Israel forces shoot dead 104 at aid point

Men carry the bodies of people killed in an early morning incident when Israeli forces opened fire on crowds rushing at an aid distribution point in Gaza City on 29 February 2024.AFP

Israeli forces shot dead 104 people when a crowd rushed towards aid trucks on Thursday, the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said, in one of the worst single incidents of a nearly five-month war.

More than 750 people were also hurt in the incident, the ministry said. It came after aid agencies had intensified warnings over Gaza's humanitarian situation, with famine threatening particularly in Gaza's north.

Looting of aid trucks had previously occurred in northern Gaza, where residents have taken to eating animal fodder and even leaves to try to stave off hunger.

Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said hundreds were killed and wounded from "bullets of the occupation forces that targeted a gathering of citizens" at Gaza City's Nabulsi roundabout. He called it a "massacre".

A witness told AFP that "thousands of people" had "just stormed the trucks", which were near army tanks.

"The soldiers fired at the crowd as people came too close to the tanks," the witness said, declining to be named for safety reasons.

Israeli sources confirmed that troops opened fire at Palestinians rushing toward aid trucks in Gaza, with one saying soldiers thought they "posed a threat" to troops.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, however, said many of the dead were crushed by the trucks themselves, after "aid trucks were overwhelmed by people trying to loot".

The Gaza City shooting adds to a Palestinian death toll from the war which the health ministry earlier Thursday said had topped 30,000.

It came after mediators said a truce deal between Israel and Hamas militants could be just days away.

In a reflection of increased concern at the White House, President Joe Biden's administration is considering air-dropping aid into Gaza, US news site Axios reported early Thursday.

Towards 'the finish line'

The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.

Militants also took about 250 hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, and its retaliatory military campaign has killed 30,035 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Israel's military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.

New Zealand on Thursday became one of the latest Western countries to designate Hamas as a "terrorist" entity, saying the October 7 attack shattered the notion that the movement's political and military wings are separate.

Mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been seeking a six-week pause in the war.

Negotiators hope a truce can begin by around March 10 or 11 when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, depending on the lunar calendar.
The proposals reportedly include the release of some Israeli hostages held in Gaza by militants in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Short of the complete withdrawal Hamas has called for, a source from the group said the deal might see Israeli forces leave "cities and populated areas", allowing the return of some displaced Palestinians and humanitarian relief.

Biden is "pushing all of us to try to get this agreement over the finish line", Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Famine 'imminent'

The United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA described the food security situation as "extremely critical across Gaza, particularly in northern Gaza."

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), no humanitarian group had been able to deliver aid to the north for more than a month. The agency accused Israel of blocking access.

"If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza," WFP's deputy executive director Carl Skau said.

Israeli officials have denied blocking supplies.

With aid flows on the ground limited, more is coming in by parachute.
Neighbouring Jordan said it had on Thursday again air-dropped food and other relief. Jordan's army said the drop over northern Gaza came in collaboration with Bahrain and Oman.

The United Arab Emirates' official news agency WAM said the Gulf country had begun a joint operation with Egypt to drop food and medical aid.
The operation would last several weeks, it said.

In the south, nearly 1.5 million people trying to flee the fighting are now packed into Rafah city, also short of food, as Israel threatens to send in troops against Hamas fighters there.

"They are 30,000 martyrs. I don't know what (Israel) want from us, and why they killed this number. It is a genocide," said Jihad Salha, one of the displaced in Rafah.

Intense fighting has taken place in Khan Yunis city a few kilometres (miles) from Rafah.

On Thursday Israel's military said it had also killed militants in central Gaza as well as in Gaza City's Zeitun area.

"Three terrorists that used drones were identified entering a compound in the area, where they were eliminated" by an air strike, the military said.

While fighting continued, Muhammad Yassin, 35, battled to find flour in Zeitun.

"I found thousands of people waiting for long hours just to get a kilo or two kilos of flour," he said.

"We have not eaten a loaf of bread for two months. Our children are starving."

Meeting in Moscow

Talk about Gaza's post-war future has intensified even as combat continues.

On Thursday, Palestinian factions -- including Hamas and rival Fatah -- were expected in Moscow for a meeting at Russia's invitation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who leads a coalition which includes religious and ultra-nationalist parties -- has come under increasing pressure to bring the remaining hostages home.

A group of 150 Israelis have started a four-day march from Reim, near the Gaza border, to Jerusalem, calling for the government to reach a deal.

In another reflection of political tensions within Israel, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called for members of the ultra-Orthodox community to be enrolled in military service.