At least 20 killed awaiting aid in Gaza as new cease-fire offer debated

At least 20 people were killed and more than 150 wounded late Thursday in what Palestinian officials in Gaza and witnesses said was an Israeli attack on a crowd of people waiting to collect supplies from an aid convoy in the north of the enclave. Israel’s military strongly denied responsibility for the killings in a statement Friday.

The Israel Defense Forces said Palestinian gunmen opened fired as the crowd gathered, and that some civilians had been run over by the aid trucks.

“An intensive preliminary review conducted overnight by the IDF found that the IDF did not open fire at the aid convoy,” the statement said.

Three people interviewed by The Washington Post who said they went to meet the trucks Thursday night said they saw an Israeli helicopter and drones randomly firing on Palestinians who had gathered to receive the aid. Two of the witnesses said they saw armed Palestinian police officers as well, but they were some distance away. One said the officers fired their weapons in the air to control the crowds.

The killings occurred as Gaza reels from a hunger crisis that humanitarian officials say is man-made and due in large part to Israel’s obstruction of aid. The dire shortages, and the retreat of the authorities, has led to desperate scrambles around aid convoys and scenes of chaos and discord that Gazans were previously unaccustomed to. As supplies of food, medicine and other necessities have entered at land crossings into Gaza — at levels far below what aid officials say the enclave needs — international governments have resorted to delivering a small amount of supplies by air and by sea.

Israel has denied limiting aid to Gaza. U.N. and other relief officials say that without a cease-fire, the struggle to deliver supplies will continue and the enclave’s population could face mass starvation.

Israel’s war cabinet met Friday to evaluate a new cease-fire proposal by Hamas. Afterward, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that the militant group’s demands were “still unreasonable” but that Israel would send a delegation to Qatar, which has brokered cease-fire talks, to discuss Israel’s position.

Shortly before midnight Friday, Gaza’s Health Ministry said that dozens of people had been killed or injured as the result of an Israeli attack on civilians waiting for food at the Kuwaiti Roundabout, a place in northern Gaza where people have rushed to intercept aid deliveries. Al-Shifa hospital had received 11 bodies and 100 injured people, the statement said. The health ministry later said at least 20 people had been killed.

Mahmoud Basal, a spokesman for the Civil Defense in Gaza, said in an interview late Thursday that thousands of people who had gathered near the roundabout were forced to “take cover” after what he said was shooting by Israeli helicopters and drones, that was followed by tank and artillery fire. An artillery shell landed on a destroyed house where people were sheltering, he said.

The Israel Defense Forces, in a statement, said it had “facilitated the passage” of 31 trucks carrying humanitarian aid intended for residents in northern Gaza. About an hour before they arrived at the “humanitarian corridor, armed Palestinians opened fire while Gazan civilians were waiting,” the statement said.

“The Palestinian gunmen continued to shoot as the crowd of Gazans began looting the trucks,” the statement said. No Israeli “tank fire, airstrike or gunfire was carried out toward the Gazan civilians at the aid convoy,” it added, calling reports that Israel was responsible for the deaths part of a “smear campaign” by Hamas.

Abdul Hakim Jawwad, one of the witnesses, said he left his home in the town of Beit Lahiya around 7 p.m. after the evening prayer. About an hour later, when he was about 350 feet north of the Kuwaiti Roundabout, he first heard what he described as artillery and gunfire. Then, he said, he saw a helicopter and a quadcopter that fired “shells and bullets.”

Jawwad said the firing began before the trucks arrived. It stopped at times, he said, when a truck sped through the crowd and people frantically clamored to jump into the truck bed to grab flour or other supplies. Then the firing would start again, he said. He estimated that there were seven trucks.

“The trucks ran over people, too,” he said. “I am one of those people. A truck ran over my foot.”

Jawwad said he has gone several times to the Kuwaiti Roundabout to try to get flour, though he always came away empty-handed, as he had Thursday.

Despite the dangers, he pushed a little farther in Thursday, until he reached a bakery about 65 feet from the roundabout, he said.

The chaos of the aid deliveries, which people hear about through word of mouth, has become routine, he said. In the darkness, people are fixated on trying to get food and survive, he said.

Last night, though, was the first time he saw groups of men, some armed with automatic weapons, who Jawwad identified as police. He said they were about 350 feet away from the roundabout and at times “fired into the air” to quiet the crowds. Contrary to Israeli reports, he said, he did not see Palestinians firing on other Palestinians.

Another witness, Mohammed Samir Bassel, 49, from the Zaitoun neighborhood of Gaza City, told The Post by phone that he saw police stationed less than a mile away, at the Doula Circle. He said that, starting around 8 p.m., Israeli helicopters and drones periodically fired toward the crowds. Bassel said he was able to get a 25-pound bag of flour.

One of Jawwad’s friends, Mohammed Safi, 29, also left Beit Lahiya after breaking his fast and went to the Kuwaiti Roundabout in search of flour. “We have been fasting since the first month or two of the war,” he said, referring to the widespread food shortages. When the crowds first arrived, Israeli troops threw “sound and smoke bombs,” he said. “Then they started shooting.”

“Victims started being brought out,” he said. After a few hours, Safi also left empty-handed.

The accounts could not be independently corroborated: Both Israel and Egypt, which control Gaza’s land borders, have barred journalists from entering independently. Late Friday, the IDF released grainy, edited footage of what it said showed “Palestinian gunmen opening fire in the midst of Gazan civilians.” The shootings occurred about an hour before the aid convoy arrived, the IDF said.

The Post could not immediately verify the location in the footage, or the events the IDF said it depicted.

Israel has vowed to dismantle Hamas, including the civilian police force in the militant-run enclave.

Last month, police in Gaza said they would no longer accompany aid deliveries after an increase in attacks targeting the force, according to the United Nations. The retreat of police has consequently fueled the lawlessness surrounding aid distribution.

Eyewitnesses told The Post that police in the vicinity of the roundabout Thursday were not wearing uniforms.

The United States reviewed a new hostage release offer from Hamas on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, declaring that there was intense ongoing work to try to reach a deal that would impose a cease-fire on a war that is now in its fifth month.

“There has been a counterproposal put forward by Hamas,” Blinken told reporters in Vienna after a day of meetings with United Nations policymakers and Austrian leaders. “I obviously can’t get into the details.”

The United States is “working intensively with Israel, with Qatar, with Egypt to bridge the remaining gaps and to try to reach an agreement,” he added. “We have conversations that are happening now as we speak here, and I’m convinced they’ll go on into the coming days.”

Basem Naim, a Hamas official, told The Post that he could not confirm the exact details of the proposal, but said the group is aiming for a comprehensive deal to end the fighting rather than just a partial one. “A whole deal or no deal,” he said.

Reuters, which said it reviewed the proposal, and that details included the release of women, children and elderly, as well as sick Israeli hostages, in exchange for 700 to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, 100 of whom are serving life sentences. According to figures from the Israeli government, around 99 living hostages remain in captivity in Gaza.

In response to news of a potential deal nearing, some families of Israeli hostages said they would gather outside a government building in Tel Aviv on Friday to put pressure on the War Cabinet to accept the deal.

“Now is the moment for the members of the Security Cabinet and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a decision that will save our beloved ones,” they said in a statement Friday.

“An entire nation is counting on them to make the right choice — the return of our brothers and sisters.”

Michael Birnbaum and Hajar Harb contributed to this report.

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