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Survivors recount horrors of Israeli siege on Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israel's military raided the Gaza Strip's largest medical complex, laying siege to it for two weeks, saying Hamas fighters had regrouped there. Palestinians finally got a glimpse of the aftermath of that raid when troops withdrew on Monday. And a warning - this story includes graphic descriptions of death and violence. NPR's Aya Batrawy has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON RUBBLE)

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Once Gaza's best-equipped hospital, Al-Shifa is now completely destroyed. Al-Shifa, which means healing in Arabic, is now a place of death. To see it now, after Israel's raid, was too much for one woman to bear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Screaming in non-English language).

BATRAWY: She screams in Al-Shifa's courtyard, why, God, why? The hospital's been turned into a graveyard with bodies decomposing all around her. There are charred bodies in it's burnt surgical ward, shot and left to rot in its hallways, crushed by tanks outside its gates.

Israel says this was a precise operation targeting Hamas, the group that launched a deadly attack on Israel October 7, sparking this war. Israel's military says troops uncovered many weapons inside the hospital. Here's government spokesman Avi Hyman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVI HYMAN: We went in there with a surgical force, special operations, and we took out over 200 terrorists. We apprehended over 900 terrorists with not a single civilian casualty.

BATRAWY: Palestinians say that's not true. Dr. Marwan Abu Saada, acting manager of Al-Shifa, named three colleagues killed during the siege.

MARWAN ABU SAADA: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: He says one was the chief engineer of the maintenance department, another the head of pharmaceuticals, and the third, a reconstructive surgeon killed with his mother.

ABU SAADA: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: The World Health Organization says 21 patients died in the hospital during Israel's siege, and more than a hundred patients were trapped without enough food or water. Emaciated-looking patients were carried out on stretchers after the raid ended. Emad Jibreel, one of the patients besieged inside Al-Shifa, told NPR of the squalid conditions.

EMAD JIBREEL: (Through interpreter) I spent about eight days without changing the dressing on my leg. It became infected twice. And the doctors and nurses couldn't care for us because they said they didn't have gloves or gauze.

BATRAWY: People living near the hospital say they also suffered. In the early hours of March 18, as Israeli forces swept into Al-Shifa with heavy gunfire and tanks, residents say other Israeli troops went pounding door to door, throwing stun grenades into homes as they rounded up people for interrogation. Nariman Qanita tells NPR what she saw.

NARIMAN QANITA: (Through interpreter) When they raided and came into the building, there were kids sleeping in their room - kids 12 and 13 years old. They cried out, baba, baba. We saw one bleeding out, wounded in his organs, not from bullets. He had a hole no smaller than 20 centimeters in him.

BATRAWY: She says the boy bled for hours until Israeli forces allowed him to leave. But she doesn't know if he survived. Hours later, Israeli troops ordered the women and children to follow a strict evacuation route. They weren't allowed to take anything with them, not their phones or IDs. The men were stripped down to their underwear. Other Palestinians told NPR similar stories. Qanita returned home when the siege ended. It was turned to rubble.

QANITA: (Through interpreter) There are no suitable homes to live in. Where do we go, people? While you're preparing your Eid clothes and Eid cookies, we're preparing shrouds and how to retrieve the dead from under our homes. It's enough already.

BATRAWY: Journalist Bayan Abusultan lives near Al-Shifa. She posted a reel on Instagram showing some of the moments she survived during the raid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BAYAN ABUSULTAN: Smoke is coming out of houses near the hospital. They just bombed our neighbor's house. Smoke is everywhere.

BATRAWY: She says her only brother was killed. The family prays over his body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic, crying).

BATRAWY: In another scene, a fire breaks out in the building next to hers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABUSULTAN: A fire just started in our neighboring house. We're trapped. We're just praying that the fire won't reach us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON RUBBLE)

BATRAWY: Many homes were burnt down during the battle. Israel says hundreds of those apprehended in its raid were identified as, quote, "terrorists." Dr. Abu Saada, the acting manager of Al-Shifa, listed some of the names of staff from the hospital Israel is holding captive from this raid and a previous raid on the hospital in November.

ABU SAADA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Chief nurse at the hospital, Anwar Abu Riyala, says he was held in captivity for five days without enough food by Israeli forces.

ANWAR ABU RIYALA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says he survived what felt like certain death. Al-Shifa hospital once had a capacity of almost 800 beds. More than a quarter million people were rushed through its emergency rooms a year.

ABU RIYALA: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: "We don't understand the purpose behind this complete and utter destruction, behind the killing, torture, siege," Abu Riyala says. "We're civilians. We have no one but God," he says.

Al-Shifa was struggling to function before this siege. It lacked enough medicine and fuel. Still, it served as a last ray of hope for malnourished children and the wounded. It now joins a long list of hospitals in Gaza no longer able to offer even that.

Aya Batrawy, NPR News, with reporting from Omar Al-Qattaa in Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOPY'S "MEDITATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
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