One of the most emotive “flashpoints” in the Israel-Hamas war thus far has been the subject of hospitals.
And for good reason: in the public eye, hospitals are considered “sacrosanct” places. Places that in normal circumstances are filled with those in need of medical help (who are thus unable to defend themselves and pose no threat to anyone), and staffed by doctors and medical professionals (who are doing good, noble work, and so should be held safe).
Most decent people can thus easily agree that hospitals should be treated as “neutral” and “safe” places, and should be left unharmed during a war. Ergo, if Israel is doing “bad things” to Gaza’s hospital, it’s easy to then say “see, Israel is bad in general”.
Thus, on the Hamas and/or Palestinian side, we have heard that Israel is besieging Gaza’s hospitals, which as a result are running out of fuel and resources. We have also heard that Israel is bombing Gaza’s hospitals, either deliberately or with wanton disregard for the safety of those inside. And in totality, we are told that the hospitals of Gaza therefore represent an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe”, almost entirely of Israel’s making.
Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, we have heard that Gaza’s hospitals are not being specifically targeted by the IDF. But we have also been told by Israel that Hamas has chosen to embed personnel, command centers and military infrastructure around, into and under hospitals in tunnels. Which necessarily means that from an Israeli perspective, Gaza’s hospitals need to feature (somehow) in the stated Israeli objective of getting rid of Hamas – an incredibly difficult quandary.
Either way, on a daily basis, we have heard about the “dire situation” at Gaza’s hospitals. And in the last few days, what was a rumble has grown into a roar, with the plight of Gaza’s hospitals dominating the headlines.
But in all of the rhetoric and accusations and general noise around this war, there are as usual some fairly self-evident questions no-one seems willing to ask.
So, in this mini-post, I want to look at one specific item: hospital fuel. (In my next mini-post, I will discuss the issue of the use by Hamas of hospitals for non-medical purposes).
Almost since the first day of the war, we have been told that what Israel is doing in Gaza has had the effect of cutting off the supply of fuel to Gaza’s hospitals, which means hospital generators will be unable to operate, and dire consequences will surely follow.
Like on 24 October, two weeks into the war, when Al Jazeera published: “Gaza hospital generators to run out of fuel in 48 hours”. Claims that, as it turns out, came directly from the Hamas run Gaza Ministry of Health, were accepted as true without question, and were then repeated, reposted and rereported, countless times, until they became facts.
Except that, with the benefit of hindsight, we are entitled to ask how accurate these “facts” turned out to be? Because whilst it has now been almost three weeks since these reports claiming that certain hospitals would be out of fuel within two days, many of those very same hospitals are still operating (albeit in many cases on a very limited basis), and are still claiming to be on the verge of running out of fuel any day now.
Now please: do not read into this any attempt on my part to minimize the incredibly difficult, trying and what must be quite terrifying circumstances that the doctors, workers and patients (and thousands of civilians sheltering) in these hospitals must be experiencing.
Rather, I am simply pointing out a fact which I think is self-evident: we were told with “absolute certainty” three weeks ago that most of Gaza’s hospitals would imminently run out of fuel, and that did not happen in the way we were told.
Begging the obvious question: why might this be?
Well, one possibility is that maybe the Hamas run Ministry of Health lies. Like with the explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, on 17th October, which was immediately claimed to be the result of an Israeli missile strike, and alleged to have taken took 500 innocent lives. But which was subsequently pretty comprehensively shown to be the result of a misfired missile launched by Palestinian Jihad, that did not actually hit the hospital but rather detonated in the hospital’s car park, and which killed a much smaller number of people.
Another possibility is that we are witnessing a case of “confirmation bias”. That is, the story of Gaza hospitals “shutting down” has news-appeal, and so the media is amplifying stories from those hospitals that fit the story. But, without much note of the opposite: in any war, where there is fighting and large civilian displacement, you’d expect as a lot of hospitals, as well as many other public services and facilities, to either stop operating or face extremely difficult operating conditions.
And in Gaza right now, despite an intense war ongoing for more than a month, despite the obvious logistical challenges, and despite the supposed “deliberate targeting of hospitals” by Israel, about half of the hospitals are in fact still operating (albeit in many cases on a limited basis). With the majority of closed hospitals in the north of Gaza (which is logical, because this is where the worst of the fighting is happening, and where most civilian evacuation has occurred), and the majority of open hospitals are in the south of Gaza (again logical, because this is where Israel has been asking Palestinian civilians to evacuate to).
Another possibility is that what Israel has been saying all along in relation to fuel in Gaza has some legs: that Hamas has built up a significant stockpile of fuel, and thus the impending hospital fuel shortages are, in reality, not quite as :”impending” as is made out.
And a final possibility, as unpalatable as this may be for those intent on painting Israel with a negative brush, is that maybe Israel is actually making a below-the-radar effort to ensure that Gaza’s hospitals can continue to provide at least a baseline level of function.
As per the IDF Chief of Staff who said (5 November): “We check the situation in [Gaza] every day. Notice that for one week they have been telling us that the hospitals will run out of fuel tomorrow, and it has not run out. When that day comes, we will deliver [fuel] under supervision to the hospitals.”
Or like the reports today of Israeli troops about to evacuate babies from the al-Shifa Hospital. Or like other reports of Israeli troops securing civilian evacuation corridors for the three main hospitals in northern Gaza, and then protecting evacuees (in some cases even under enemy fire). Or like the recent claim by Israel that it offered to supply fuel to the al-Shifa hospital, only for that offer to be rejected by Hamas (a claim denied by Hamas).
The thing is, whatever the reason, the one thing that can be said with some degree of objectivity is that somewhere in the ocean of claims and counterclaims, what we have actually seen happening (many Gaza hospitals continuing to operate, admittedly under very trying circumstances) is somewhat at odds with what Hamas (and the media who rely on Hamas for information) have claimed almost on a daily basis for many weeks now (that the hospitals of Gaza will imminently be forced by Israel to shut down). And that discrepancy is at least worth noting.
Either that, or we have all just witnessed a modern day miracle, where 48 hours’ worth of oil has miraculously managed to last for three weeks.