Factbox-Gaza's Al Shifa Hospital becomes latest battleground

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises as displaced Palestinians take shelter at Al Shifa hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza City

By Stephen Farrell

(Reuters) -Al Shifa Hospital, which has been raided by Israel, is the largest in the Gaza Strip.

Both Israel and the United States have said that Hamas militants were using Gaza's hospitals, including Shifa, to hide command posts and hostages using underground tunnels.

Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, has built a tunnel city stretching beneath Gaza for hundreds of kilometres, up to 80 metres (87 yards) deep in parts.

Hamas, health authorities and Shifa directors have denied that the group is concealing military infrastructure in or under the complex and have said they would welcome an international inspection.


Shifa is a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards a few hundred metres from Gaza City's small fishing port, sandwiched between Beach refugee camp and the city's Rimal neighbourhood.

Its name comes from the Arabic word "healing" - common for hospitals in the Middle East.


The hospital was caring for 36 babies as of Tuesday, according to medical staff there who said there was no clear mechanism to move them despite an Israeli effort to supply incubators for an evacuation.

Three of the original 39 premature babies have already died since Gaza's biggest hospital ran out of fuel at the weekend to power generators that had kept their incubators going.


It was built in 1946 during British rule, two years before Britain withdrew from Palestine. It survived the Egyptian invasion in 1948 and two decades of Egyptian military rule.

In 1967, Israel captured and occupied the Gaza Strip and in subsequent years, there were regular clashes nearby which sometimes moved into the grounds.

In 1971, the Times of London reported a gun battle between a Palestinian militant who hid under a bed in the nurses' quarters and an Israeli army patrol that was searching the hospital.

On Dec. 9 1987, the first day of the First Intifada against Israeli occupation during which Hamas was formed, Shifa was again pulled into the conflict.

The story, taken from the Reuters archive, begins:

"An Israeli army helicopter circled three times on Wednesday over Gaza's Shifa Hospital, then flew low over the walls and dropped a tear-gas grenade into the central courtyard.

"Palestinian orderlies, patients' relatives and students scattered in panic, their eyes streaming. A youth picked up the grenade and threw it out into the street. 'They are firing from the helicopter,' someone shouted.

"It was a false rumour, one of dozens that circulated as teenagers armed with stones and bottles manned burning street barricades outside the hospital."

In 1994, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's security forces saluted the Palestinian flag when it was raised over the hospital after Palestinians were granted limited self-autonomy in Gaza during the Oslo peace process.

Islamist Hamas won a surprise election victory in Gaza in 2006 by appealing to residents disaffected by corruption within the-then Palestinian Authority. The following year, Hamas staged a military takeover of Gaza, forcing Fatah, the secular group that has long dominated the Palestinian Authority, out of the enclave.

During the power struggle building up to that takeover, fighters from both Fatah and Hamas were treated at Shifa and other hospitals, under the understanding that neither would harm the other side's wounded.

Hamas has ruled Gaza ever since, but the hospital is staffed by medics paid by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.

During a 2008-9 war in which more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, Israel accused Hamas of using underground areas in Shifa to hide. Hamas denied it and Reuters was not able to verify the accusations.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Nick Macfie, Howard Goller and Philippa Fletcher)