TEL AVIV — The plight of 39 premature babies at Gaza’s biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, captured the world this month — and now, 31 of those infants have been brought to relative safety after being evacuated from the besieged medical facility to a hospital in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, health officials told NBC News.
“They were 39. Eight of them died,” Dr. Muhammad Zaqout, director general of hospitals for the Palestinian health ministry, said on the ground. He said two of the infants were pronounced dead before they could be rescued Sunday.
UNICEF representative Majed Altwal also said two of the babies had died prior to the rescue operation. “The lives of these newborn babies, very fragile babies, were at risk,” he said of those who survived. He said it was decided it was in the “best interest” of the infants to transfer them to the hospital in Rafah.
In video captured by NBC News’ crew at the Emirates hospital in Rafah, babies can be seen lying side by side, some crying out, while others lie sleeping on their backs or curled up in the fetal position. Some appear to be connected to oxygen tubes, with a number of the babies appearing emaciated, the outline of their ribs visible as doctors and nurses move around them, giving them milk and medicine.
The babies are expected to soon be transferred to Egypt, according to The Associated Press.
The infants were evacuated from Al-Shifa days after the hospital began to suffer from power outages and dwindling supplies, including fuel, amid Israel’s bombardment of northern Gaza and as its forces battled with Palestinian militants in the area.
Despite efforts to evacuate the facility in recent days, around 250 patients in serious condition remain at the hospital, along with about 20 hospital workers, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization said.
The majority of patients still at the facility have had amputations, burns or other trauma and many have wounds that are severely infected and there is a lack of antibiotics for treatment, the agency said in a statement Saturday.
Evacuation efforts were expected to take place to transfer the dozens of remaining patients out of the hospital to southern Gaza over the next 24 to 72 hours “pending guarantees of safe passage,” the WHO said in the Saturday statement.
For now, they are receiving what limited care medical workers can provide as Israeli forces continue to search for signs of Hamas, which the IDF has maintained operated a command center beneath the hospital — a claim that Hamas and hospital workers have strongly denied.
On Sunday, the IDF shared footage of a tunnel shaft and part of what it said was a tunnel structure running 55 meters long and 10 meters deep. It said the shaft was uncovered in the area of Al-Shifa, underneath a shed alongside a vehicle containing “numerous weapons, including RPGs, explosive and Kalashnikov rifles.”
The military also shared surveillance footage dated to the morning of Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas attack that saw some 1,200 people killed and dozens of others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. It said the footage showed two foreign hostages, one Thai and one Nepalese, taken to the hospital with injuries that day.
NBC News could not independently verify the footage, the details of what it was said to show, or the IDF’s claims that Hamas operated a command center below the hospital.
The Palestinian health ministry said it could not verify the authenticity of the video released by the IDF. But it said that if the footage is authentic, it “confirms that the Ministry of Health hospitals provide medical services to everyone who needs them, regardless of their gender and race” and that Al-Shifa “provided the required service through the best portal, which is intensive care.”
The IDF said an independent medical report had also determined that Israeli soldier Cpl. Noa Marciano, whose body was found in Gaza last week, was killed by Hamas in the hospital. NBC News was not immediately able to independently verify that claim.
The WHO has said that Al-Shifa, once Gaza’s main hospital, has stopped functioning as a medical facility in the midst of Israel’s offensive and has instead become a “death zone.” The organization came to that conclusion after officials were able to inspect the site and survey the toll of the destruction there.
Describing the effort to save the 31 babies who survived, Dr. Nasser Bolbol, the head of the neonatal intensive care unit at Al-Shifa, said “the situation was very, very difficult.”
“We (had) no any medical services, no medical supplies, there is no any medication, and the hospital was very busy,” he said. The doctor said several babies who died recently had severe hypothermia “because we had no incubators and no thermal environment was suitable for the babies.”
Their deaths add to a mounting death toll in Gaza, with more than 13,000 people killed in the enclave since Israel launched its offensive. More than 1.6 million people have been displaced in Gaza during the war, with many facing the threat of continued bombardments from Israeli forces. They also face the chill of winter as cooling temperatures and heavy rains start to set in.