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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In chaotic Gaza scene, many killed and wounded as Israeli forces open fire

Israeli soldiers on patrol during a tour for journalists escorted by the Israeli military in the central Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. Israeli forces opened fire Thursday as a crowd gathered near a convoy of trucks carrying desperately needed aid in Gaza City, part of a chaotic scene in which scores of people were killed and injured, according to at least two sources. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Hiba Yazbek and Aaron Boxerman

Israeli forces opened fire Thursday as a crowd gathered near a convoy of trucks carrying desperately needed aid in Gaza City, part of a chaotic scene in which scores of people were killed and injured, according to Gaza health officials and an Israeli military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The details of what happened were unclear, with officials from both sides offering starkly different accounts of the event. The Gaza Health Ministry said in a statement that more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 injured in a “massacre.” The Israeli official acknowledged that troops had opened fire, but said most of the people had been killed or injured in a stampede several hundred yards away.

Palestinians in Gazan, especially in the north of the territory, have become increasingly desperate for food. The United Nations and other relief groups are struggling to deliver supplies amid Israel’s nearly five-month-old military offensive, as law and order breaks down and Israel imposes restrictions on deliveries.

The official Palestinian Authority news agency, Wafa, reported that “Israeli tanks had opened fire with machine guns at thousands” waiting for aid to arrive.

Around 100 people with gunshot wounds were brought to Kamal Adwan Hospital in Gaza City, according to its director, Husam Abu Safiya, and injured people were being brought to other hospitals in the north. Abu Safiya said the hospital had also received 12 bodies of people killed by gunfire.

According to an Israeli military official, some 30 trucks ferrying humanitarian aid traveled from the Kerem Shalom crossing between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip along the coastal road into northern Gaza.

As they neared Gaza City at around 4 a.m., thousands of people surrounded the trucks in an attempt to take supplies, leading to a stampede in which dozens were injured and killed, in some cases run over by aid trucks seeking to extricate themselves, said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The official said that several hundred meters farther south — at the tail end of the convoy — dozens of civilians who had rushed trucks in the area then approached Israeli troops and a tank securing the road. Israeli soldiers fired warning shots in the air before firing at “those who posed a threat and did not move away,” the official said.

He did not elaborate on whether any people were killed or injured in the shooting and declined to provide a precise timeline.

Neither the Palestinian account nor the Israeli account could be confirmed. At least one witness at the scene, Yehia Al Masri, a doctor, said he saw dozens of people with gunshot wounds, as well as bodies in the street of people who appeared to have died in a stampede or to have been hit by aid trucks.

It was unclear who was overseeing the convoy Thursday. Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the main U.N. aid group that serves Palestinians, said on Thursday that neither his agency, UNRWA, nor any other U.N. bodies “were involved in this distribution.”

Palestinian leaders, Arab officials and international aid groups issued condemnations after the shooting and chaos at the convoy, and a Hamas official warned that the killings could derail talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire.

President Joe Biden said Thursday that while he was still learning details of what happened, he also thought the deaths could jeopardize the diplomatic talks. Asked whether the shooting would complicate negotiations, he said, “I know it will.”

Gaza has been under an almost complete siege since the war began on Oct. 7 with an attack on Israel led by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that had long controlled Gaza. Aid supplies became absolutely critical for Gaza’s more than 2 million residents as Israel began a bombardment and then invaded the territory.

The U.N. recently warned that at least a quarter of Gaza’s population is “one step away from famine,” and the Gaza Health Ministry said Wednesday that at least six children had died in the territory from dehydration and malnutrition.

The ministry said that the death toll from the site of the convoy Thursday was expected to rise as wounded Palestinians arrived at Shifa Hospital, where medical staff were “unable to deal with the volume and type of injuries” amid a lack of medical supplies and staff.

The World Food Program said last week that it had paused food deliveries to isolated northern Gaza because of the challenges of safely delivering aid there. Lazzarini said Sunday that UNRWA was last able to deliver aid to northern Gaza over a month ago.

Lawlessness is rampant in many parts of northern and southern Gaza, residents and aid officials say, with no authority emerging to take charge of public order after Israel’s ouster of Hamas forces in those areas. Israeli leaders have said they do not want to administer civilian life in Gaza, although they intend to retain security control there indefinitely.

In recent weeks, large crowds of desperate Palestinians in Gaza have repeatedly rushed aid convoys, stripping them of their contents, occasionally while armed. Some of the groups appear to lie in wait to ambush convoys after coordinating on social media, Jamie McGoldrick, a top U.N. relief official in Jerusalem, told reporters last week.

The Israeli military has said it is working to ensure that humanitarian convoys can reach the many Palestinians who depend on them. Some police in Gaza are now refusing to protect convoys because they fear they will be targeted by Israeli soldiers, Western officials say.

In late January, a strike hit a crowd of people waiting for aid trucks in Gaza City, killing multiple people and injuring scores of others, Gaza health authorities said.

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