Israel Destroyed al-Shifa Hospital to Accelerate Social Collapse in Gaza – Faris Giacaman 4/2/24


Israel wants to cause a breakdown in social order in Gaza, and it can’t achieve that without erasing its hospitals.

The fall of al-Shifa Hospital will be remembered as one of the most pivotal moments in Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza — not for the unbridled annihilationism it displayed, but because it offered a unique window into the real reason Israel decided to systematically dismantle Gaza’s hospitals.

Hospitals in Gaza during times of war have not only served as places for the treatment of the wounded and the sick but have become pivotal social institutions, housing a microcosm of Gaza’s entire civic order. They became hubs for journalists and human rights defenders, offered space for Gaza’s Civil Defense teams to organize and coordinate rescue efforts, became a base of operations for Gaza’s police force, and hosted tens of thousands of displaced refugees seeking shelter from the bombardment. Hospitals became all those things because they were the last remaining civilian institutions that were supposed to enjoy a modicum of protection from the war.

In other words, they housed all the trappings of what makes a society function. In lieu of dismantling Gaza’s resistance infrastructure, a goal that remains elusive for the Israeli army, one of Israel’s war aims in Gaza has been to engineer social collapse.

Normalizing attacks on hospitals

It started with Israel’s first assault on al-Shifa on November 15. In the days leading up to the invasion, the hospital had been placed under siege, as medical staff and doctors were shot through windows and in the hospital’s main courtyard. When others rushed out to try and save them, they were shot down, too, until no one dared leave the buildings. The injured were left to bleed out and die, and then to rot and be eaten by stray animals. When the Israeli army entered, it cleared out the hospital of its staff, patients, and displaced refugees. Israeli propaganda began to flood the media with images of weapons stuffed behind an MRI machine, one of the few flimsy pieces of “evidence” alleging the hospital’s use as a military “command-and-control center.”

But despite the fact that Israel’s claims about al-Shifa turned out to be baseless, the invasion set an important precedent for what was considered acceptable conduct throughout the war. What was previously unthinkable now became commonplace, setting the stage for what was to come.

Facilitating social collapse

After the army withdrew from parts of northern Gaza toward the end of the year, including the area surrounding al-Shifa, medical staff and patients returned to the hospital. Al-Shifa quickly resumed its status as a hub for displaced persons and civil society actors. But with the start of the new year, famine and starvation began to set in. The systematic deprivation of food aid and the targeting of aid-seekers at the Kuwaiti and Nabulsi roundabouts in northern Gaza led to several massacres that created a crisis for the local population.

Then, in what was universally hailed as a remarkable achievement, a convoy of 13 aid trucks finally arrived in the north without incident on March 17. The difference is that this time, the delivery of aid had been directly coordinated by Gaza’s police force. The key figure who organized the delivery was the Director of police operations, Faiq Mabhouh, and like most of Gaza’s civilian employees, he naturally operated out of al-Shifa. The next day, on March 18, Israel launched its second invasion of the hospital.

Unsurprisingly, Israel recycled the same unsubstantiated claims, asserting that the operation was based on “precise intelligence” that indicated the hospital was housing hundreds of military personnel from which “terrorist attacks” were being conducted. On the first day of the attack, Israeli forces assassinated Mabhouh, while killing dozens more within the medical compound. Early on, Mondoweiss demonstrated the real reason behind the attack, which was to strike a blow at Gaza’s civil infrastructure with the objective of causing chaos and undermining its ability to function.

Mabhouh had overseen several popular committees in coordination with local tribes to organize the delivery of aid to the starving population. It was becoming clear that the Hamas government was attempting to reestablish a foothold in northern Gaza and to restore order, signs of which could be gleaned as early as February. Of course, for Israel, any governmental employee in Gaza, even if in civilian branches like the police, were, for all intents and purposes, “Hamas operatives,” no different from resistance fighters in the Qassam Brigades. This also included the members of the popular and tribal committees responsible for delivering aid, which Israel continued to target in northern Gaza as the siege of al-Shifa commenced.

Nearly two weeks later, on March 31, the popular and tribal committees announced that they would halt the coordination and delivery of aid in northern Gaza after over 70 of its members had been killed by the Israeli army. The committees put out a statement saying that the army had systematically targeted the committees and that it was deliberately sowing “chaos and starvation” by preventing international organizations like the Red Cross, UNRWA, and the World Food Program from delivering aid. By the time the Israeli army withdrew from al-Shifa, the Gaza Media Office said that at least 400 Palestinians were killed and 900 were wounded during the two-week raid. Buildings that were not destroyed were set on fire and irreparably damaged. The army vowed that al-Shifa would not return to being operational.

Creating the ‘kill zone’

As the siege of al-Shifa continued over the course of two weeks, news began to emerge of atrocities and wholesale massacres in the hospital. After the invasion had concluded, countless testimonies detailed field executions, with Civil Defense teams reporting finding dead bodies buried in the sand with their legs bound.

A day before the army withdrew, Haaretz published a report providing new insight into how the army has operated throughout the war, creating “kill zones” where soldiers have been instructed to shoot anyone on sight. The report defines such zones as “an area in which a force sets itself up, usually in an abandoned house, with the area surrounding it becoming a closed military area, but with no clear marking as such.” Of course, these “kill zones” are also located in the middle of residential neighborhoods, many of which were unevacuated.

The report provides a useful framework for understanding how the invasion of al-Shifa likely unfolded. …

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