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Israel-Palestine war: Gaza doctors seized by Israel say they were used as 'human shields'

Doctors are being detained, interrogated, and used as human shields in Israel's campaign on hospitals
A wounded Palestinian man receives treatment at the al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli air strikes on Gaza City on 5 November 2023 (AP)
By Maha Hussaini in Gaza, Palestine

A doctor who worked at al-Shifa hospital in Gaza during the Israeli siege and bombardment of the complex has described how Israeli troops used them as “hostages” as they invaded the hospital, and later detained the head of the hospital, along with more than 20 other medical personnel from Gaza, in what one Palestinian medic called a “war on hospitals”.

Following weeks of intense bombardment of the largest medical complex in the northern Gaza Strip, the Israeli military approved an evacuation request for the staff and patients to the southern enclave, submitted in coordination with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations.

When a UN-led convoy of ambulances arrived at a checkpoint set up by Israeli forces on the road connecting the northern Gaza Strip to southern areas, they were stopped, searched, and interrogated for seven hours, before the head of al-Shifa medical complex, Dr Mohammed Abu Silmiya, was detained along with around five other doctors.

Even before evacuation, Abu Silmia was held in custody and interrogated twice by Israeli officers inside the al-Shifa Hospital.

Marwan Abu Saada, a doctor who was interrogated with him, spoke to Middle East Eye about the "horrifying hours" when Israeli soldiers held them and used them as human shields inside the hospital.

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"For several days, Israeli aircraft kept bombing different buildings and departments of the hospital. Quadcopters were shooting directly at people, including patients and displaced persons. People were killed inside the hospital," Abu Saada, the head of the surgery department at al-Shifa Hospital, said.

"They besieged the hospital for five days before they stormed its departments. They kept us [in certain areas] and threatened us [with getting targeted].

"When they stormed the ground stores, they used us [doctors] as human shields to enter and search them. They found the technical maintenance employees there and interrogated them, before they detained them."

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While moving from one department to another and searching the different offices and rooms of the hospital, Israeli forces took several doctors with them.

"We felt that we were hostages, used to [protect] Israeli soldiers. They took me and Dr Abu Silmiya and interrogated us. They did not use violence with me or Dr Abu Silmiya. But they interrogated Dr Abu Silmiya twice," Abu Saada continued.

The doctor said Israeli forces questioned him and Abu Silmiya about the presence of any Hamas members or hostages in the hospital's offices or if there was any activity being conducted by Hamas in al-Shifa. 

"We said no because we have never seen any Hamas members there. They besieged us in the hospital for five days, and on the eve of the truce, I returned home, and patients and some medical staff members were evacuated to the south," Abu Saada said.

'He refused to leave the hospital'

On 22 November, the Palestinian health ministry said it was informed by the UN that they had coordinated with the WHO to evacuate the patients from the al-Shifa Medical Complex and move them to southern areas.

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In a statement released by the ministry on the following day, its spokesperson, Ashraf al-Qudra, condemned the detention of medical staff members as they were evacuating the city, and declared a "complete halt of coordination with the WHO regarding the evacuation of the rest of the wounded and medical staff until [they] submit a report clarifying what had happened, and [until] the release of the detainees".

"We were surprised that the convoy was stopped at the occupation checkpoint that separates the northern Gaza Strip from the south for seven hours," the statement read.

"The patients, their companions, and the medical staff that accompanied them were met with excessive force by Israeli occupation forces. They ended up detaining a number of them, including the head of the al-Shifa medical complex, Dr Mohammed Abu Silmiya."

According to Qudra, Abu Silmiya had not left the hospital or seen his family since the beginning of the war.

"He refused to leave the hospital until the last patient [was evacuated]," he said in another statement.

On Monday, the Gaza Government Media office said the Israeli authorities had extended Abu Silimiya's detention for another 45 days for further interrogation.

'Doctors directly killed'

On the day after the detention campaign, Israeli forces bombed the power generators of the Indonesian Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip.

For weeks, the hospital has been targeted by aerial and artillery shells that have devastated large parts of its departments and resulted in the killing and wounding of hundreds of patients, displaced people, and healthcare professionals.

'Many of our colleagues were directly killed. Every day, we hear the name of another doctor who was killed'

- Fadel Naim, dean of faculty of medicine, Islamic University

Fadel Naim, a doctor who had witnessed the attacks, said Israeli quadcopters killed patients and displaced people inside the hospital.

"The quadcopters were hovering at low altitudes over the heads of people inside the [courtyards] of the hospital. There was heavy shooting on people," the gynaecologist and the dean of the faculty of medicine at the Islamic University of Gaza told MEE.

"Many doctors and healthcare professionals have been interrogated and detained.

"Every Palestinian is subject to detention, but they detain doctors in particular thinking that they would get information that might prove their allegations about the resistance. They interrogate them to get information and details about other people."

Naim said that since the beginning of the attack, he had witnessed or heard of many doctors getting killed or wounded.

"Many of our colleagues were directly killed. Every day, we hear the name of another doctor who was killed. Many of the doctors who were once our students were also killed or detained," he said.

'This war revealed everything'

In the al-Awda hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, Adnan Radi, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, said Israel had "declared a war on hospitals in the strip".

"I call this the war on hospitals - they wanted to launch this war on medical staff. But all the allegations of the occupation were proven false after they stormed and searched al-Shifa and the Indonesian hospitals," Radi told MEE.

"I swear to God that I have never seen one armed person inside any of the hospitals.

"We were attacked and the hospital was directly bombed. We paid a high price for insisting on continuing our work despite the persistent attacks, we lost colleagues, doctors, and patients.

'I call this the war on hospitals - they wanted to launch this war on medical staff'

- Adnan Radi, doctor

"The hospital was attacked although we did not have anyone affiliated with [Palestinian factions] inside, we did not even have displaced people taking refuge at the hospital like other hospitals, we only had patients, their companions, and healthcare professionals."

Radi, whose home in the al-Rimal neighbourhood in the centre of Gaza City was destroyed by the attacks, said that he could not leave the hospital and evacuate to the southern areas of the strip, even during the pause in fighting.

Al-Awda Hospital is currently the only place in the northern areas of the strip providing healthcare services to pregnant women, he explained.

"We have around 5,000 birth deliveries each month, and women from across different areas of Gaza City and other northern areas of the strip suffer in order to reach the hospital. I have been working in the hospital nonstop for 48 days and the situation is more than bleak," he said.

"We cannot leave the hospital. There are around 55,000 pregnant women in Gaza who need constant medical care, and we are the only ones currently providing these services after all other hospitals stopped working."

According to Radi, four doctors, two patients, and two patient companions were killed in a direct Israeli bombardment of the hospital's departments.

"This is a revealing war. It revealed the falsity of the world's values, their propaganda talking about human rights and women's rights and their false speeches about the protection of medical staff and hospitals," he said.

"This war revealed everything."

At least 26 healthcare professionals from Gaza are currently detained by Israel, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

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