More than 30 premature babies in “extremely critical condition” were evacuated from Gaza’s main hospital on Sunday, health officials said.
A World Health Organization-led team said the babies had been safely removed from the Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza, where power was cut and clean water, fuel, medical supplies, food and other essential items had ran out. They are now receiving urgent care in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and will ultimately be transferred to Egypt.
“The babies were successfully transported to the neonatal intensive care unit at Al-Helal Al-Emarati Maternity Hospital in southern Gaza, where they are being assessed and stabilized,” the WHO said. “Doctors there say all the babies are fighting serious infections due to lack of medical supplies and impossibility to continue infection control measures in Al-Shifa Hospital. Eleven are in critical condition.”
Many had dehydration, hypothermia and sepsis in some cases, said Mohamed Zaqout, director of Gaza hospitals. At least two babies died in the days before the facility was evacuated, the WHO said.
The WHO-led joint U.N. mission worked in collaboration with the Palestine Red Crescent Society to transport the severely ill babies in six ambulances. Other members of the high-risk rescue mission included U.N. Mine Action, UNICEF and UNRWA. The rescue happened as there was active combat between Israeli and Hamas forces near the hospital.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the hospital to look for Hamas operatives, who they have said used the hospital to store weapons. The IDF also said Hamas operated underground below the hospital.
Later Sunday, Israel’s army said it had strong evidence supporting its claims that Hamas maintains a sprawling command post inside and under the Shifa hospital. Israel has portrayed the hospital as a key target in its war to end Hamas’ rule in Gaza following the militant group’s into southern Israel six weeks ago.
The army said it found a 55-meter (60-yard) tunnel about 10 meters (33 feet) under the hospital’s 20-acre complex, which includes several buildings, garages and a plaza. It said the tunnel included a staircase and a firing hole that could be used by snipers and ended at a blast-proof door that troops have not yet opened.
Hamas and hospital staff have denied the allegations of a command post under Shifa.
The White House also confirmed Hamas terrorists were using Gaza’s largest hospital as an operations base.
“I can confirm for you that we have information that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad used some hospitals in the Gaza strip, including Al-Shifa, and tunnels underneath them to conceal and support their military operations and to hold hostages,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week.
The plight of the babies, along with the Israeli claims against Shifa Hospital, have become potent symbols in the devastating war between Israel and Hamas and the tremendous civilian toll as thousands of Palestinians and Israelis have been caught in the crossfire.
The WHO said none of the babies had accompanying family members and the Ministry of Health was not able to find close family members.
The WHO, UNICEF, UNMAS, UNRWA and the other involved organizations who helped rescue the babies said over 250 patients and 20 health workers remain at Al-Shifa, and are all requesting immediate evacuation.
“Planning is ongoing to evacuate the remaining patients, their families and the health-care workers. Given the complex security and logistics constraints, these evacuations will take several days to complete. Priority will be given to the 22 dialysis patients and 50 patients with spinal injuries. WHO reaffirms its respect for the dedication, professionalism, humanity and courage of the health staff who have continued to care for their patients under unimaginably difficult conditions,” the WHO said.
About 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians, during the Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas dragged some 240 captives back into Gaza and shattered Israel’s sense of security. The military says 63 Israeli soldiers have been killed, including 12 over the past 24 hours.
More than 11,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to Hamas-run Palestinian health authorities. Another 2,700 have been reported missing, including those believed buried in rubble. The count does not differentiate between Palestinian civilians and Hamas terrorists.
Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, continue to negotiate the release of hostages.
Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog said last week he was “hopeful that we can get a significant number of hostages freed in the coming days.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.