World / April 3, 2024

Israel’s Brutality Is Increasing—and So Is Its Denialism

The atrocities at Al-Shifa Hospital are clear, but Israeli politicians say not a single civilian was killed. It’s just one of several outlandish claims Israel has made recently.

Linah Alsaafin
The remnants of the al-Shifa medical complex on April 1, 2024.

The remnants of the al-Shifa medical complex on April 1, 2024.

(Karam Hasan / Anadolu via Getty Images)

The scenes of destruction, crushed dead bodies, and hollowed-out burned buildings at what used to be Gaza City’s Al-Shifa Medical Complex are nothing short of apocalyptic.

Testimonies from survivors and witnesses paint a hellish portrait—the air thick with the stench of rotting bodies, people only able to identify the corpses of their loved ones by the clothes they had been wearing, stray cats and dogs eating at some of the bodies strewn in and around the complex, bodies crushed by Israeli tanks, severed limbs and heads, and the execution of dozens of Palestinians with their hands and feet zip-tied.

But to hear Israeli military officials and politicians tell it, none of these horrors ever took place. Instead, Israel has offered a narrative from a different universe—one where Israeli soldiers conducted a precise, efficient anti-terrorism operation in which, according to former prime minister Naftali Bennett, “not one” civilian was killed. To say that such a claim stretches credulity is a vast understatement.

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The barbarity of the Shifa attack, and the scale of the lies that Israel is telling about it, are intimately connected. They show that Israeli society has taken up denialism as if it is an extreme sport, especially in the face of such overwhelming evidence of human rights violations.

Decades of Western impunity, and an entire political and media infrastructure that has enabled Israel’s crimes against humanity, have led to Israel disassociating itself from a world where actions have consequences, or where the truth of what it says matters. And the events of the past 48 hours—including the bombing of an Iranian embassy and the brazen killing of seven aid workers in Gaza—have proved that Israel seemingly feels entitled to plunder and sow death and destruction as it pleases.

The atrocities at Al-Shifa began on March 18, when Israel regurgitated a claim that the hospital was being used as a “terrorist command center” by Hamas—a claim that a string of independent observers and experts rejected months ago—and attacked it for the third time since it began its onslaught on the Gaza Strip on October 7.

Over the next 14 days, Israeli forces laid siege to the medical complex and the residential homes in its vicinity and, by all available evidence, unleashed a vicious, brutal attack on patients, medical personnel, and thousands of displaced civilians sheltering inside the hospital grounds.

The deadly aftermath shows that all three main buildings—the Surgery Hospital, the Internal Medicine Hospital, and the Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital—have been torched, as have the mortuary and inner and external courtyards.

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At least 21 patients died in their beds amid severe shortages of water, food, and medical care, according to the World Health Organization.

Gaza’s health ministry said that about 3,000 displaced people were taking shelter inside the medical complex. One woman described seeing her three sons executed point-blank in front of her eyes for attempting to look for water. The bodies of a brilliant young plastic surgeon, Ahmad Maqadma, and his mother Yusra, also a doctor, were found riddled with bullets at a roundabout outside the hospital complex. A human rights monitor documented the sniping of at least 13 children in and around Shifa Hospital, all between the ages of 4 and 16.

The more than 25,000 Palestinian civilians living around the hospital were targeted as well. Palestinian journalist Bayan Abusultan wrote in a post on X that the Israeli army killed her brother. She then went silent for 10 days, reemerging to say that she and the rest of her family had fled the area under Israeli fire. The Euro-Med monitor estimates that about 1,200 housing units in the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital were set on fire and burned.

By any standard, these reports are devastating. But to Israel, the two-week siege of the medical complex that accounted for 30 percent of Gaza’s medical capacity is a crowning achievement.

“The terrorist base in Shifa has been eliminated,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant crowed on Monday, as he praised the Israeli army’s “determined and professional action” with a straight face. The Israeli military said that it killed 200 people and arrested hundreds of “terror suspects,” but declined to reveal their names.

The denialism got even wilder, as Bennett hailed the “amazing battlefield achievement” and wrote,

*No civilian was killed*. Not one.

This is unprecedented in urban warfare. Our military is learning and improving by the day.

These results undermine the false claim that the IDF is targeting civilians.

Bennett then went a step further. “If we didn’t care about innocent lives,” he wrote, “we’d have simply bombed the whole complex, without risking lives of our own fighters.”

Never mind that anyone with eyes can see that the “whole complex” has been destroyed—hardly the restrained operation Bennett’s tweet implies. Never mind that attacking hospitals is an international war crime. Never mind that doctors and civilians staying in the hospitals have repeatedly said that Hamas does not operate there.

Dr. Tanya Haj-Hassan, a pediatric intensive-care doctor who worked in Gaza in the early months of the war, said in an interview with Sky News that healthcare is so systematically targeted that when doctors leave the hospitals, “civilians give them civilian clothing because wearing scrubs is sticking a target sticker on their back.”

Israel would have us believe that none of this happened—just as it would have us believe that there is no famine taking place in Gaza, or that the targeting of aid workers from World Central Kitchen was a grievous accident, rather than a clearly intentional assassination.

Why is Israel’s denialism running rampant? Part of it is to shield itself—both from the reality of its depravity and the reality of its failures in Gaza. Six months in, Israel, the fourth-strongest army in the world and backed by a seemingly endless supply of heavy weaponry worth billions of dollars, is struggling to win a war against a homegrown resistance group made up of young men who mostly have never left the tiny coastal enclave, fighting with mostly locally made munitions. And it seems as if the further the war drags on, the more Israel’s brutality increases—as does the size of the lies it tells about that brutality.

But mostly, Israel is lying this much because it knows it doesn’t need to tell the truth. All rules of modern warfare and international systems designed to protect civilians have been flouted in the most aggressive way over and over again during its genocidal campaign, and it has paid no substantive price. We have seen this again over the past few days. Targeting the Iranian embassy in Syria and killing six people there? Hardly worth a slap on the wrist. Three—yes, three —surgical precision strikes on an aid convoy, killing six aid workers and a Palestinian driver? Simply a mistake. Moving to shut down a major international news network like Al Jazeera inside Israel? Just part of the fight against the “mouthpiece of Hamas,” as one Israeli spokesman put it.

Drunk on imperialist exceptionalism, Israel has no qualms about showing the truce face of its irredeemable racist tenets, whose social contract is dependent on the dehumanization of anyone that is not Jewish Israeli. It can no longer claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, or to have the most moral army in the world. Its acts of genocide in the Gaza Strip and continual colonization of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem were never intended to be denied or swept under the rug. They were meant to be a swaggering test of how far it can defy diplomatic and humanitarian norms in the face of such an abjectly toothless international community. The massacre and ruin of Al-Shifa Hospital will be a stark reminder of such intransigence for years to come, if not a blueprint for future assaults on hospitals and civilians in other conflicts.

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Linah Alsaafin

Linah Alsaafin is a Palestinian writer and journalist.

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