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Israeli tanks close in on a Palestinian hospital. Doctors and medical staff are warned that they must leave — with or without patients in need. Artillery assaults follow, even if thousands of people are still inside.

On Monday, it was the turn of the Indonesian Hospital in Beit Lahia, Gaza. At least 12 people have been killed in Israeli attacks on the facility, even as armoured vehicles edge closer and closer to the hospital.

But it was only the latest medical centre to face the wrath of the Israeli army.

Six weeks into its war on Gaza, Israel’s attacks on hospitals have emerged almost as a motif of the conflict, even though refugee camps, schools and churches have not been spared either. At least 21 of Gaza’s 35 hospitals — including the strip’s solo cancer centre — are completely out of service, and others have been damaged and are short of medicines and essential supplies.

On Sunday, 31 premature babies were evacuated from al-Shifa Hospital to Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip after weeks of being fed formula mixed with contaminated water, without incubators that shut off from a lack of fuel caused by Israel’s near-complete siege on the enclave since the October 7 Hamas attack. At least eight babies had already died.

Israeli forces have, in effect, occupied al-Shifa since last week after bombarding parts of the hospital. As with Gaza’s other hospitals, al-Shifa was sheltering thousands of civilians displaced by Israeli bombing, in addition to patients and medics.

On Friday, Israel’s military extended its approach in Gaza to the occupied West Bank, where armoured vehicles surrounded at least four hospitals. The Ibn Sina Hospital, one of the largest in the West Bank, was raided. And in early November, Israeli forces arrested some patients and their attendants from an East Jerusalem hospital.

But why does Israel target Palestinian hospitals given that this also brings significant criticism from leading human rights organisations, which have accused it of war crimes?

Let them know: ‘Nowhere is safe’
Officially, Israel insists that it is targeting facilities that house Hamas fighters or infrastructure.

Israel claimed Hamas was using al-Shifa as a command centre, for instance. But Hamas has denied that claim, and days after taking control of the facility, Israel has been unable to provide strong evidence to back its assertions.

The real reason Israel targets hospitals is different, according to Omar Rahman, a fellow at the Doha-based Middle East Council on Global Affairs. It is a form of psychological warfare, he said.

“Attacking hospitals tells the population that nowhere for [Palestinians] is safe,” Rahman told Al Jazeera, adding that Israel acts with “total impunity”.

Tahani Mustafa, a senior Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the act of making Palestinians feel unsafe in every facility in the strip is to quell any form of resistance.

“This is part of a longstanding pattern of harassment of medical staff and services, in which Israel demonstrates to Palestinians that no one and no space is safe,” Mustafa told Al Jazeera.

“It is a systematic attempt to intimidate local populations and undermine their will to resist,” she added.

Throughout the war, Israel has targeted a number of ambulances and medical facilities in the West Bank and Gaza, claiming that Palestinian fighters use them to move around and shelter, without providing evidence for these claims, the analyst said.

Green light from the US
Israel also targets civilian buildings like hospitals because it can get away with it, said Trita Parsi, the executive vice president at the Washington-headquartered Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“The only scrutiny and the only imposed limits that matter are the ones that come from the United States,” Parsi told Al Jazeera.

“Israel’s calculation is that international outcry doesn’t matter as long as the United States refuses to put any limits on Israeli actions,” he added.

In the absence of this pressure from the US, combined with the “most extremist” and right-wing government Israel has ever had, “Israelis are taking the opportunity to do things they otherwise could not do”, Parsi explained.

Still, as the war wages on, the US may be compelled to urge its ally to dial down the ferocity of its attacks, as its image wears down around the world.

“The US’s global standing and credibility is plummeting as a result of its green light for Israeli actions of this kind,” said Parsi.

“It’s possible [this may not] continue for much longer, because the damage this is doing to the United States is simply not tolerable.”


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