Middle East

Hospital on Gaza conflict's front line

Israeli soldiers close to northern Gaza, 18 July Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Israel has warned of a "significant expansion" of the offensive

Israel's land operations began under cover of darkness - one soldier opened a gate and the tanks rolled into the Gaza Strip.

They were urged on by stirring words from their commanding officer.

"Your nation is behind you," he told his men. "I have trust in your capabilities. Go ahead. Good luck. Over and out."

But a new phase of operations inevitably brought a new wave of casualties - more than 20 dead, according to Gaza's ministry of health. Among them at least three more children.

In Gaza's Shifa Hospital, the scene of daily outpourings of grief, a man slumped helpless against the wall.

Image copyright APAimages/REX
Image caption An injured Gazan is treated at Gaza's Shifa Hospital

"My two nieces were killed," he wailed. "My brother's daughters. My brother's daughters."

Nearby, Amar Dawoud kept watch over his five-year-old daughter, Rawiya, who lay motionless in bed with a fractured hand and, possibly, a fractured skull too.

He said at least 70 people had sought refuge in his house before it was hit.

"All of them were looking for sanctuary," he said. "And then they struck us."

'We're human'

People are being killed and injured. But they're also being forced from their homes. UN officials say the number of people seeking refuge in UN buildings has doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 since last night.

I found the patients and staff from the Wafa rehabilitation hospital sheltering in a Gaza City clinic.

The Wafa has been hit repeatedly in the past week. It's close to the border and very close to some of the latest Israeli military activity.

Image copyright APAimages/REX
Image caption Gaza's Wafa hospital suffers damage. Staff deny Israeli accusations rockets have been fired from there

Basman al-Ashi, the hospital's executive director, said everything seemed quiet on Thursday night, until shelling intensified in the hours before troops entered the Gaza Strip.

With artillery rounds hitting the hospital once more, Basman decided to evacuate everyone.

As he recalled the scene, surrounded by his evacuated patients, two deafening salvoes of rockets took off from somewhere very close by - rockets fired by fighters from Hamas or one of the other armed factions.

Basman's eyes closed for a moment in weary resignation, but opened wide in defiance when I suggested the actions of Hamas might simply make matters worse.

"It's a very natural response for the Palestinians to respond, to defend themselves," he insisted.

Israel, he said, had made "a concentration camp of 1.8 million people".

"No air. No land. No sea. You're trying to tell the people what? I'm putting you in prison and I want you to obey, eat, sleep and that's it. We're human."

Israel says rockets have been fired from Basman al-Ashi's hospital, a charge his staff deny completely.

When I went there on Friday morning, driving along abandoned streets towards the north-eastern corner of the Gaza Strip, I could see gaping holes where artillery rounds had ripped into the fourth floor.

The Wafa hospital is a prominent landmark in an area where the Israelis have warned people to leave.

It's empty now, and if Israeli forces move further into the Gaza Strip in the coming hours or days, it could soon be in their hands.