Doctors accuse Israeli troops of desecrating bodies and shooting civilians at hospital Israel says was Hamas ‘command center’

A view of the destruction outside of Kamal Adwan Hospital in Beit Lahia, Gaza, on December 16.Mahmoud Sabbah/Anadolu/Getty Images

Israeli soldiers raiding a hospital in northern Gaza desecrated the bodies of dead patients with bulldozers, let a military dog maul a man in a wheelchair, and shot multiple doctors even after vetting them for terror links, according to allegations by staff and patients.

The claims relate to an eight-day operation by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at the Kamal Adwan Hospital last week, which the military alleges was being used as a command and control center by Hamas.

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CNN spoke to two senior medical staff, another doctor and a patient at the hospital, who provided corroborating testimonies of what happened. CNN also reviewed video evidence for some of the claims.

They paint a disturbing picture of how the IDF carried out the operation, as doctors were interrogated for their connections to Hamas and staff struggled to treat patients trapped inside.

The IDF says that Hamas hides terrorist infrastructure in and around civilian institutions in Gaza, such as hospitals, and that targeting them is essential as it works to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip. But its operations are contentious, with humanitarian organizations saying that medical facilities in Gaza are rendered unable to provide basic services.

Among the most serious allegations relating to the IDF’s operations at Kamal Adwan is that, as troops were leaving the hospital complex, they used bulldozers to dig up bodies that had recently been buried in makeshift graveyards in the hospital’s courtyard.

“The soldiers dug up the graves this morning and dragged the bodies with bulldozers, then crushed the bodies with the bulldozers,” said the hospital’s head of pediatric services, Hossam Abu Safiya, in a phone interview on Saturday. “I have never seen such a thing before.”

Videos and images he shared with CNN show decomposing human remains scattered across the hospital grounds.

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The allegation was supported by the hospital’s head of nursing, Eid Sabbah, and another nurse, Asmaa Tanteesh.

Satellite imagery taken on December 15 -- right before the IDF withdrew from the hospital area -- shows razed grounds outside the hospital complex.

Satellite imagery from December 15 shows the razed hospital grounds.Satellite image ©️2023 Maxar Technologies

“The bodies outside in the courtyard were plowed in front of our eyes,” Tanteesh told CNN. “All the while, we were shouting and screaming at them, but our screams fell on deaf ears.”

Satellite imagery taken on December 15 – right before the IDF withdrew from the hospital area – shows razed grounds outside the hospital complex.

The IDF did not address the allegations directly when approached for comment by CNN but acknowledged that it had carried out an operation at the hospital. “The troops apprehended 80 terrorists, some of whom took part in the atrocious October 7th massacre,” it said in a statement to CNN.

Earlier this week, the IDF released a video of the interrogation of the hospital’s director and published an accompanying statement saying he admitted it was being used for military purposes. It was unclear whether the statement was elicited under duress.

Abu Safiya, the pediatrics director, and Sabbah, the chief nurse, countered that the hospital only provided medical services and that the arrestees were civilians and medical workers.

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Palestinians inspect damage following the Israeli raid at Kamal Adwan Hospital.

Palestinians inspect damage following an Israeli raid at Kamal Adwan hospital.Fadi Alwhidifa/Reuters

What we know about the operation at Kamal Adwan

The Israeli military’s focus on Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza appears to have begun over a week ago, with strikes and shelling in the area of the hospital, whose Facebook page says it falls under the administration of the Ministry of Interior, which in Gaza is run by Hamas.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began, the hospital has also sheltered and treated wounded and displaced Gaza civilians, according to its social media pages and eyewitnesses

The operation escalated on Monday, December 11, the same day that hospital director Dr. Ahmed Al Kahlot told CNN the hospital had been encircled by Israeli forces.

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The next day, Israeli forces demolished the hospital complex’s western wall, according to Abu Safiya, who said soldiers addressed the hospital with loudspeakers, instructing any men sheltering inside to come out.

What happened after that was “beyond nightmares” for those who remained in the hospital, he said.

According to Abu Safiya, he and four other doctors were allowed to remain and care for 62 people at the hospital, including several infants. As he described the week, he rushed to speak, fearing that the cell phone signal might drop as it often does in Gaza these days.

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Surrounded by Israeli troops, and with parts of the complex badly damaged by shelling, there was no care he could offer, he said. The hospital was out of food, water, electricity, and milk for children and had hardly any medicine left to give.

Tanteesh, the nurse, recalls begging for water to no avail, she said. Israeli troops were “half a meter away from us and surrounding us in the courtyard. We had no water, our throats were dry and we were thirsty and begging them just for a glass of water from the morning till evening,” she said.

Some children died during the Israeli operation at the hospital, she said, adding that nurses tried diluting milk with a salt solution to try to feed more of the hospital’s youngest patients.

The Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza demanded that human rights organizations urgently open an investigation into what it called the “massacre of Kamal Adwan Hospital, where children were besieged without water, food, electricity, and water for extended periods.”

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Sunday alleged that Israeli forces’ “effective destruction” of Kamal Adwan over the last several days had caused the deaths of at least eight patients, including a 9-year-old child.

Why Israel carries out operations at hospitals

Israel has focused enormous attention on Gaza’s hospitals since it began its ground offensive at the end of October. In justification, it has sought to present what it says is proof of Hamas’s use of medical facilities as military centers and has invited news media to film tunnels with underground rooms located beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa. It has also shown journalists weapons it says were found at other hospitals.

