Israel forces fire on Gazans rushing for food aid

Israeli forces in war-torn Gaza opened fire on Palestinians scrambling for food aid in a chaotic melee on Thursday that the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed more than 100 people.

The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of desperate Gazans surrounded a convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.

An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat”.

The Gaza health ministry condemned what it called a “massacre” in Gaza City in which 112 people were killed and more than 750 others wounded.

The incident adds to a Palestinian death toll from the war which the ministry earlier Thursday said had topped 30,000, and dampens hopes a truce deal between Israel and Hamas militants could be just days away.

There were conflicting reports on what exactly unfolded in the hours before dawn.

A witness in Gaza City, declining to be named for safety reasons, said violence unfolded when thousands of people rushed towards aid trucks at the city’s western Nabulsi roundabout, and soldiers fired at the crowd “as people came too close” to tanks.

Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said the military had fired “a few warning shots” to try to disperse a crowd that had ambushed the aid trucks.

When the crowd got too big, he said the convoy tried to retreat and “the unfortunate incident resulted in dozens of Gazans killed and injured”.

Aerial images released by the Israeli army showed what it said were scores of Gazans surrounding aid trucks in Gaza City.

Ali Awad Ashqir, who said he had gone to get some food for his starving family, told AFP he had been waiting for two hours when trucks began to arrive.

“The moment they arrived, the occupation army fired artillery shells and guns,” he said.

The army spokesman Hagari later denied Israeli forces carried out any shelling or strikes at the time.

– ‘Another day from hell’ –

US President Joe Biden said Washington was checking “two competing versions” of the incident, while a State Department spokesman said the United States had been in touch with Israel and was “pressing for answers” on what happened.

The shooting incident would complicate efforts to broker a truce, Biden said, later admitting that any deal was unlikely to happen by Monday — the timeline that he had predicted earlier this week.

The US president spoke with Qatari and Egyptian leaders in separate phone calls, the White House said, saying he discussed both the ceasefire and the “tragic and alarming” aid incident.

The UN Security Council will hold a closed-door emergency meeting on the incident on Thursday afternoon.

Saudi Arabia strongly condemned what it called the “targeting” of unarmed civilians, while Kuwait and the UAE also issued condemnations.

Qatar warned that Israel’s “disregard for Palestinian blood… (will) pave the way for an expanding cycle of violence”.

Italy called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza to facilitate more humanitarian aid.

Looting of aid trucks has previously occurred in northern Gaza, where desperate residents have taken to eating animal fodder and even leaves to try to stave off starvation, as aid groups warn of looming famine after nearly five months of war.

The chief of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said that no UN agency had been involved in Thursday’s aid delivery, and called it “another day from hell”.

– Truce hopes –

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 Israel says are presumed dead.

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed 30,035 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza’s health ministry.

Israel’s military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

Washington, a key ally of Israel, has been pushing for a reduction in civilian casualties and a ceasefire.

It has been working with mediators from Egypt and Qatar to seek a six-week pause in the war.

Negotiators had hoped a truce could begin by around March 10 or 11 when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, depending on the lunar calendar.

The proposals reportedly include the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza by militants in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Short of the complete withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see Israeli forces leave “cities and populated areas”, allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

– Fears of famine –

The World Food Programme has said Israel has blocked access for aid deliveries — which Israeli officials have denied — and warned that if nothing changes, “a famine is imminent in northern Gaza”.

As fighting continued in Gaza, Muhammad Yassin, 35, battled to find flour in Zeitun.

“We have not eaten a loaf of bread for two months,” he said. “Our children are starving.”

In the south, nearly 1.5 million people trying to flee the fighting are now packed into Rafah city, also short of food, as Israel threatens to send in troops against Hamas fighters.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure to bring the remaining hostages home.

A group of 150 Israelis have started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

Violence has also surged in the occupied West Bank, where two Israelis were killed on Thursday.

AFP

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