WASHINGTON — Israel is trying to produce solid evidence for its assertion that Hamas has been using tunnels under Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza as a command centre.
But an Israeli military-led tour of the hospital grounds with journalists on Thursday night showed directly only a shaft in the ground with a staircase, which did not settle the issue.
A definitive answer is almost certain not to come overnight, military experts say. The following Q&A summarises what is known so far, the implications and outlook:
What is the evidence so far?
Both Israel and the United States say they have evidence that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are operating command centres and ammunition depots under hospitals in Gaza, as part of an effort to turn civilians using the hospitals into human shields.
Thursday night’s Israeli military tour showed that the shaft had electrical wiring, along with a metal staircase. In the darkness, it was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went. The military said it had sent a drone down at least several metres into the shaft, which it said was found in the sand on the northern perimeter of the hospital complex.
Israel has also released a pair of videos from inside Gaza’s main children’s hospital that Israel said showed weapons and explosives found in the medical centre, and a room where the military said hostages were kept. The videos contain a series of assertions that could not be independently verified.
The Israeli military said that soldiers had also found weapons at Al-Shifa and had recovered the bodies of two Israelis taken hostage in locations adjacent to the hospital.
Palestinian officials and doctors at Al-Shifa have denied that the hospital has been used by Hamas’ military.
US officials said this week that they have intelligence, separate from Israeli intelligence, that confirms that Hamas is operating command centres and ammunitions depots under hospitals. One official said that the intelligence is based on intercepts from fighters.
But the sensitive nature of the intelligence means that US officials have not described exactly what the intercepted communications say. Nor have they shown the intercepts to journalists.
How much time could it take for Israel to provide a conclusive account?
It could take weeks, months, or could never come, US military officials said on Friday.
American and Israeli officials said that many of the tunnels could be booby-trapped with bombs either remotely triggered or set to explode when something crosses a tripwire. In 2013, six Israeli soldiers were wounded, and one was blinded, when a booby trap exploded as they tried to shove a camera into a Hamas tunnel.
Whether this is the case under Al-Shifa Hospital or not, Israeli forces will view sending soldiers down into the tunnels as a measure of last resort, one Pentagon official said on Friday.
Col Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s 7th Brigade, said it might be days before troops descended into the shaft.
Pentagon officials privately said there was frustration that Israel did not take more time to plan the Gaza invasion, which could have allowed the Israeli military to evacuate civilians. The lead-up to the American and Iraqi fight to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State group in 2016, US officials said, took nine months, in part so that officials could work out how to limit civilian casualties.
By going in with no strategy for how they would minimise civilian casualties, one senior US official said, Israel put itself in the position of trying to justify the high civilian death toll by proving that Hamas was using the hospital as a command centre. That puts pressure on Israel, the official said, to make a case that could take months. (Story continues below)
A concrete shaft is uncovered on the grounds of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)
What is the wider significance of the hospital dispute?
Israel and Hamas are not just in a physical war — which Israel says killed 1,200 Israelis in Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack, and which the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says has killed 11,000 Palestinians. The two sides are also in a war for global public opinion. That second war has put Israel under pressure.
A big part of the Israeli narrative is that Hamas is operating command headquarters under hospitals — essentially making human shields out of civilians, a war crime. But targeting a hospital is also a war crime in most circumstances.
So both sides are trying to show the other to be culpable in putting civilians at risk. Global opinion has shifted against Israel as the Palestinian death toll has gone up.
Critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say the Israeli government has been too expansive in its argument about human shields, since there are believed to be hundreds of tunnels all over Gaza, not just under the hospital.
“The notion of human shields, when applied so broadly, allows Israel to preemptively say everything is a legitimate target,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who is now president of the US Middle East Project, a policy institute.
How many miles of tunnels are there under Gaza?
No one knows for sure. One US official likened the tunnel network under Gaza to “miniature cities,” with subterranean pathways, rooms, cells and even roads for vehicles.
Hamas has spent years refining its tunnel network underneath the tiny coastal strip of more than 2 million people. Tunnels have been a part of life in Gaza for years, but they sharply multiplied after 2007, when Hamas took control of the enclave and Israel tightened a blockade of the territory. Palestinians responded by building hundreds of tunnels to smuggle in food, goods, people and weapons.
Some analysts have put the number of miles of tunnels in the hundreds. Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yehia Sinwar, said in 2021 that there were 310 miles (500 kilometres) of tunnels in Gaza.
In 2018, the Israel military destroyed a tunnel that was more than one mile long.
What would it take to clear the tunnels?
One US military official said that it would likely take years for Israel to clear all of the Gaza tunnels.
- This article originally appeared in The New York Times
Israeli soldiers display weapons that they said were found on the grounds of Al-Shifa Hospital. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)