Evidence of militant activity found at Kamal Adwan, according to the IDF, included “numerous weapons including AK-47s, RPGs, explosive devices, Nukhba (Hamas commando) military equipment, technological equipment, and Hamas intelligence documents.”

On Tuesday, the IDF and Israel’s security service released an edited interrogation video of Kamal Adwan’s director Al Kahlot in Israeli custody. A statement accompanying the video said Al Kahlot admitted that Hamas uses hospitals for military purposes and to being a part of the organization. However, it is unclear how Israeli officials elicited Al Kahlot’s statement, and whether it was truthful or made under duress.

The International Committee of the Red Cross generally considers the release of interrogation footage of prisoners of war to be a violation of the Geneva Convention’s statue on protecting POWs from “public curiosity.”

The IDF last week also released photos and video showing young men holding guns in the air – militants handing in weapons after their surrender from Kamal Adwan hospital, it alleged. But the staffers interviewed by CNN said the men were actually civilians sheltering in the hospital after being displaced from other parts of Gaza.

“We told them there weren’t any resistance fighters in the hospital, and no one listened to us,” Tanteesh said.

The guns that they were pictured with had belonged to hospital security guards, according to Abu Safiya and Sabbah. “I saw with my own eyes that the army asked the displaced civilian youth and the medical team to carry the weapons of the security guards that were left in the hospital guard room, and they took pictures of them in front of me,” Abu Safiya said.

A damaged car sits on rubble following an Israeli raid at Kamal Adwan hospital, in the northern Gaza Strip December 16, 2023

A crushed car on top of rubble outside Kamal Adwan Hospital.Fadi Alwhidifa/Reuters

“They shot at me and laughed”

Abu Safiya also described multiple incidents where he alleges Israeli troops deliberately tormented people they knew were not suspects.

A fellow doctor, Dr. Ayman Rajab, was released by the soldiers after questioning and then shot in the chest as he tried to make his way back to the hospital, Abu Safiya told CNN. He survived the shooting and returned to his displaced family. Another doctor was shot in the leg, and Abu Safiya’s own son was shot in the abdomen, he said. Gaza’s Health Ministry has echoed the allegation, saying at least five detainees were shot by IDF troops after being told to return to the hospital.

Trapped inside Kamal Adwan, Abu Safiya says he watched both wounded colleagues and his son crawl along the road until an ambulance made its way to them and carried them to a different hospital, he said.

In another instance, Abu Safiya alleges that he himself became a target after soldiers called him in the early morning hours on Friday to check on some movement outside the hospital for them.

Following their orders, he found a wounded elderly man lying on the ground in front of the building. But as Abu Safiya tried to approach the man, he says, the watching soldiers started firing. “They shot at me and laughed and jeered,” he said.

“I escaped their gunfire, but they called me again and asked me to take him inside again,” he said. He finally brought the man inside, but it was too late. The man could not be treated in the hospital due to lack of medical resources, and later died from his injuries, Abu Safiya said.

And in another incident, Israeli military dogs wearing cameras were sent into the hospital for reconnaissance, according to Abu Safiya. One of the dogs “attacked and mauled” a wheelchair-bound elderly man before being called off, he said.

“The man screamed in pain. Children and women cried from the horror of the scene. I couldn’t help anyone. This scene was beyond nightmares,” he said. “One of their soldiers came to take the dog and was laughing at the old man and what the dog did to him.”

A child at the hospital, who was receiving treatment for a broken leg, also recalled dogs entering the hospital and attacking an elderly man. “The Israelis let dogs come and attack us. They tortured us. They were shooting towards us. Nights were horrific, we never had sleep since we came here,” he told CNN. “They let dogs attack an old man; it kept biting him.”

The IDF did not address those claims in its statement but said that its operation around the hospital was targeted on Hamas.

Another hospital under siege

While hospitals as a category are protected by international law, they may be viewed as legitimate military targets if found to be housing able-bodied combatants and weapons.

But even when that’s the case, soldiers have ethical and legal constraints in their handling of civilians. The presence of weaponry or wounded combatants at a hospital do not necessarily make it a legal military target.

Article 19 of the Geneva Convention states that “the fact that sick or wounded members of the armed forces are nursed in these hospitals, or the presence of small arms and ammunition taken from such combatants which have not yet been handed to the proper service, shall not be considered to be acts harmful to the enemy.”

In its statement, the IDF said it had questioned workers at the hospital. “The workers confessed that weapons were hidden in incubators in the NICU, incubators that were supposed to be used to treat premature babies. Following the questioning, IDF troops located weapons, classified documents, and tactical communications equipment.”

As Israel’s repeated military action in and around hospitals in Gaza continues, it faces increasingly fierce criticism, with medical workers and NGOs warning that the raids endanger patients and leave hospitals nonfunctional.

“Gaza’s health system was already on its knees, and the loss of another even minimally functioning hospital is a severe blow. Attacks on hospitals, health personnel and patients must end,” Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, said Sunday of Kamal Adwan.

Despite growing international criticism from some of Israel’s staunchest allies over the growing civilian toll in the hospitals and anywhere else in Gaza, Israel has not changed course in its military pursuit of Hamas. On Tuesday, medical charity Doctors Without Borders said that another hospital in northern Gaza, Al-Awda, was under siege by Israeli troops with patients still inside.

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