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Israeli troops fire on Palestinians seeking food. Israel says deadly scene was a chaotic stampede

Palestinians holding out pots and containers at a meal distribution site
Palestinians line up for a free meal in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Dec. 21.
(Fatima Shbair / Associated Press)
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Israeli troops fired on a crowd of Palestinians racing to pull food off an aid convoy in Gaza City on Thursday, witnesses said. More than 100 people were killed in the chaos, bringing the death toll since the start of the Israel-Hamas war to more than 30,000, according to Gaza health officials.

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

The violence was quickly condemned by Arab countries, and President Biden expressed concern it would add to the difficulty of negotiating a cease-fire in the nearly 5-month-old conflict.

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The Gaza City area was among the first targets of Israel’s air, sea and ground offensive, launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel.

Although many Palestinians fled the invasion in the north of the enclave, a few hundred thousand are believed to remain in the largely devastated and isolated region. Several deliveries of aid reached the area this week, officials said.

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

The United Nations says a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people face starvation; around 80% have fled their homes.

Military officials said the predawn 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 Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesperson.

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

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“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.

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. “We’ve been eating animal feed for two months,” he said.

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. 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.

At least 112 people were killed, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said. The Health Ministry described it as a “massacre.”

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.

They also urged the international community to take decisive action to pressure Israel to abide by international law and to reach an agreement for an immediate cease-fire.

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

The increasing alarm over hunger across Gaza has fueled international calls for a cease-fire, and the U.S., 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 the militant group took during its Oct. 7 attack.

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

Biden had earlier expressed hope that a deal would be done by Monday. He said Thursday that it looked unlikely.

“Hope springs eternal,” the president told reporters. “I was on the telephone with people from the region. Probably not by Monday, but I’m hopeful.”

When asked whether the bloodshed in Gaza City on Thursday would complicate those efforts, he said, “I know it will.”

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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.”

Medics arriving at the scene of the bloodshed 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 that there were not enough ambulances to collect all the dead and wounded and that some were being brought to hospitals in donkey carts.

Another man in the crowd — who gave only his first name, Ahmad, as he was being treated at a hospital for gunshot wounds to the arm and leg — said he waited for two hours before someone with a horse-drawn cart had room to take him to Shifa.

The violence came more than a month after witnesses and health officials in Gaza accused Israeli troops of firing on a previous aid distribution in Gaza City, killing at least 20 people.

Dr. Mohammed Salha, the acting director of 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 surgeries because it is running out of fuel to power emergency generators.

The Health Ministry said the Palestinian death toll from the war has climbed to 30,035, with an additional 70,457 wounded. The agency does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its figures but says women and children make up about two-thirds of those killed.

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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 U.N., independent experts and even Israel’s own tallies.

The Hamas attack into southern Israel that ignited the war killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the militants seized about 240 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 cease-fire.

Violence has also surged across the West Bank since Oct. 7. An attacker shot and killed two Israelis at a gas station in the settlement of Eli on Thursday, according to the Israeli military. The attacker was killed, the military said.

Chehayeb reported from Beirut and Lidman from Tel Aviv.

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