Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

JERUSALEM — It was hunger that drove Ibrahim Al-Rifi from his house in Gaza City at two in the morning Thursday. It had been months since he could find bread for his wife and daughters in war-ravaged northern Gaza. Flour sold for close to $1,000 a bag, and even the animal feed many had turned to was running out. Some people are eating grass, the United Nations has said.

Al-Rifi and two cousins set out in the darkness on rumors that aid trucks were on the way. Like thousands of others, hunger overcame their fear of the obvious dangers from Israeli troops and desperate crowds.

Hours later, following one of the most horrific episodes in a war that has produced so many, he returned with hands empty but bloody. Both cousins were injured and Al-Rifi had to cower amid dead bodies in an early morning melee that erupted when the rare aid convoy crossed an Israeli military checkpoint and entered Gaza City.

Video captures gunshots and tracer fire

People run and duck for cover, lifeless bodies lie on road

Satellite © Planet Labs 2024

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

Video captures gunshots and tracer fire

People run and duck for cover, lifeless bodies lie on road

Satellite © Planet Labs 2024

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

People run and duck for cover, lifeless bodies lie on road

Video captures Israeli gunshots and tracer fire

Satellite © Planet Labs 2024

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

People run and duck for cover, lifeless bodies lie on road

Video captures Israeli gunshots and tracer fire

Satellite © Planet Labs 2024

More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, according to Palestinian officials, after thousands of civilians swarmed the trucks and Israeli troops opened fire. Much remains unclear, however, with contradictory claims from Israelis and Palestinians about what prompted a stampede around the trucks, the role of Israeli gunfire and how many people were shot as distinct from being injured by the crush of people.

On Friday, France, Italy and Germany called for an independent investigation into what happened, following earlier criticism by French President Emmanuel Macron of the actions of Israeli soldiers. President Biden said Friday that the United States would launch an airdrop campaign to deliver aid to Gaza.

Thursday morning’s deadly event — unfolding as the enclave passed the milestone of 30,000 killed in the war to date — seemed to fulfill growing warnings that ongoing combat and spiraling deprivation are driving Gazans into a state of lawless chaos.

“I went to bring them food and I returned ladened with death and blood,” Al-Rifi said.

This account of the tragedy is based on 12 interviews with eyewitnesses, physicians, aid workers and Israeli military and United Nations officials. In addition, analysis of dozens of videos, including an edited video released by Israel Defense Forces, reveals that crowds ran and ducked while lifeless bodies lay in the road near two Israeli armored vehicles.

A United Nations team carrying medicine, vaccines and fuel was able to reach Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City Friday, where they witnessed “a large number of gunshot wounds” among some 200 patients there who were injured during the arrival of the humanitarian convoy in Gaza on Thursday, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Hospital staff told the U.N. team they had initially admitted more than 700 injured in the Thursday incident, with all but 200 already released, and had received “the bodies of more than 70 killed,” Dujarric said. “I’m not aware that our team examined the bodies of those killed. My understanding from what [U.N. staff] saw” among those “receiving treatment is that there was a large number of gunshot wounds,” he said.

The Associated Press reported that the head of another Gaza City hospital, Al-Awda, said that 176 wounded were brought there, 142 of whom had suffered gunshot wounds.

Chaotic and dangerous handouts

Sometime early Thursday morning, Israeli officials said a convoy of 38 flatbed trucks crossed Wadi Gaza, the creek bed that marks the unofficial dividing line between north and south Gaza.

In the south, where more than a million refugees are crowded into makeshift camps, at least some food trucks cross almost daily from Egypt and southern Israel. Very few have been allowed to travel on to the north, where about 300,000 Gazans are estimated to be living amid the fallen concrete and bent rebar of shattered buildings.

Israel strictly controls access to the north and has so far refused to regularly open more access points into the area. The U.N. said its last aid delivery to the north was on Jan. 23. A convoy making an attempt on Feb. 5 came under fire despite coordinating with the Israeli military, Philippe Lazzarini, head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, told reporters Thursday.

“When you do a deconfliction, and despite the deconfliction, you are still shot at, you think twice before going the next time,” Lazzarini said.

The lack of aid is creating starvation conditions in the north, according to small U.N. scouting teams that have managed to enter the area in recent weeks. Residents living amid the rubble say they have scoured every inch of the area for food.

“Without mercy, we have begun to feed on the grass of the ground,” Yousri Al-Ghoul, 43, told The Washington Post in a phone interview Thursday.

He was among a swelling crowd of Gazans that began gathering late Wednesday on Gaza City’s al-Rashid Street. They had read reports on Telegram or heard by word of mouth that a convoy was heading for the Nablusi traffic circle on the street. But no one knew when it was exactly due to arrive or seemed able to say who was sending the aid.

The U.N. said the trucks were not theirs. The IDF coordinates the movement of humanitarian and commercial goods throughout Gaza, but they have declined to say who paid for the convoy, what goods it was carrying or who contracted the truck drivers. It remains unclear what security agents may have been accompanying the convoy.

Thursday’s was the fourth overnight convoy to travel north in recent days, the military said. The pre-dawn timing was meant to avoid attracting dangerous crowds, according to a person familiar with the deliveries who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

As word spread that another convoy was coming, more and more Gazans came out from where they were sheltering.

