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More than 100 killed in crowd waiting for aid as Israeli forces ‘open fire’, Gaza health officials say

More than 100 killed in crowd waiting for aid as Israeli forces ‘open fire’, Gaza health officials say

Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians rushing to get supplies from a rare aid convoy in Gaza City, witnesses have said. More than 100 people were killed, according to health officials in the territory.

The Health Ministry in the besieged Strip blamed Israeli forces for killing 112 people. Israeli officials acknowledged troops fired towards some in the crowd they believed posed a threat. The Israeli military said publicly the incident was under review and disputed the account given by the Health Ministry, saying “dozens were killed and injured from pushing, trampling and being run over by the trucks”.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said that around 760 were also wounded, bringing the total death toll of the war to more than 30,000 in just five months. Spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra called it a “massacre”.

At Al-Awda hospital in north Gaza, where at least 160 wounded were taken, Dr Mohammed Salha said his teams were treating gunshot and tank shell injuries.

“We’ve done three amputation procedures due to tank shelling. Twenty-seven injuries needed urgent surgical interference, and we were barely able to conduct them due to fuel shortages,” he said in a statement sent to The Independent. He said supplies were so low they were worried they will have to shut down. “We can’t receive critical and serious injuries as the hospital is barely able to run life-saving surgeries.” An Israeli military spokesperson said: “There is no knowledge of Israeli shelling in the area.”

Hamas issued a warning that it could stop taking part in negotiations for a ceasefire in the war and the release of the remaining hostages it holds. Those talks had been progressing with help from mediators Qatar and Egypt, as well as the US and there has been hope in some quarters about the possibility of reaching an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts around 10 March. “The negotiations conducted by the movement’s leadership are not an open process at the expense of the blood of our people,” the Hamas statement said.

Egypt also condemned the killings. “It is a heinous crime to target peaceful civilians who are rushing to get their share of humanitarian aid,” read a statement released by Egypt’s foreign ministry. “It is a flagrant violation of the international law and the international humanitarian law, and also shows disregard to the sanctity of human lives.”

Gaza City has been devastated by Israel’s bombardment (Reuters)
Gaza City has been devastated by Israel’s bombardment (Reuters)

Kamel Abu Nahel, who was being treated for a gunshot wound at al-Shifa Hospital, said he and others went to the distribution point in the middle of the night because they heard there would be a delivery of food. “We’ve been eating animal feed for two months,” he told Associated Press.

He said Israeli troops opened fire on the crowd, causing it to scatter, with some people hiding under cars. After the shooting stopped, people went back to the trucks, and the soldiers opened fire again, he said. He was shot in the leg and fell over, and then a truck ran over his leg as it sped off, he said. The head of Kamal Adwan hospital in Gaza City, Hussam Abu Safieyah, said it had received 10 dead bodies and dozens of wounded patients from the incident west of the city. Videos posted on social media showed trucks carrying bodies.

“Trucks full of aid came too close to some army tanks that were in the area and the crowd, thousands of people, just stormed the trucks,” a witness told AFP, declining to be named for safety reasons. “The soldiers fired at the crowd as people came too close to the tanks.”

An Israeli military official said two separate incidents had occurred as the convoy of trucks passed into northern Gaza from the south along the main coastal road.

In the first incident, he said aid trucks were surrounded by hundreds of people and in the confusion, dozens were injured or killed, by being trampled or run over by the trucks. As the trucks left, he said, a second incident occurred in which some of the people who rushed the convoy approached Israeli forces including a tank, which then opened fire.

“The soldiers fired warning shots in the air and then fired towards those who posed a threat and did not move away,” he told a news briefing. “From our perspective, this is what we understand. We’re continuing to review the circumstances.”

Jan Egeland the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council told The Independent that there were around 300,000 people who remained in north Gaza who were already experiencing famine because there has been no systematic aid being delivered. Speaking from Rafah on Wednesday he said in people’s desperation law and order had broken down because “in a long litany of catastrophic mistakes” Israeli bombing had stopped police in the Hamas-run territory from guarding convoys of aid trucks.

