The World Health Organization insisted Tuesday that moving the most vulnerable patients from Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital has become an “impossible task”.
The Israeli mission in Geneva had at the weekend slammed the WHO, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for criticising Israel’s month-long call for civilians and patients to leave the Palestinian enclave’s main hospital.
Israel has faced growing international pressure over its offensive the since the October 7 Hamas attacks.
Israel says 1,200 people, mainly civilians, were killed in the attacks and 239 people taken hostage. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says at least 11,240 people have been killed in Israel’s air and ground campaign since.
“The international community could have facilitated the transfer of patients, but they did nothing, except call out Israel and give Hamas a free pass,” the mission said.
But the WHO said moving the most fragile patients would inevitably lead to deaths.
“The reason we said that people can’t be evacuated is first of all … the people in the hospitals were very vulnerable, very sick. So moving them was an impossible task,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told journalists in Geneva.
She said it would be “asking doctors and nurses to move people knowing that that would kill them”.
“And again, why would you need to move them? A hospital should never be under attack. A hospital is a place a safe haven. This is agreed under international humanitarian law.”
On Tuesday, Israeli forces were at the gates of the sprawling Al-Shifa hospital that they say sits atop an underground Hamas command base, but the militants deny the charge.
Doctors say thousands of people are stranded inside in horrific conditions.
The ICRC said on X, formerly Twitter, that under international humanitarian law, “hospitals are protected because of their life-saving function for wounded and sick”.
While it is possible for hospitals to lose that protection under certain circumstances, “this is not a free license to attack”, it insisted.
Israel says it is not targeting Al-Shifa hospital. It has called on the whole polulation of the northern Gaza Strip to move to the south of the territory.
Harris said there was a lack of healthcare capacity in southern Gaza, with most healthcare, especially the most complex, usually provided in the north.
She said many hospitals were unable to admit new patients.
Moving patients from the north “might kill them — but also, where did they go? Where do you put them?” said Harris.
“There were very clear reasons why that was not something that was in any way feasible.”