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112 dead in chaotic scenes as Israeli troops open fire near aid trucks, say Gaza officials

More than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the early hours of Thursday morning, Gaza health officials said, when desperate crowds gathered around aid trucks and Israeli troops opened fire, in an incident that the US president, Joe Biden, warned was likely to complicate ceasefire talks.

There were starkly different accounts of how the victims died in the chaos that took place near Gaza City in the north of the strip.

Israel’s military denied shooting into large crowds of hungry people and said most were killed in a crush or run over by trucks trying to escape. Soldiers only fired at a small group that moved away from the trucks and threatened a checkpoint, a spokesperson said.

As the UN security council convened an emergency session on Thursday night, the White House called for the deaths to be “thoroughly investigated” and reminded Israel that it needs to provide basic security in areas of Gaza under its control.

Witnesses and survivors described bullets hitting crowds around the aid trucks, and Mohammed Salha, acting director of the al-Awda hospital, which treated 161 casualties, said most appeared to have been shot.

However, another Palestinian witness told the BBC that most of the dead had been run over by lorries.

Gaza health officials said at least 112 people were killed and 280 injured after Israeli forces opened fire on an aid distribution point.

Ali Awad Ashqir, who said he had gone to get some food for his starving family, told the news agencyAFP he had been waiting for two hours when trucks began to arrive.

“The moment they arrived, the occupation army fired artillery shells and guns,” he said.

Israeli army spokesperon Daniel Hagari later denied Israeli forces carried out any shelling or strikes at the time.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said it was an “ugly massacre conducted by the Israeli occupation army on people who waited for aid trucks at the Nabulsi roundabout”.

Biden said the US was checking “two competing versions” of the incident and said the bloodshed would complicate efforts to broker a deal to stop the fighting and release Israeli hostages before the holy month of Ramadan, which starts on 10 March. The White House called the deaths “tremendously alarming”.

State department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters the US was “urgently seeking additional information on exactly what took place”.

Washington will be monitoring an upcoming investigation closely and “pressing for answers”, he said.

Hamas said the incident could jeopardise talks in Qatar. The group would not allow talks “to be a cover for the enemy to continue its crimes”, it said.

France’s foreign ministry said “the fire by Israeli soldiers against civilians trying to access food is unjustifiable”.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“Deep indignation at the images coming from Gaza where civilians have been targeted by Israeli soldiers. I express my strongest condemnation of these shootings and call for truth, justice, and respect for international law,” Macron said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Turkey accused Israel of committing “another crime against humanity” and condemning Gazans to “famine” as civilians scavenge for dwindling supplies of food.

“The fact that Israel... this time targets innocent civilians in a queue for humanitarian aid, is evidence that (Israel) aims consciously and collectively to destroy the Palestinian people”, the Turkish foreign ministry said.

Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro denounced what he called a “genocide” of the Palestinian people and suspended purchases of weapons from Israel, a key supplier of his country’s security forces.

“Asking for food, more than 100 Palestinians were killed by [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. This is called genocide and recalls the Holocaust,” Petro wrote on X. “The world must block Netanyahu.”

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the deaths would require effective independent investigation and that he was “shocked” by the incident.

The Palestinian ambassador to the UN pleaded for the Security Council to condemn the episode. “The Security Council should say enough is enough,” Riyad Mansour told reporters ahead of the closed-door meeting by the body, which came at the request of Algeria.

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The death toll from Israeli attacks on Gaza has now passed 30,000. With more than 70,000 others injured, and thousands more uncounted victims buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings, nearly one in 20 of the prewar population of Gaza are now casualties of attacks.

The US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said earlier on Thursday that more than 25,000 women and children had been killed by Israel since 7 October 2023, adding that Israel could and should do more to protect civilians.

The survivors are stalked by hunger, with “pockets of starvation” reported particularly in the north, and widespread malnutrition that has already killed some children. There are also severe shortages of medical supplies, clean water and shelter.

The desperation of crowds who died trying to reach the food aid underlined the extent of shortages in the north around Gaza City. UN officials have described a blockade within a blockade, with additional Israeli controls that make it even harder to get supplies into northern Gaza than the south.