Aid groups have warned that handouts are becoming more chaotic and dangerous throughout the strip. An off-target coastal airdrop of food parcels by the Jordanian Air Force last week caused dozens of civilians to plunge into the sea in pursuit. Numerous convoys have been looted. As order collapses, U.S. officials have reportedly warned Israel that Gaza was becoming “Mogadishu.”

At least two Israeli armored vehicles were present on al-Rashid Street as aid trucks drove by, according to The Post’s analysis of visuals and numerous witness accounts. More Israeli troops were positioned at a military outpost 400 yards to the south.

It was cold and still dark an hour and a half before sunrise as the trucks approached, Al-Rifi said.

The head of the convoy passed the checkpoint about 4:40 a.m., IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari said late Thursday. The military was deployed to keep Rashid Street, a coastal north-south route, open as a humanitarian corridor, he said.

As the trucks arrived, still under the cover of darkness, an Israeli drone filmed the scene from above using a thermal camera. The video, published by the Israel Defense Forces, shows hundreds of people streaming toward the trucks as they move slowly north along al-Rashid Street.

Israelis described the scene as an attack on the trucks, beginning about 4:45, resulting eventually in what the officials said was limited Israeli fire and civilians being crushed by the vehicles and each other.

“A mob ambushed the aid trucks bringing the convoy to a halt,” Hagari said. But multiple witnesses said the real panic didn’t start until Israeli soldiers and tanks began firing, hitting civilians and sparking a stampede. Contrary to Israeli claims, Palestinians say the bulk of deaths and injuries were due to Israeli fire and not the stampede.

“A mob ambushed the aid trucks bringing the convoy to a halt,” Hagari said.

“There were tens of thousands of people scrambling to get food, and suddenly, without any warning, the Israeli tanks started firing,” said Al-Rifi, who had been trying with his cousins to get at the parcels.

They ran, he said, as people nearby fell. At one point Al-Rifi hid among dead bodies, he said, before taking shelter in an abandoned house. The firing continued for about 30 minutes, he said. He saw on of his cousins crawling to safety, his leg bloody. He would learn that both cousins were hit.

“They opened fire on us randomly,” he said. “This coincided with the firing of a large number of artillery shells, and shrapnel flew everywhere.”

Video released by the Israel Defense Forces shows armored vehicles and unmoving bodies near aid trucks on Feb. 29 in Gaza. (Video: Imogen Piper/IDF)

The footage shared by the Israel Defense Forces was edited, making it hard to determine the sequence of events. But at one point, numerous bodies can be seen lying on al-Rashid Street alongside two Israeli military vehicles, as the trucks continue slowly northward.

At the same location, while bodies are still visible on the road, the drone camera abruptly pans and zooms in to show people running away, some ducking and hiding behind walls.

Video released by the Israel Defense Forces shows people running and ducking for cover near an aid convoy on Feb 29 in Gaza. (Video: IDF)

Video filmed by Al Jazeera, at an unknown time, shows people scrambling over a berm to get away from gunfire as red tracer rounds light up the night sky. The Post geolocated the footage to the intersection of al-Rashid and Aoun al-Shawa streets, around 700 yards from where drone footage showed lifeless bodies on the road.

The first tracer rounds were aimed at or near ground level, based on their trajectory seen in the beginning of the video. Later rounds appear to be shot higher. The Post could not verify if anyone was hit or harmed by these shots. When tracer ammunition is used the base of the fired projectile ignites, leaving an intense, bright trail of light along the flight path. The ammunition is commonly used to illuminate the trajectory of gunfire to improve the accuracy of targeting.

Al-Ghoul said he hid at the first sound of gunfire. He could still hear shots two hours later when made his way toward the Al-Shati refugee camp west of the city, where his family is sheltering. He got home with little to show for his harrowing night.

“What arrived were some canned goods for which people paid in blood today,” he said.

Israeli officials disputed the accounts of heavy Israeli firing and denied that any tank shells were fired. Hagari described only “a few warning shots in the air” meant as crowd control.

A second, more deadly encounter occurred after the final convoy truck had passed and some of the civilians turned toward a tank and soldiers at the checkpoint, officials acknowledged.

“The soldiers fired warning shots in the air and then fired toward those that posed a threat and didn’t move away,” a military official said. They declined to estimate how many were hit.

By 6:30 a.m., journalists in the area were posting images of bodies, the injured and bloodstained aid packs. Survivors were helping get the wounded out any way they could. Al-Khatib rode a donkey cart to al-Shifa hospital but was told they could not take any more casualties.

A video posted by Shehab news agency on Telegream and verified by The Post from Kamal Adwan Hospital showed it and other facilities being overwhelmed. Hossam Abu Safia, the hospital’s director, told The Post that 12 bodies and 175 injured had arrived, many of them victims of multiple gunshot wounds.

Mohammad Salha, a physician at Al-Awda Hospital, said surgeons had performed three operations, including amputations, under battery-powered lights and had at least 12 to go.

“By the end of this day, the operating room will lose the ability to operate,” he told The Post Thursday.

Al-Rifi carried his cousins on his own tuk-tuk, making two trips to four hospitals before finding help at Al-Awda Hospital. They were examined, he said, but are still waiting for treatment.

He would not go back to another aid drop, Al-Rifi said.

“I would rather die of hunger than be shot.”

Harb and Piper reported from London and Baran from San Francisco. Hazem Balousha in Amman, Evan Hill in New York, Claire Parker in Cairo, Louisa Loveluck in London, Karen DeYoung and Cate Brown in Washington and Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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