Israeli forces on Friday probed further into civilian infrastructure in northern Gaza for signs of a Hamas presence, announcing that they had found weapons at a school and guiding international reporters to a tunnel shaft on the grounds of the territory’s largest hospital.
As troops searched the hospital, Al-Shifa, for a third day, Israel announced that it would allow limited shipments of fuel to the enclave to avoid “epidemics” amid the wreckage of the territory.
Israel has been under intense international scrutiny to justify its incursions into Gazan hospitals, which are sheltering thousands of civilians in addition to the sick and wounded. On Thursday night, the Israeli military escorted journalists from The New York Times through a landscape of wartime destruction to a stone-and-concrete shaft on the grounds of Al-Shifa with a staircase descending into the earth — evidence, it said, of a Hamas military facility under the hospital.
But Col. Elad Tsury, commander of Israel’s Seventh Brigade, said military forces, fearing booby traps, had not ventured down the shaft at the hospital. He said it had been discovered under a pile of sand on the northern perimeter of the complex.
In a building next to the hospital, the military said on Friday, it had discovered the body of a second hostage taken by Hamas, Noa Marciano, 19, who had been a corporal in the Israeli army. The military also announced that it had killed “Hamas terrorists found “hiding” in a school.
In order to enter Gaza, two reporters and a photographer for The Times were obliged to remain with Israeli troops for the duration of the visit. They agreed not to photograph most soldiers’ faces, landmarks, maps and certain details of weapons. The Times did not allow the Israeli military to screen its account before publication.
The journalists were allowed to see only a portion of the sprawling Al-Shifa complex. The military refused to let the journalists explore the hospital or see or interview patients and medical staff in the facility, saying that it had not been fully secured and that Hamas combatants may still be there.
The discovery of the tunnel shaft at Al-Shifa did not seem to settle the question of whether Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that rules Gaza, has been using the hospital to hide weapons and command centers, as Israel has said.
That claim is central to Israel’s defense of its military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 11,000 people, according to Gazan health officials. Israeli officials say that the loss of life has been caused in part by Hamas’s decision to hide its military fortifications and command centers inside civilian infrastructure like Al-Shifa.
Despite the fact that the Israeli military has yet to show incontrovertible proof of a vast tunnel network, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that the military had found proof of its allegations about the use of Al-Shifa. There were “a lot of terrorists there,” he said in a National Public Radio interview, but “they fled as our forces approached the hospital.”
“We found a lot of weapons — a lot,” he added. “We found a lot of ammunition. We found bombs. We found on level minus two a command and control center of Hamas, with military encoded encryption.”
The Israeli military said it now had control over northern Gaza, but the extent to which Hamas fighters remained entrenched in tunnels and caverns remained unknown. Israel says it believes that Hamas is still holding more than 200 hostages seized in the Oct. 7 raid that killed 1,200 people.
In the darkness at Al-Shifa Hospital on Thursday night, it was unclear where the shaft led or how deep it went, although the military said it had sent a drone down at least several meters. Electrical wiring was visible inside, along with a metal staircase.
Colonel Tsury acknowledged the pressure on Israel to show evidence of Hamas activity at the hospital, but said it might be days before troops descended into the shaft. He added that soldiers were methodically searching the complex and had discovered weapons, explosives and computers.
Another military official said Israeli troops had captured and interrogated a Hamas operative at the hospital, but offered no further detail.
Israel has the backing of the Biden administration in its assertion that Hamas is operating under the Al-Shifa complex. Senior U.S. officials said on Friday that they remained confident that Hamas and Palestinian militants have been using hospitals as command centers and ammunition depots, based on intercepted communications between fighters operating in the territory.
At the same time, the Biden administration has cautioned Israel not to conduct airstrikes against Gaza’s hospitals, where thousands of Palestinians continue to take refuge.
Amid pressure from European allies and a resolution by the U.N. Security Council calling for greater aid to civilians in Gaza, Israel on Friday agreed to permit two tankers of fuel to enter the Gaza Strip on a daily basis. The fuel will be used to run desalination and sewage plants, Israeli officials said.
The decision followed a request by the Biden administration and was described by Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, as a way to prevent the spread of disease among civilians and Israeli soldiers.
“We want to prevent the spread of epidemics,” Mr. Hanegbi said. “We don’t need epidemics that will hurt the civilians and our soldiers who are there. If there’s disease, the fighting will stop. We will be unable to continue given the humanitarian crisis and the international outcry.”
Until Friday, the Israeli authorities had permitted almost no additional fuel to enter Gaza since the Oct. 7 attacks.
The United Nations World Food Program warned on Thursday that the entire population of Gaza — 2.2 million, half of them children — was in need of food assistance and at risk of starvation because of a collapsed food supply chain and insufficient aid delivery.
“We are already starting to see cases of dehydration and malnutrition, which is increasing rapidly,” Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the program, told reporters at the U.N. “People are facing immediate possibility of starvation.”
Philip P. Pan and Patrick Kingsley reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Thomas Fuller from San Francisco. Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Karen Zraick, Helene Cooper, Julian E. Barnes and Farnaz Fassihi.