a result, many vital and life-saving treatments, such as chemotherapy, were not available. Palestinians in Gaza were forced to apply for (and were often denied) permits for such life-saving treatment in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Before the beginning of the genocide, the health sector in Gaza and elsewhere in occupied Palestine was already in a state of perpetual crisis. Now, the Israeli regime’s targeting of Palestinian healthcare is even more blatant.

Tlaleng Mofokeng, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health, said that in Gaza, “the practice of medicine is under attack”.  This is not an exaggeration as there have been well over 600 attacks on medical facilities since October.

In November, Gaza’s main hospital, al-Shifa, was subjected to a brutal siege, in which sections of the hospital were shelled, staff were abducted and interrogated, and fuel was denied for life-saving machinery.

The Israeli regime claimed that the hospital was sitting on top of a Hamas command centre, a claim that they failed to provide evidence for and was widely disproved even by mainstream media outlets.

After the siege, the World Health Organization visited the site and called the hospital a “death zone”. Most hospitals in Gaza, including al-Shifa, have also become mass graves with makeshift cemeteries being dug within the grounds of the medical facilities because burying the dead outside is too dangerous. In northern Gaza, there are no functioning hospitals left. In the south, all the remaining hospitals are under intense attack by Israeli ground forces and bombardments.

Under international law, hospitals and medical facilities are considered protected spaces, and attacking them is considered a war crime. But this doesn’t matter much to the Israeli regime, which has enjoyed decades of impunity for such crimes. It also doesn’t seem to matter much to many mainstream media spaces, which seldom mention that these attacks are war crimes. Indeed their reporting on the Jenin hospital raid fails to mention this and fails to mention the context of systematic Israeli attacks on Palestinian healthcare.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.