Bunker Debunker: Did Israel Build Subterranean Fortress Under Gaza’s Biggest Hospital?
18:25 GMT 15.11.2023 (Updated: 18:50 GMT 15.11.2023)
Situated in Gaza City, the Dar Al-Shifa Hospital is the largest medical complex in the Gaza Strip, and has a 700-bed capacity. The IDF has targeted the complex repeatedly over the past week-and-a-half, alleging Hamas' use of facilities located underneath as a fortified command center. Is there any truth to this story? Sputnik did some digging.
The Israel Defense Forces provided a worrisome explanation for its targeting of hospitals and ambulances in the Gaza Strip
on Monday, publishing (and then deleting
) an eyebrow-raising X post saying that “for Hamas, ambulances are used to transport its operatives and weapons to disguise them as civilians,” while “hospitals are in fact terrorist infrastructure.”
“This is against international law and turns them into legitimate military targets,” the IDF said.
In the days and weeks before and since, the al-Shifa hospital complex has come under repeated attack. On November 4, an air strike hit
an ambulance near the hospital’s entrance, killing 15 people and injuring 60 others. The hospital was targeted a second time on November 6. Finally, on Wednesday, the IDF launched a ground raid inside the facility.
Before mounting its “precise and targeted operation,” the IDF alleged that Hamas had established a secret headquarters burrowed deep underneath the medical complex. In a statement, the military said it had “publicly warned time and again that Hamas’ continued military use of the Shifa Hospital jeopardizes its protected status under international law,” and lamented that the “relevant authorities in Gaza” ignored an IDF ultimatum to “cease” “all military activities within the hospital.”
Several weeks earlier, the IDF released
a computer-animated video of a massive alleged underground tunnel and bunker complex it said was situated underneath the hospital complex, including conference rooms, arms and fuel caches and even a makeshift weapons factory. Israeli intelligence followed up by providing interrogation footage of a captured Hamas fighter admitting
there was indeed a large underground hardened facility underneath al-Shifa used by the militant group. US intelligence
, Pentagon and White House officials chimed in
in support of Washington’s Israeli ally, alleging that Hamas has indeed been using tunnels underneath Al-Shifa for “command and control areas as well as weapons storage,” and that “newly declassified intelligence” indicates that the hospital is being used “to support their military operations.”
Hamas has dismissed the allegations, accusing the IDF of using the claims to justify its indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip.
Who Built the Facilities Underneath al-Shifa?
Starting out as an army barracks during the British Mandate for Palestine era, al-Shifa was turned into a hospital in 1946 during the closing years of Britain's occupation, and expanded into an entire complex of medical facilities during Egypt’s administration of Gaza between 1953 and 1967. Seizing the Strip during the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel preserved and then expanded the hospital complex, and in the 1980s, with US financial backing, gave it a major overhaul, with Israeli architects Gershon Zippor, Teddy and Ben Kaplan and others tasked with creating its modern-day design, outlining a “Master Plan for the Year 2000” of modern, six-floor buildings spread across a 12.5-acre complex and equipped with what were at the time the latest medical innovations.
Along with the medical facilities, the project reportedly saw the construction of “a secure underground operating room and tunnel network”
underneath the Hospital’s Building Number 2 in 1983, with a large “underground concrete floor”
constructed underneath the facility during the same period. Other reports indicated that the hardened underground facilities were used to house
the hospital’s laundry and “various administrative” offices.
Zippor, notably, had previous experience
with underground military facilities, and between 1972 and 1976 engaged in the conversion of bunkers and trenches used during the Six-Day War into the Ammunition Hill Memorial Site and Museum
Hamas reportedly knew about the hospital complex’s hidden underground fortified areas, with a 2014 report in Ynet revealing that Zippor’s son, Barak, had mentioned
that in the late 1980s, an Israeli contractor “hired Hamas as a security company” for the hospital.
As for the potential use of the underground facilities by Hamas after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, a 2009 report in Haaretz citing Palestinian sources indicated
that the militant group’s leaders never hide in one place, but spread out and constantly change locations using an elaborate network of tunnels.
None of the Israeli reporting on the hospital complex's construction shows photos of its reported fortified basement areas, and reporters covering Israeli attacks on or near the hospital during Israel’s wars with Hamas in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2023 have yet to present any direct proof of Hamas’ use of the underground facilities built by the Israelis.
“When it comes to the issue of the bunker or the tunnels underneath the Shifa Hospital, I think one of the reasons that Israel is…asserting this is because every time it has tried to make an assertion regarding Hamas' operations, those assertions have consistently been debunked,” Sami Hamdi, political analyst and head of International Interest, a UK-based global risk and intelligence company, told Sputnik.
The IDF will undoubtedly hope to find evidence of Hamas using underground facilities and tunnels built in the 1980s as evidence to support its narrative about the Palestinian militant group's use of civilian infrastructure and noncombatants as human shields, but it remains to be see whether Tel Aviv can actually sway public opinion in this manner, the political analyst believes.
“The point being, I think that when it comes to the Israelis pushing this narrative, it has less to do with the idea that Israel actually believes [it] and more about a desperate attempt to try to win back public opinion that it has emphatically lost as a result of the bombardment of social media videos showing the realities of the atrocities that are being committed in Gaza,” Hamdi said.
Mehmet Rakipoglu, a researcher at Dimensions for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, points to the irony of the IDF accusing Hamas of using bunkers and tunnels underneath Gaza’s civilian infrastructure when Israel itself appears to have built the "secret shelter" under the Shifa hospital in the first place.
“It is obvious that Hamas did not use the hospital as a shield. Even though Israel tries to manipulate public opinion with amateur videos, the truth is clear,” Rakipoglu told Sputnik. So far, “the places that Israel claims to be used by the ‘Hamas terrorist cells’ and as tunnels are spare water tanks,” the observer said, referring to social media posts mocking the IDF's reported 'proof' of alleged militant tunnel networks in civilian areas which turn out to be mere water containers, heaters and septic tanks.