TEL AVIV — The director of al Wafa hospital in Gaza City said Wednesday that the Israeli army has distributed an incorrect aerial photograph of rockets being fired near what the military says was his facility, raising questions about the subsequent evacuation and bombing of the medical building.
“I was looking at the map they sent showing this rocket firing was near Wafa,” said Basman Alashi, executive director of the al Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital. “And I looked at the building and saw this is not Wafa. Then I looked at Google Maps to see what (the hospital) looked like. Our picture looks totally different.”
Al Wafa is in Shuja’iya, an area of Gaza City the Israeli military says has been a hotbed of Hamas militant activity, including the launching of hundreds of rockets at Israeli targets and the entrances to a tunnel network militants have used to attack Israel.
The Israeli army released aerial photographs that it said showed a rocket being fired on July 14 from just outside al Wafa. But Alashi said the photo is actually of another facility several blocks away.
The army said that it was looking into the claim that the building pictured in the aerial photograph wasn’t al Wafa.
The story of al Wafa has become a touchstone in the ongoing debate over Israel’s tactics in Gaza. The hospital housed 16 severely disabled patients. On July 10, Alashi said, he received a phone call urging him to evacuate his hospital. He refused, saying his patients required special care. Eight international activists, including an American, Joe Catron of Hopewell, Va., joined Alashi in round-the clock guard shifts to prevent an Israeli strike.
But the military bombed the hospital severely enough on July 16, Alashi said, that he ordered the facility evacuated.
“The Israelis targeted us with more than 20 missiles on Thursday,” he said by phone. “They cut off electricity. There was a fire in the hospital because of the Israeli fire. . . . My nurses couldn’t stand on their feet so they left in an ambulance.”
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said, “When we first asked them to evacuate the premises it was because we knew it was a command and control center.”
Lerner said weapons were stockpiled in the hospital, and the grounds outside the hospital held several entrances to Hamas’ tunnel network. As evidence, Lerner pointed to army footage that shows openings to tunnels near a building. Lerner said the building was the hospital, but the frame showed so little of the building it was impossible to say for sure.
Alashi called the claims “absurd and not true.”
“I know this hospital inch by inch,” he said.
After Alashi removed his patients and staff, the Israeli army distributed a video showing live fire coming Monday from what appears to be al Wafa. Sarit Michael, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, said that the release of the video was an effort to justify the targeting of al Wafa. She noted that when the army first ordered the building evacuated there had been no claims that it was being used as a militant base.
“The army based their attack on militants firing outside the hospital,” she said.
Counterterrorism expert Yoram Schweitzer of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies said he doubted Israeli authorities would invent the story of militant activity at the hospital.
“The hospital manager maybe does not know what’s going on under his hospital,” he said. “Or he is frightened. It happens.”
Meanwhile, Alashi has evacuated his patients to a clinic that is far smaller than the four-story al Wafa. He said it was short on supplies.
“Four patients came to us and I had to reject them,” Alashi said. “I don’t have the space.”
And he’s bitter about the 10-bed field hospital that the Israeli army opened for injured Palestinians Sunday at the Erez border crossing.
“You have to give people trust to give them a service,” he said. “If you are so kind to the Palestinians, then stop your occupation.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.