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Hundreds of patients left al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Saturday morning, as Israeli officials stepped up their calls for civilians to head towards a “safe zone” in the south-west of the enclave.
The health ministry in Gaza said that Israel had ordered that the wounded and displaced be moved from al-Shifa, the largest medical facility in Gaza, and that those that were able to leave the hospital had begun to do so.
The Israeli army denied that it had ordered the patients or medical teams to leave, and said it had “acceded to the request” of the director of the hospital to enable Gazans who wanted to leave to do so.
Al-Shifa, which Israel says sits on top of a dense network of underground tunnels housing Hamas command centres, has become one of the main focuses of Israel’s three-week long ground offensive, triggering fears for the patients and people sheltering at the facility.
Hamas has denied using al-Shifa for military purposes and described the claims as an Israeli excuse to take over the hospital.
Israel has released footage of what it said was a tunnel shaft at al-Shifa but said on Friday that it would take time to prove that the site was a command centre. The footage could not be independently verified.
Later on Saturday, the head of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said that it had received “horrifying images and footage of scores of people killed and injured” after the UN school in Al Fakhoora where they were sheltering was struck.
“These attacks cannot become commonplace, they must stop,” Philippe Lazzarini wrote on social media site X. “A humanitarian ceasefire cannot wait any longer.”
Israel’s military said it was looking into the incident.
Yousef Aboul Rish, the head of the health ministry in Gaza, told Al Jazeera that people had left al-Shifa pushing the injured on hospital beds and wheelchairs along a severely damaged road that was strewn with bodies from the fighting.
“It was a terrifying scene with families and injured children, some with amputated hands who had been asked to walk in a straight line [single file] between two Israeli tanks,” he said.
“As soon as we emerged past the Israeli guns, local people came to help us and carry the injured with us. The biggest group from the injured are heading to the south.”
The health ministry in Gaza said that 120 of 650 wounded people at al-Shifa were still in the hospital, along with five doctors who were trying to co-ordinate their exit.
Riham Jafari, a spokesperson for ActionAid Palestine, a humanitarian and campaigning group, described the evacuation of patients as “a death sentence for hundreds of people who will be forced to leave behind life-saving care and travel miles to hospitals that are no longer operational”.
The operation to move people from the hospital comes as Israel’s military signals its intention to expand its ground operation beyond northern Gaza, where al-Shifa is located.
On Friday, Herzi Halevi, the chief of the general staff, said Israel’s military would continue its operations in the strip and target “more and more regions”, after it dropped thousands of leaflets in Khan Younis in southern Gaza urging people to leave their homes.
Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have already fled to the south of the strip to avoid the fighting. But on Friday, Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel was now asking people in Khan Younis to move towards what it has said will be a “safe zone” in Muwasi, a 14 sq km area in the south-west of the territory.
“We’re asking them to move to an area where hopefully there will be tents and a field hospital,” he said in an interview with MSNBC. “I know it’s not easy for many of them, but we don’t want to see civilians caught up in the crossfire.”
However, aid groups have criticised the scheme as unworkable. On Thursday, several UN agencies said that they would not participate in safe zones set up without the agreement of all parties, while Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, described the plan as “a recipe for disaster”.
“Attempting to cram so many people into such a small area with such little infrastructure or services will significantly increase risks to health for people who are already on the brink,” he said on Friday.
Israel bombarded and then invaded Gaza last month after Hamas militants carried out the deadliest-ever attack on the country, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel’s response has killed almost 11,500 people, according to Palestinian health officials, as well as displacing more than 1.5mn of the enclave’s 2.3mn citizens.
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