Al-Shifa: What to know about Gaza’s largest hospital

Key Points
  • Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, was the site of a raid by Israeli military last week.
  • The hospital was built in 1946 during British rule, and expanded during Egyptian and Israeli occupation of Gaza.
  • The hospital has been pulled into conflict in Gaza on multiple occasions.
Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest medical facility in the Gaza Strip, has become a flashpoint in the Hamas-Israel war.
Once a shelter for tens of thousands of people who fled their homes, and staff since Israeli troops swept in last week on what they called .

Both Israel and the United States have claimed that Hamas militants were using Gaza’s hospitals, including al-Shifa, to hide command posts and hostages using underground tunnels.

, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, stretching beneath Gaza for hundreds of kilometres, up to 80 metres deep in parts.

Hamas, health authorities, and al-Shifa directors have denied that the group is concealing military infrastructure in or under the complex and have said they would welcome an international inspection.

When was al-Shifa built and what does its name mean?

Al-Shifa is a sprawling complex of buildings and courtyards a few hundred metres from Gaza City’s small fishing port, sandwiched between Beach refugee camp and the city’s Rimal neighbourhood.
It was built in 1946 during British rule, two years before Britain withdrew from Palestine.
The hospital was later expanded during the Egyptian and Israeli occupation of Gaza.

Al-Shifa’s name comes from the Arabic word “healing” — common for hospitals in the Middle East.

What previous conflict has taken place at al-Shifa?

Al-Shifa survived the Egyptian invasion in 1948 and two decades of Egyptian military rule.

In 1967, Israel captured and occupied the Gaza Strip and in subsequent years, there were regular clashes nearby which sometimes moved into the grounds.

The exterior of a hospital.

The exterior of Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital pictured on 10 November. Source: Getty, AFP / -/AFP via Getty Images

In 1971, the Times of London reported a gunbattle between a Palestinian militant who hid under a bed in the nurses’ quarters and an Israeli army patrol that was searching the hospital.

On 9 December 1987, the first day of the First Intifada against Israeli occupation during which Hamas was formed, al-Shifa was again pulled into the conflict.
The story, taken from the Reuters archive, begins:
“An Israeli army helicopter circled three times on Wednesday over Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, then flew low over the walls and dropped a tear-gas grenade into the central courtyard.
“Palestinian orderlies, patients’ relatives and students scattered in panic, their eyes streaming. A youth picked up the grenade and threw it out into the street. ‘They are firing from the helicopter,’ someone shouted.

“It was a false rumour, one of dozens that circulated as teenagers armed with stones and bottles manned burning street barricades outside the hospital.”

In 1994, the security forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s then-leader Yasser Arafat saluted the Palestinian flag when it was raised over the hospital after Palestinians were granted limited self-autonomy in Gaza during the Oslo peace process.
Hamas, a Palestinian military and political group, won a surprise election victory in Gaza in 2006 by appealing to residents disaffected by corruption within the then-Palestinian Authority. Its stated aim is to establish a Palestinian state, while refusing to recognise Israel’s right to exist.
Hamas, in its entirety, is designated as a terrorist organisation by countries including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. New Zealand and Paraguay list only its military wing as a terrorist group. In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly voted against a resolution condemning Hamas in its entirety as a terrorist organisation.

In 2007, Hamas staged a military takeover of Gaza, forcing Fatah, the secular group that has long dominated the Palestinian Authority, out of the enclave.

During the power struggle building up to the takeover of Gaza, fighters from both Fatah and Hamas were treated at al-Shifa and other hospitals, under the understanding that neither would harm the other side’s wounded.
Hamas has ruled Gaza ever since, but the hospital is staffed by medics paid by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.

During a 2008 to 2009 war in which more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, Israel accused Hamas of using underground areas in al-Shifa to hide. Hamas denied it and Reuters was not able to verify the accusations.