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Chaotic aid delivery turns deadly as Israeli, Gazan officials trade blame

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JERUSALEM — More than 100 people were killed Thursday, Gazan health officials said, after a crowd converged on a rare humanitarian aid convoy in Gaza City, triggering a chaotic incident that Palestinian officials and eyewitnesses blamed on Israeli gunfire and Israeli officials blamed on a stampede.

More than 700 Palestinians were wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, as the death toll in the enclave surged past 30,000.

Though many details of the incident were still unclear — including, most critically, what had caused such a heavy human toll — it underscored the desperate plight of Gaza’s civilians and further complicated delicate international efforts to secure a cease-fire.

For months, amid the wholesale destruction of urban areas, mass displacement and mounting hunger, aid groups and humanitarian officials had warned that Gazan society was nearing collapse. This was a moment when their warnings seemed prophetic.

The Israel Defense Forces released black-and-white drone footage showing hundreds of Palestinians rushing toward the slow-moving relief convoy; videos on social media showed a frantic scramble in the pre-dawn darkness along al-Rashid Street, in the southwest part of Gaza City.

Descriptions of what happened next were contradictory.

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Palestinian officials said Israeli forces opened fire on the crowd, an account corroborated by eyewitnesses and doctors, who said many of the dead and injured were brought in with bullet wounds. Israel disputed the casualty count and said people died in a stampede and not from Israeli fire — which officials described as warning shots not directed at the convoy.

Nir Dinar, head of the IDF’s international press department, said there was “no IDF involvement” in the “mass casualty” event. He acknowledged that IDF troops on one end of the convoy did fire at people who approached Israeli forces in a threatening manner, but said the deaths occurred as the result of a crush at the other end of the convoy.

“There was no IDF strike on this aid,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a news conference late Thursday. “We have been conducting a humanitarian operation of this kind for the last four nights without any problem. This was the first night that we had this kind of event.”

Hagari said that the “unfortunate incident resulted in dozens of Gazans killed and injured.”

Another Israeli official said the incident was under review, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

“A queue for lifesaving food became a lineup for death,” said Jason Lee, country director for Save the Children in occupied Palestinian territory. “While children are dying from lack of food, their parents are dying trying to get it. There must be an immediate, impartial investigation into what has happened.”

The IDF said it had coordinated the arrival of 38 trucks of aid from Egypt, delivered by private contractors. The convoy was a rare sight in the north, which is the most devastated and isolated part of Gaza, still home to an estimated 300,000 people. In January, 1 in 6 children there under age 2 who received support from aid groups were found to be acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.

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Aid deliveries throughout the enclave plummeted in recent weeks after Israel began targeting the Hamas-employed police officers who had provided protection to the convoys, leaving them vulnerable to looting by criminal gangs and desperate civilians. Israeli protesters have also blocked border crossings, further slowing the movement of aid trucks.

The United Nations’ top human rights official, Volker Turk, said Thursday that Israel’s blockade and siege of Gaza could amount to “the use of starvation as a method of war.”

“In northern Gaza, where the operational space for humanitarian work is now almost zero, many are already believed to be starving,” he added.

Ibrahim al-Rifi, 28, said he and two cousins arrived around 2 a.m. at the location where the aid delivery was expected, hoping to find food for some 60 family members who he said were enduring “extreme” hunger. When the trucks arrived shortly after 4:30, a crowd of thousands thronged the vehicles, he said, “and suddenly, without any warning, the Israeli tanks started firing.”

As people fled in every direction to escape the bullets, Rifi said, he stayed on the ground, only to find that he was lying on top of the dead. “I crawled until I found an abandoned house and hid in it,” he said.

The Washington Post could not independently confirm his account.

Hussam Abu Safiya, director of the Kamal Adwan hospital in northern Gaza, said the facility had received 12 bodies, including of a 15-year-old child, and 175 wounded. “All the cases that reached us, without exception, were injured by explosive gunshot wounds, and most of them were injured by multiple bullet wounds,” he said.

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In a statement, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said “we mourn the loss of innocent life and recognize the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, where innocent Palestinians are just trying to feed their families. This underscores the importance of expanding and sustaining the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, including through a potential temporary cease-fire.”

On Tuesday, President Biden had expressed optimism that a deal to pause the fighting and exchange Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners could be reached by early next week, in time for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but both Israel and Hamas had downplayed the progress made by diplomats in Doha, Qatar.

Hamas said Thursday that the deaths in northern Gaza could prompt the group to withdraw from talks altogether. “Negotiations conducted by the movement’s leadership are not an open process at the expense of our people’s blood,” the militant group said in a statement.

As Biden headed to Brownsville, Tex., he said he was unaware of the incident in Gaza City. But when a reporter asked whether he was worried that it would complicate negotiations, he was quick to reply: “I know it will.”

The conflict began Oct. 7 when Hamas-led fighters stormed Israeli border communities, killing about 1,200 people and dragging more than 250 hostages back to Gaza.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday that 30,035 people have been killed in nearly five months of fighting. Though the ministry does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, it has said that a majority of the dead are women and children.

Avi Hyman, an Israeli government spokesman, said Thursday that 11,000 Hamas fighters had been killed and 2,000 captured during the war. He estimated that the group had about 15,000 fighters still in the field. Hamas’s top leaders are still at large, including Yehiya Sinwar, the alleged architect of the Oct. 7 attacks, who is believed to be hiding in the network of tunnels beneath southern Gaza.

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The Israeli military says he is surrounded by a human shield of hostages, complicating efforts to capture or kill him and potentially bring the war to a close.

Eighty-five percent of Gazans have been forced from their homes, according to the United Nations. Some 1.4 million displaced people are sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, along the Egyptian border, which Israel has identified as its next military target. U.S. officials have pressed Israel to devise an evacuation plan for trapped civilians before going ahead with the operation.

“Under the current circumstances, without properly accounting for the safety and security of those refugees, we continue to believe that an operation in Rafah would be a disaster,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week.

In the absence of a cease-fire, some 58,000 additional deaths would be expected in Gaza over the next six months, according to a February research study, most of them due to traumatic injuries and infectious disease.

Loveluck and Harb reported from London. Cate Brown in Washington and Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

Source: Washington Post

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