Israeli troops ‘fire on people waiting for aid’ as Gaza death tolls hits 30,000

Witnesses later said Israeli soldiers opened fire as people pulled flour and canned goods off trucks.

Palestinians try to get food in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP)
Israel Palestinians Rafah Photo Gallery Palestinians try to get food in Rafah (Fatima Shbair/AP) (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Israeli troops have fired on a large crowd of Palestinians racing to pull food off an aid convoy in Gaza City, witnesses said, killing more than 100 people and taking the death toll since the start of the Israel-Hamas war to more than 30,000, according to health officials.

Israel said many of the dead were trampled in a chaotic stampede for the food aid and that its troops only fired when they felt endangered by the crowd.

President Joe Biden said the US was still trying to determine what happened. Asked if the loss of life would complicate efforts broker a ceasefire, he said: “I know it will.”

Gaza City and the surrounding areas in the enclave’s north were the first targets of Israel’s air, sea and ground offensive, launched in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack.

While many Palestinians fled the Israeli invasion in the north, a few hundred thousand are believed to remain in the area, which has suffered widespread devastation and has been largely isolated during the conflict.

Military officials said the pre-dawn convoy of 30 trucks driving to northern Gaza were met by huge crowds of people trying to grab the aid they were carrying. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the stampede and some were run over by the trucks as the drivers tried to get away, said Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesperson.

Israeli troops guarding the area fired warning shots toward the crowd because they felt endangered, he added.

Joe Biden (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Joe Biden Joe Biden (Andrew Harnik/AP) (Andrew Harnik/AP)

“We didn’t open fire on those seeking aid. Contrary to the accusations, we didn’t open fire on a humanitarian aid convoy, not from the air and not from land. We secured it so it could reach northern Gaza,” he said.

Aid groups say it has become nearly impossible to deliver humanitarian assistance in most of Gaza because of the difficulty of co-ordinating with the Israeli military, ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order, with crowds of desperate people overwhelming aid convoys.

The UN says a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians face starvation, and around 80% have fled their homes.

Kamel Abu Nahel, who was being treated for a gunshot wound at 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.

He said Israeli troops opened fire on the crowd as people pulled boxes of flour and canned goods off the trucks, causing them to scatter, with some hiding under cars.

A Palestinian woman prays for a relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip (Hatem Ali/AP)
Israel Palestinians A Palestinian woman prays for a relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip (Hatem Ali/AP) (Hatem Ali/AP)

After the shooting stopped, people went back to the trucks, and the soldiers opened fire again. He was shot in the leg and fell over, and then a truck ran over his leg as it sped off, he said.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan accused Israel of targeting civilians in the incident. In separate statements, they called for increased safe passages for humanitarian aid and for the international community to take decisive action to pressure Israel to abide by international law and to reach an agreement for an immediate ceasefire.

The UN Security Council scheduled emergency closed consultations on the killings for later on Thursday at the request of Algeria, the Arab representative on the 15-nation body.

Alaa Abu Daiya, a witness to the violence, said Israeli troops opened fire and a tank fired a shell.

Medics arriving at the scene on Thursday found “dozens or hundreds” lying on the ground, according to Fares Afana, the head of the ambulance service at Kamal Adwan Hospital.

He said there were not enough ambulances to collect all the dead and wounded and some were being taken to hospital in donkey carts.

Dr Mohammed Salha, acting director of the Al-Awda Hospital, said the facility received 161 wounded patients, most of whom appeared to have been shot. He said the hospital can perform only the most essential surgery because it is running out of fuel to power emergency generators.

At least 112 people were killed, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said. The ministry described it as a “massacre” and said more than 700 others were injured.

Israeli soldiers stand on their tank near the Israel-Gaza border (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)
Israel Palestinians Israeli soldiers stand on their tank near the Israel-Gaza border (Tsafrir Abayov/AP) (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Separately, the Health Ministry 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 combatants in its figures but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed.

The Hamas attack in southern Israel that ignited the war 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 ceasefire.

The increasing alarm over hunger across Gaza has fuelled international calls for another ceasefire, and the US, Egypt and Qatar are working to secure a deal between Israel and Hamas for a pause in fighting and the release of some of the hostages.

Mediators hope to reach an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts around March 10, but so far, Israel and Hamas have remained far apart in public on their demands.

In a statement condemning Thursday’s attack, Hamas said it would not allow the negotiations “to be a cover for the enemy to continue its crimes”.