Middle East Crisis: As Hungry Gazans Crowd a Convoy, a Crush of Bodies, Israeli Gunshots and a Deadly Toll

Israeli forces opened fire while a crowd was gathered on Thursday near a convoy of trucks carrying desperately needed aid to Gaza City, part of a chaotic scene in which scores of people were killed and injured, according to Gazan health officials and the Israeli military.

The details of what happened were unclear, with officials from both sides offering starkly different accounts. The Gazan health ministry said in a statement that more than 100 people were killed and more than 700 injured in a “massacre.” Israeli military officials said most of the casualties were from a stampede of Gazans as they crushed around the aid trucks and that soldiers had fired only after a crowd separately approached them in a threatening way.

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. Mr. Abu Safiya said that the hospital had also received 12 bodies of people killed by gunfire.

According to an Israeli military official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, some 30 trucks ferrying humanitarian aid traveled from the Kerem Shalom crossing between southern Israel and Gaza along the coastal road into northern Gaza.

As the trucks neared Gaza City early Thursday morning, thousands of people surrounded the trucks in an attempt to take supplies, leading to a crush in which dozens were injured and killed, in some cases run over by aid trucks seeking to extricate themselves, according to the official.

The official said that several hundred meters farther south — at the tail end of the convoy — dozens of civilians who had crowded the trucks there then approached Israeli troops and a tank securing the road.

Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said in a televised briefing that the soldiers opened fire “only in face of danger when the mob moved in a manner which endangered them.”

“We did not fire on those seeking aid, despite the accusations,” he said. “We did not fire on the humanitarian convoy, either from the air or the land. We secured it so it could reach northern Gaza.”

Admiral Hagari did not elaborate on whether any people were killed or injured in the shooting and declined to provide a precise timeline, except that the trucks neared Gaza City around 4:45 a.m.

Neither the Palestinian account nor the Israeli account could be confirmed. A witness at the scene, Yehia Al Masri, a doctor, said that he had seen dozens of dead and injured 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.

Gazans, 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 military offensive, as law and order breaks down and Israel imposes restrictions on deliveries.

The Israeli military released a drone video, which it also edited, that showed hundreds of people crowding around trucks along Al-Rashid Road in southwestern Gaza City. At one point in the footage, people start running, with some crawling behind walls and appearing to take cover.

After a cut in the video, at least a dozen bodies are visible on the ground; it is not clear whether the people are injured or dead. During the panic, a few people appear to be struck by the aid trucks. Two Israeli military vehicles are also visible at the scene.

Satellite image by Planet Labs, captured Feb. 14.

By Lazaro Gamio and Haley Willis

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

Palestinian leaders, Arab officials and international aid groups condemned the bloodshed, and a Hamas official warned that the killings could derail talks aimed at reaching a cease-fire.

President Biden said he was still learning details of what happened, but believed the deaths could jeopardize the diplomatic talks. “I know it will,” he told reporters.

Olivia Dalton, a White House spokeswoman, called the deaths “deeply tragic,” and said that “too many civilian lives have been lost as a result of military operations in Gaza.” She added, “We think that this latest event needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

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 became absolutely critical for Gaza’s more than two million residents as Israel began a bombardment and then invaded the territory.

The United Nations recently warned that at least a quarter of Gaza’s population is “one step away from famine,” and the Gazan health ministry said on Wednesday that at least six children had died in the territory from dehydration and malnutrition.

A body of a Palestinian in Gaza City on Thursday, after Israeli soldiers opened fire near a convoy of aid trucks in which dozens were killed and injured.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The ministry said that the death toll from the convoy site on Thursday was expected to rise as wounded Palestinians arrived at Al-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. Mr. Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, said on Sunday that the agency 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 Gazans have repeatedly rushed aid convoys, stripping them of their contents, occasionally while armed.

The Israeli military has said it is working to ensure that humanitarian convoys can reach the many Gazans who depend on them. Some Gazan policemen 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, Gazan health authorities said.

Haley Willis, Aric Toler and Robin Stein contributed reporting.