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Premature babies evacuated from Gaza's main hospital and taken to Egypt

Health officials said several premature infants died at Al-Shifa hospital over the past week as Israel continued its offensive in northern Gaza, with forces raiding the hospital multiple times in recent days.
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TEL AVIV — At least 28 of the 31 premature babies who were evacuated out of Gaza's biggest hospital, Al-Shifa, over the weekend were taken to hospitals in Egypt on Monday to continue receiving medical care, health workers said.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said teams departed on Monday from the Emirati Hospital in Rafah in southern Gaza, where the babies were initially taken on Sunday after being evacuated from Al-Shifa.

The infants were being transferred to hospitals in Egypt to continue receiving care, the organization said. It was not immediately clear why just 28 of the 31 babies evacuated out of Al-Shifa were being transferred.

The plight of 39 premature babies at the besieged hospital has captivated the world this month, with several of the babies dying due to spiraling conditions at the facility in northern Gaza amid Israel's offensive in the area.

"They were 39. Eight of them died," Dr. Muhammad Zaqout, the director general of hospitals for the Palestinian Health Ministry, said on the ground on Sunday. He said two of the infants were pronounced dead before they could be rescued.

UNICEF representative Majed Altwal also said two of the babies had died before 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 on Sunday, babies lie 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 outlines of their ribs visible as doctors and nurses move around them, giving them milk and medicine.

Palestinian medics prepare premature babies, evacuated from Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, for transfer from a hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip to Egypt, on Nov. 19, 2023.
Palestinian medics prepare premature babies, evacuated from Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital, for transfer Sunday from a hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip to Egypt.Said Khatib / AFP - Getty Images

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The infants were evacuated from Al-Shifa days after the hospital began to suffer from power outages and dwindling supplies, including supplies of 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; there is a lack of antibiotics for treatment, the agency said in a statement Saturday.

Scenes from Al Shifa hospital amid Israel's ground operation in Gaza City
Tents and shelters used by displaced Palestinians inside the yard of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on Nov. 12. Ahmed El Mokhallalati via Reuters

Evacuation efforts were expected 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 statement Saturday.

For now, they are receiving what limited care medical workers can provide as Israeli forces continue to search for signs of Hamas, which the Israel Defense Forces has maintained operated a command center beneath the hospital — a claim Hamas and hospital workers have strongly denied.

On Sunday, the IDF shared video 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, explosives and Kalashnikov rifles." RPGs are rocket-propelled grenades.

The military also shared security video dated to the morning of Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas attack in which 1,200 people were killed and dozens of others were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. It said the video showed two foreign hostages, one Thai and one Nepalese, being taken to the hospital with injuries that day.

NBC News could not independently verify the video, 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. But it said that if it 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 an 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 the claim.

The WHO has said 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 said it came to that conclusion after officials were able to inspect the site and survey the toll of the destruction.

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 on Sunday "the situation was very, very difficult."

He said that there was a lack of medical services, medical supplies and medication and that "the hospital was very busy." He 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 toll in Gaza, with more than 13,000 people having been killed in the enclave since Israel launched its offensive. More than 1.6 million people have been displaced in Gaza, with many facing the threat of continued bombardments from Israeli forces. They also face the chill of winter as cooling temperatures and heavy rain start to set in.