One injured survivor, Kamel Abu Nahel, said he went to the aid distribution point in the middle of the night because he hoped for food supplies, after two months of eating animal feed.

After trucks arrived and a crowd gathered, Israeli soldiers opened fire, so people scattered to seek shelter but returned once the gunfire stopped, he told the AP news agency. However the troops opened fire again, and Abu Nahel was shot in the leg then run over by a truck that was speeding away.

There were so many wounded that some were taken to hospitals in donkey carts; videos shared on social media appeared to show medics walking beside one piled with victims. Hospital corridors were crowded with survivors and relatives.

The Israeli military spokesperson Lt Col Peter Lerner said most casualties were caused by a crush around some trucks in the convoy after they first passed the Israeli military checkpoint into northern Gaza.

Later, crowds chasing the final truck in the convoy turned and moved back towards the checkpoint, he said, prompting troops to fire warning shots, and then lethal rounds in self-defence. The Israeli military released footage of crowds round the trucks which it said showed the lethal crush but not the shooting incident.

Lerner declined to say how much time elapsed between the crush and the shooting, or estimate casualties in either, saying only he did not believe the Palestinian toll.

It was not clear who had supplied the trucks of food. The UN agency for Palestine, Unrwa, has not sent an aid convoy to northern Gaza since 5 February, when its trucks were attacked by the Israeli navy even though the delivery had been approved for transit. Lerner said he did not know who sent the aid.

There are thought to be about 300,000 people still living in northern Gaza, months after Israel ordered all civilians to leave.

Some were not able to travel, others feared they would not find a place to stay in the crammed shelters of the south, felt that with strikes all over Gaza they preferred to take their chances at home, or worried Israeli forces would not allow them to return if they headed south.

“We think that this latest event needs to be thoroughly investigated,” a White House spokesperson, Olivia Dalton, said, adding that the US had asked Israel for more information.

“We have consistently and vocally communicated to our Israeli counterparts the need for there to be viable plans to maintain basic security in areas of Gaza where military operations against Hamas have concluded.

The UN security council held an emergency sessions behind closed doors on the Gazan deaths on Thursday amid fresh international demands for a ceasefire. The UN’s undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, said: “Life is draining out of Gaza at terrifying speed.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, said: “The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians.”

In the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan accused Israel of targeting civilians, and separately called for more aid to reach Gaza and greater international pressure on Israel to reach a ceasefire deal.

In February barely 100 trucks a day of aid had reached Gaza, just half the amount that got through in January, Philippe Lazzarini, the head of Unrwa, told journalists on a visit to Jerusalem.

And it is just a trickle compared with the 500 trucks that went in daily with food and medical aid before the war started in October. Then Gaza had a functioning economy, agriculture sector and commercial imports, with many people feeding themselves.

After Hamas’s 7 October attack on Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and in which more than 200 people were kidnapped and taken to Gaza, Israel tightened a years-long blockade to halt entry of most food, water and medical supplies to Gaza. It says the controls on supplies are vital to its war on Hamas, and efforts to recover hostages.

With much of Gaza in ruins and the majority of its population displaced from their homes, almost everyone now relies on aid. Lazzarini described the restrictions as a siege that had brought the strip to the brink of an unprecedented human-made famine.

“What’s extraordinary in this conflict is the man-made widespread hunger and even looming starvation and famine in some pockets,” he said. “The type of situation or siege being imposed on the Gaza Strip since October 7 has led to a situation not seen anywhere else in the world.

“Within four or five months, suddenly we talk about a famine, which is absolutely easy to reverse because to reverse it depends only and exclusively on the proper political will.”

There have been airdrops of food aid in recent days into parts of Gaza. But while these could work well for specialised medical equipment and other needs, Lazzarini said, they were an “extraordinarily expensive” way to deliver food that could not be scaled up to address the levels of hunger in Gaza.

Israel says that it does not impose limits on aid shipments into Gaza, and blames the logistical failures of UN agencies and humanitarian organisations for failing to process and distribute enough aid.