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Famine was stalking Gaza — then an aid convoy turned to deadly chaos

It was dark when roughly 30 trucks of food reached an Israeli checkpoint on Al Rashid Street in Gaza City, a stretch of Mediterranean road dotted just four months ago with hotels, wedding halls and ice cream stands.

But around 4am on February 29, videos shared by Palestinians show, it was a dystopian landscape — hungry men scrambling over buildings destroyed by the Israeli military, lighting fires to keep warm and searching for food to take home to their families.

News had spread that a convoy was expected, and Amein Abou al-Hassan, 40, had walked two hours to try to feed his wife and three children — a bag of flour in the black market was now $500.

For weeks, some 300,000 people in northern Gaza had been facing hunger to the point of famine, the UN had warned. Mothers were using donkey feed to make bread and children were plucking leaves off trees to chew on, according to UN officials who made a rare reconnaissance mission to the north, which has been completely devastated by the Israeli military campaign.

Steep fall in food aid shipments pushing Gazans to point of famine. Chart showing number of daily aid trucks entering Gaza via Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings. Food shipments have dropped since mid-February as looting increases

Civil order had all but collapsed: Palestinian police had vanished after their colleagues were killed in Israeli air strikes, and now gangs of young men roamed the streets, descending on the smallest convoys of food — some desperately hungry, others looting the food to sell on the black market.

As the trucks passed the Israeli checkpoint on Thursday morning, chaotic crowds began to grab food. In the sky, an Israeli drone watched; in edited footage released by the IDF, hundreds of men surrounded the trucks.

Then came the sound of automatic weapons fire. In a video shot by an Al Jazeera journalist, tracer rounds lit up the night sky and dozens of gunshots were heard. The drone captured men ducking and running. One frame showed at least 10 bodies, lying prone within metres of an Israeli tank.

Hassan told the Financial Times that he ran when the shooting began, confused at what had prompted it. He recalled “horrible scenes”.

As the sun came up, dozens were dead. Gazan health officials said on Friday that the total was at least 112. The dead and wounded were taken — many on the donkey carts people had brought to carry food — to barely functioning hospitals. Many had gunshot wounds, according to doctors.

The Israeli military later acknowledged that forces providing security for the aid convoy had fired “warning shots” at an oncoming crowd of thousands, but denied being responsible for the deaths.

“Some [in the crowd] began violently pushing and even trampling other Gazans to death, looting the humanitarian supplies,” said Daniel Hagari, Israel’s military spokesman, on Thursday night.

Palestinian officials and eyewitnesses described it as a massacre of the hungry, blaming the killings on Israeli troops firing into the crowds.

Palestinians transport casualties following what Gaza health officials said was Israeli fire on people waiting for aid in Gaza City
Palestinians transport casualties following what Gaza health officials said was Israeli fire on people waiting for aid in Gaza City © Reuters

What happened on that chaotic morning has now become a major international incident, with France and Germany calling for an investigation.

US President Joe Biden and Hamas — the militant group with which Israel is at war — both warned that the fallout from the deaths could imperil the delicate negotiations aimed at securing the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners in a Ramadan ceasefire.

On Friday, Biden said that the US would begin airdropping food aid into Gaza, adding that it was also exploring the possibility of opening a “marine corridor” to deliver humanitarian assistance.

In several interviews with the FT, western officials charged with increasing food and medicine supplies into Gaza said the desperation of those crowds was weeks, if not months, in the making.

A Palestinian women gives her newborn dates to suck on instead of milk due to food scarcity in central Gaza
A Palestinian women gives her newborn dates to suck on instead of milk due to food scarcity in central Gaza © Doaa Ruqqa/Reuters

So little food and medicine has entered the Gaza Strip since Israel and Hamas went to war on October 7 that the UN has warned that much of its 2.3mn population now faces acute food insecurity. The charity Save The Children said this week that Gaza was “witnessing a mass killing of children in slow motion because there is no food left”.

That humanitarian crisis has been deepened by factors directly within the control of the Israeli military, said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for the Middle East, who was appointed late last year by the Security Council to help alleviate the suffering in Gaza.

The most urgent problem, he said, was co-ordinating aid distribution inside the enclave with Israeli forces.

“We need to speak to the heart of the IDF, and find out if we can have a conversation with them about how to work together,” he said. “What we need to do is speak to the people firing the guns — a bit of discipline with them, and a bit of discipline with us, can help solve some of these problems.”

A hospital in northern Gaza on Thursday
Palestinians receive medical care at a hospital in northern Gaza on Thursday © Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

The most immediate issue, said two western officials who recently spent time in Gaza, is Israel’s refusal to let Palestinian police — who are nominally distinct from the Hamas militant group — return to work and provide some degree of security for aid shipments.

On February 6 an Israeli warplane attacked a police car escorting a food shipment. An Israeli flyer dropped after the air strike pictured the destroyed police car beside the words: “Our message is clear; the Israeli security services will not allow the security apparatuses of Hamas to continue working.”

A nascent deal, brokered by Egypt, in which Israel would allow police to return to work without uniforms or sidearms is yet to fall into place. Without that deal and with so little food entering the strip, the absence of any civil order has turned despair into lawlessness, said both officials.

“There’s so much desperation . . . for people who can’t get food regularly,” said McGoldrick. “If they see regular trucks [arriving], they are not that desperate — and it’s worse in the north, where that desperation really comes to the fore.”

Palestinians gather to collect aid food in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip
Palestinians have faced severe food scarcity, particularly in northern Gaza © Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli military said that Thursday’s pre-dawn shipment into north Gaza was the fourth such private convoy allowed through by Israel this week. UN officials said their own aid convoys had been refused entry for several weeks, and that on at least three instances over the past months, Israeli troops had fired on humanitarian shipments across Gaza.

Israel has so far also refused to open any additional border crossings for aid to enter, other than the two currently open at the southern tip of the enclave: Kerem Shalom on the Israeli side and Rafah on the Egyptian side. It also imposes lengthy inspections on each consignment.

The IDF has also restricted the roads that convoys can use within Gaza. According to UN officials, the only way to transport aid north is along Al Rashid Street, where trucks faced looting even before Thursday’s killings.

As trucks idle at an Israeli checkpoint at the Wadi Gaza rivulet, word spreads of food becoming available, drawing crowds of young men.

That had left the vulnerable even more hungry, especially the old, the wounded and households without men able to carry the 25kg sacks back to their families, said McGoldrick.

The Israeli military body responsible for civil affairs in Gaza, called Cogat, has for months said the UN and other aid agencies need to increase their logistical capabilities to meet the wartime challenge.

“Israel puts no limits [on] the amount of aid that can go into Gaza,” Hagari said on Thursday, but admitted that disbursing that aid “is a problem”.

Several people with knowledge of humanitarian efforts in Gaza view this as disingenuous, with Israel needing to provide “better deconfliction [for the aid convoys], better security . . . and to exhibit greater flexibility overall”, said one person.

According to Philippe Lazzarini, the chief of UNRWA — the primary relief agency for Palestinians — the aid was simply not reaching those in need.

“If you look at the average number of trucks entering, clearly in February they have halved,” he said. “And the more you decrease the supply into Gaza the more you will fuel the distress, the despair and the chaos.”

Hassan, the father of three at the roundabout, says he spent hours searching for his companions, finally finding them at a hospital. In a night of chaos and death, they’d managed to find a single, 25kg bag of flour.



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