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Gaza's largest hospital sheltering thousands is rocked by an explosion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now a look at the dangerous situation around the hospitals in Gaza. This morning, an explosion rocked the courtyard in the main hospital in Gaza City. The cause is unclear. Israel says it was a militant rocket aimed at its troops that misfired, but Palestinians blame Israel's military and said at least one person was killed. Palestinians say Israeli troops surround several other hospitals in northern Gaza. We're joined now by NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Hi, there.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: Greg, this makes it sound like the Israeli military is making some sort of push toward hospitals in Gaza. Tell us, is that what's happening there?

MYRE: The Palestinians certainly think so. This explosion you mentioned came before dawn in the crowded courtyard of Shifa Hospital. Thousands of Palestinians are in the courtyard and other parts of the hospital compound. They thought this might provide at least a little bit of shelter and safety. But as Israelis press their offensive in Gaza City, there's been a lot of shooting in the area. Palestinians say this was an Israeli strike, while Israel said that Palestinians fired at Israeli troops but missed them and hit the hospital. And we should note, Shifa Hospital is among the few functioning places in Gaza City. It still has electricity. It's lit up at night. But it's surrounded by darkened and largely deserted neighborhoods. Now, this hospital and others, seen as places of safety, are extremely vulnerable.

SUMMERS: What do we know about these other hospitals that have been surrounded by Israeli troops?

MYRE: Palestinians say these four hospitals in northern Gaza are all encircled by Israeli troops today, or there was heavy shooting just outside them. Israel is not saying much on today's developments. A military spokesman said only that Israel was very much aware of the sensitivities at the hospitals.

But on an almost daily basis, Israel makes the point it believes Hamas has military compounds and operates from tunnels beneath the hospitals, including Shifa Hospital in particular. A week ago, Israel hit an ambulance just outside Shifa, saying it was being used to move Hamas fighters. So Israel has essentially said it will not allow Hamas to attack Israel again, as it did on October 7.

SUMMERS: Is it possible that Israel would enter these hospitals while there are still staff and patients inside of them?

MYRE: We don't know. I think that's probably unlikely. But Israel has been very clear that it wants all Palestinians to leave northern Gaza, including patients and staff in the hospitals, and go to southern Gaza. If that does happen, then Israel probably would go after Hamas fighters in the area. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have gone south in the past few days. But at the hospitals, many patients simply can't leave. The Israeli military spokesman was pressed on how a large number of patients are supposed to make their way to southern Gaza, and he just didn't have an answer.

SUMMERS: As a matter of international law, are attacks on hospitals - are they prohibited?

MYRE: Hospitals do have a special protected status and are not supposed to be attacked. This was enshrined in the Geneva Conventions back in 1949. However, it's not an absolute safeguard. If a hospital is used as cover by one side to attack an enemy, it can then lose this protected status. But the other side - in this case, Israel - would have to give a warning to the hospital in a reasonable time for the attacks to stop. And if they didn't, then the attack would have to still be limited and proportional.

SUMMERS: NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Sure thing, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.