Gaza communications down as Israel searches main hospital

Israeli troops carried out building-by-building searches at Gaza's main hospital, as a new communications blackout in the territory on Friday compounded fears for Palestinian civilians trapped inside the facility.

Al-Shifa hospital has become a focal point for Israeli operations in northern Gaza since soldiers raided the complex on Wednesday, hunting for a command centre they say militant group Hamas operates there.

Hamas and hospital managers deny that charge, and there has been international concern about several thousand people -- including wounded patients and premature babies -- believed to be trapped inside.

Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas in response to the group's October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and saw about 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Israel's air bombardment and ground operation has killed 11,500 people, including thousands of children, according to Hamas-run local authorities in Gaza.

Israeli authorities have defended their operation, and the military said Thursday it found rifles, ammunition, explosives and the entrance to a tunnel shaft at Al-Shifa.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged hostages may even have been held at the medical facility.

"We had strong indications that they were held in the Shifa Hospital, which is one of the reasons we entered the hospital," he told "CBS Evening News".

"If they were [there], they were taken out," he said. 

Allegations about the hospital have not been verified, and on Friday communications with the Gaza Strip were severed once again.

Network provider Paltel group said all telecommunications were down because "all energy sources sustaining the network have been depleted, and fuel was not allowed in".

The UN warned that the blackout would compound the misery of civilians, complicating efforts to distribute aid and possibly triggering looting of its supplies.

"When you have a blackout and you cannot communicate with anyone anymore... that triggers and fuels even more the anxiety and the panic," said Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA.

'Immediate possibility of starvation'

Israel said its forces were searching Al-Shifa "one building at a time," and announced the discovery of the body of a woman hostage at a building nearby.

"Yehudit (Weiss) was murdered by the terrorists in the Gaza Strip and we didn't manage to reach her in time," spokesman Daniel Hagari told a televised briefing.

The 65-year-old was kidnapped from her home in the border kibbutz community of Beeri, one of the areas worst-hit by the brutal Hamas assault.

Her husband was killed in the attack, a hostage support group said, but the four of her five children at the kibbutz at the time survived.

On Thursday, Jews and Arabs came together for the funeral of another casualty of the Beeri attack -- peace activist Vivian Silver, who was hailed as an "extraordinary woman".

There has been little news on the fate of the hostages, Israelis and foreigners, some of them just infants, despite ongoing negotiations for the release of some in exchange for a pause in fighting.

Qatar, where Hamas has political offices, and Egypt have been mediating negotiations, which Egypt's foreign minister described Thursday as "very delicate." 

"We are hopeful that our efforts and the efforts of others will bring about the speedy release," Sameh Shoukry said.

On the ground, conditions are rapidly deteriorating for Palestinian civilians, UN agencies have warned. 

Over 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and Israel's blockade of the territory means "civilians are facing the immediate possibility of starvation," World Food Programme executive director Cindy McCain said.

Food and water have become "practically non-existent," the agency added, with Lazzarini describing a "deliberate attempt to strangle our operation".

He described children sheltering at a UN school "pleading for a sip of water, or for a loaf of bread".

'Settler violence'

Israel's ground operation has so far focused on the north of the Gaza Strip, though aerial bombardment and civilian deaths have continued in the south as well.

So far this week it has announced the seizure of the parliament building, government offices, Hamas police headquarters and a key port. It says 51 of its troops have been killed in the fighting.

Hospitals have become a particular target, with Israel saying it has found tunnels or military equipment at the Al-Shifa, Rantisi and Al-Quds facilities.

Palestinian health officials said Thursday that the Al-Ahli hospital was under attack, with the Palestinian Red Crescent saying casualties in the courtyard could not be reached by medical staff because of explosions and gunfire.

Washington has backed Israel's allegations that Hamas is using hospitals as command centres, while urging operations be "incredibly careful".

More than half of Gaza's hospitals are no longer functional, due to either combat, damage, or shortages, and Israel's raid on Al-Shifa left extensive damage to the radiology, burns and dialysis unit, the Hamas-run health ministry said.

With international concern about the conflict growing, the UN Security Council on Wednesday passed a resolution urging "urgent and extended humanitarian pauses" in fighting.

But the resolution -- passed with abstentions from the United States, Britain and Russia -- was rejected by Israel as "disconnected from reality."

Alongside the conflict in Gaza, there is growing concern about violence in the West Bank, where violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians has surged.

In an attack claimed by Hamas, three gunmen on Thursday killed an Israeli soldier and wounded five others at a checkpoint leading into Jerusalem from the West Bank.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday urged Israel to take "urgent" action to "de-escalate tensions in the West Bank, including by confronting rising levels of settler extremist violence," the State Department said.