“People are at their limit,” he said, adding that the only reason famine had not been formally declared was because no one can get to the north to do a formal assessment. “There is no systematic aid going there because what comes into Rafah [in the south] is not leaving Rafah as there are so many people who are in need... Israel could have opened Erez crossing [in the north] … They haven't for one day.”

“It’s really hard to nearly impossible to reach north Gaza because of the looting, the insecurity and the Israeli checkpoints,” he added.

A tent camp in Rafah housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive (AP)
A tent camp in Rafah housing Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive (AP)

Last week, the World Food Programme said it had been forced to suspend aid deliveries to northern Gaza after its first convoy in three weeks was surrounded by crowds of hungry people close to the Israeli military’s Wadi Gaza checkpoint, and then faced gunfire in Gaza City. Trucks carrying food reached northern Gaza this week, the first major aid delivery to the area in a month, officials said on Wednesday.

An Israeli government spokesperson described the latest Palestinian casualties as a tragedy and said initial indications were that deaths were caused by delivery drivers plowing into a surging crowd. “At some point the trucks were overwhelmed and the people driving the trucks, which were Gazan civilian drivers, plowed into the crowds of people, ultimately killing, my understanding is, tens of people,” spokesperson Avi Hyman told reporters. “It’s obviously a tragedy but we’re not sure of the specifics quite yet.”

In an Israeli military night-time aerial surveillance video hundreds of people can be seen crowding around at least seven lorries in the same area. “The footage shows how numerous people surrounded the trucks and as a result, dozens were killed and injured from pushing, trampling and being run over by the trucks,” a statement said.

The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, cited medical sources as saying that Israeli forces fired towards thousands of people from Gaza City and other northern areas as they waited at Nabulsi roundabout for the arrival of lorries loaded with humanitarian aid.

The UN’s undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, said: “Even after close to five months of brutal hostilities, Gaza still has the ability to shock us. I’m appalled at the reported killing and injury of hundreds of people during a transfer of aid supplies west of Gaza City today. This comes as the death toll across Gaza... hits the 30,000 mark. Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed.”

The White House said it is looking into reports of Israeli fire on Palestinians waiting for aid near Gaza City, describing it as a “serious incident”.

“We mourn the loss of innocent life and recognise the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, where innocent Palestinians are just trying to feed their families,” a White House National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement. “This underscores the importance of expanding and sustaining the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, including through a potential temporary ceasefire.”

President Joe Biden said that he believes the deadly incident will complicate talks on a ceasefire. “I know it will,” Mr Biden told reporters when asked about the prospect. “There’s two competing versions of what happened. I don’t have an answer yet,” he said.

He also said a temporary ceasefire probably would not happen by Monday, as he had earlier predicted. “I was on the telephone with the people in the region. Probably not by Monday but I’m hopeful,” Mr Biden said.

Separately, the Health Ministry in Gaza said the Palestinian death toll from the war has climbed to 30,035, with another 70,457 wounded. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants in its figures but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed. The ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government in Gaza, maintains detailed records of casualties. Its counts from previous wars have largely matched those of the UN independent experts and even Israel’s own tallies.

Gaza City and the surrounding areas in the Strip’s north were the first targets of Israel’s air, sea and ground offensive, launched in response to a bloody attack by Hamas inside Israel on 7 October. That attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the militants seized around 250 hostages. Hamas and other militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 more, after releasing most of the other captives during a November truce.

International calls for a ceasefire have been growing as the Palestinian death toll has risen. Israel’s staunchest ally, the US, and a number of other nations have warned of further mass casualties if Israel follows through on vows to attack the southernmost city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million has taken refuge. They also say a Rafah offensive could decimate what remains of aid operations in the territory.