Israeli forces have occupied the al-Shifa Hospital, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip, since November 15, 2023, based on false claims that the hospital is situated above an underground Hamas command center. According to Muhammed Abu Salmiya, the Director of Al-Shifa, around 7,000 individuals, including patients, medical staff, and civilians seeking refuge, are stranded in the hospital. The facility is currently isolated, lacking access to water, electricity, and communication services. Israeli forces have surrounded the hospital with tanks, bulldozers, and snipers for over a week. They have raided the premises at least three times. During these incidents, staff and civilians have been stripped naked, subjected to interrogations, and detained. The whereabouts of many Palestinians remain unknown, and medical equipment has been destroyed. Doctors at al-Shifa have reported that Israeli soldiers took several deceased patients’ bodies to an undisclosed location. As per the Palestinian Ministry of Health, some 40 patients, including three premature babies, have died at the hospital since November 11, 2023.
Al-Shifa isn’t new to the horrors of Zionism. As a hospital in the Gaza Strip, it has witnessed the humans that have been destroyed by Israel’s settler-colonial war-mongering. During Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), which resulted in more than 1,400 Palestinians being killed in Gaza, John Ging – then Director of Operations of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – described al-Shifa hospital thus: “(It) is the place of course where you see the most horrific human consequences of this conflict. Among the tragic cases that I saw were a child, six years of age, little or no brain activity, people don’t have much hope for her survival; multiple amputee – another little girl; and a pregnant woman who’d lost a leg”. The continuity of Palestinian suffering underscores the fact that Israel’s targeting of al-Shifa isn’t a one-off incident. It is a core component of its policy of inflicting maximum pain on Palestinians.
On October 18, 2023, the Israeli army bombed the Anglican-run al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, killing between 500-1000 people. Thousands of individuals had sought shelter from the Israeli bombardment in the hospital, and a significant number of them were residing in the hospital courtyard where the strike occurred. The same hospital had been targeted by Israel the previous weekend, resulting in injuries to four people and forcing thousands to evacuate. A day before the attack, a video – recorded by a person who was killed by Israeli bombing – showed kids playing at al-Ahli outside and collecting garbage into plastic bags. This heart-wrenching attack on al-Ahli hospital isn’t just reflective of the genocidal intensity of the 2023 war being waged by Israel on Gaza. On the contrary, hospitals have been regularly targeted by Israel.
Between July 21 and 22, 2014, al-Aqsa Hospital, a government-run facility in the Gaza Strip with a capacity of 190 beds, faced multiple military strikes by the Israeli forces. The attacks occurred while the hospital was fully operational, accommodating hundreds of civilians seeking refuge on its premises. As a result of the strikes, three individuals lost their lives, 70 people were injured (including 11 medical staff), and various buildings, equipment, and ambulances were either destroyed or damaged. Dr. Medhat Abbas, director of al-Aqsa Hospital, said that Israel’s claim about Hamas using the hospital “was a big lie”. “I challenge anyone in the international community to prove that. There are no weapons in our hospital…We are ready for any inspection. Any international organization can come and make sure we have nothing in our hospital.” “They are professional liars and killers.” Dr. Abbas added that the hospital wanted to evacuate its remaining patients but found no safe place to take them to. “No hospitals are safe in Gaza. If we move them, there is no safe hospital in Gaza,” he remarked, highlighting the systematicity of Israeli attacks on Gaza’s hospitals. Basman Elashi, executive director of the Al Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital in Gaza that was shelled by Israel, commented: “We have no place to hide. No place for the children and the women. They are inhumane. They are acting like an animal; they are targeting every home and family in Gaza”. “In the attack, we not only lost a critical lifeline for our patients, but also an investment of 30 years. About $15 million (Dh55.1m) worth of equipment, gone in seconds.”
The Israeli attacks on Gaza’s hospitals are part of the wider colonial tradition of indiscriminate, genocidal warfare. In the colonized territory, all civilians are transformed into potential human shields by the mere fact of their existence. The colonizer/colonized binary holds sway over the civilian/combatant distinction. Insofar as colonialism is a “civilizing mission,” the colonized are framed as radically inferior to the colonizers. This vast chasm means that colonial violence is rarely considered as sufficient; the level of disproportionality exists as an ever-receding limit that is never reached. The ultimate cause of “humanity” translates into the “necessary” sacrifice of the colonized population. This moral arithmetic attaches different price tags to different humans. Some are ensconced as the representatives and beneficiaries of “humanity,” while others are rendered as disposable raw materials for the continued working of humanity’s engine.
During Italy’s 1935–1936 invasion of Ethiopia, 22 cases of Italian aerial bombardment of Red Cross units were recorded. The fascist regime justified its attack on medical facilities by portraying it as a retaliation against the Ethiopian army’s misuse of the Red Cross emblem and field hospitals as shields. According to the Italians, the Ethiopian forces had violated international law, specifically the principle of distinction, by using medical facilities for the purpose of hiding. It was the racial cunning of Ethiopians that explained their ignorance of international humanitarian law. In this way, the deaths caused by Italy’s brutal bombing campaigns were blamed upon the Ethiopians’ failure to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Commenting upon the racial framing of the issue, Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon note: “The trope of the treacherous and brutal armed resistance fighters that ignore the laws of war alongside the image of the honest, law abiding brave fascist were crucial elements in the media coverage of Ethiopia’s conquest.”
Ethiopians’ decision to shield behind the Red Cross wasn’t an extension of their general primitivism. On the contrary, it reflected the “desperate actions of defenseless people who tried to protect themselves as best they could”. The Italian army was using “C 500-T bombs…loaded with yperite (a “mustard” gas), the most deadly poison available. Yperite is corrosive; its vapors, produced by an explosion, are lethal. The drops penetrate under the skin, producing blistering, internal lesions and death.” In the words of Alberto Sbacchi, “The Ethiopians had no air force with which to retaliate, or any means to protect themselves against the “rain of death,” except for a few thousand old gas masks, useless against yperite and arsine, while the Italians were well stocked, with eighty-four thousand gas masks.”
The Ethiopian case has many similarities with the Palestinian case. In order to hide its colonial savagery, Italy focused on the malignant actions of uncivilized Ethiopians who had violated international law by shielding behind the Red Cross emblem. Today, the settler-colonial state of Israel is rehashing the same colonial discourse. Israeli Major General Ghassan Alian has openly talked about creating uninhabitable conditions for Gaza’s animal-like inhabitants: “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water, there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell”. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reiterated: “We are fighting animals.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has elaborated the dualistic underpinnings of the Zionist narrative, “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle”. All of these statements portray the situation in Gaza as a self-inflicted wound caused by the backwardness of the Palestinians. In opposition to this, we have to recognize that the current genocide in Gaza is not an effect of Hamas’ supposed Islamist barbarism. Rather, it is a continuation of Israel’s colonial project, against which Palestinians have the right to deploy any method of resistance.
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