Deaths of Dozens in Gaza Stampede for Aid Put Israel in No-Win Situation, Cast Doubt on Hostage Deal

Blame is put on Israel amid near universal condemnation, as pressure mounts from the Biden administration and other allies.

AP/Ohad Zwigenberg
People block a street during a protest calling for a deal to release the hostages held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas, at Tel Aviv February 29, 2024. AP/Ohad Zwigenberg

The deaths of dozens in a Gaza stampede during humanitarian assistance deliveries is complicating Israel’s war plans, as well as President Biden’s attempts at forcing a cease-fire. As Ramadan approaches, it is also raising passions across the Muslim world.  

Near universal condemnation of Israel puts it in a no-win situation. Under pressure from the White House and other allies, it has approved an ever-growing number of aid convoys for Gaza civilians. Yet, distribution of aid inside Gaza is chaotic. On Thursday desperation turned deadly, and Israel, again, is being widely condemned. 

Mr. Biden said that the incident could complicate a deal to release hostages in return for a long pause in the fighting, which he had earlier predicted is close to completion. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel is yet to receive a name list of hostages to be released, and vowed that the war would continue until its goals of eradicating Hamas and release of all hostages are achieved. 

Meanwhile, a West Bank terrorist, identified as an officer in the Palestinian Authority security forces, opened fire on a car near the West Bank settlement of Eli, killing two Israelis. Yet it was the Gaza incident, in which dozens civilians were killed, that captured headlines and raised passions around the world.   

According to an erroneous initial report by the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, 104 Palestinians were killed after the Israel Defense Force fired live ammunition at them. The report was quickly picked up by television networks worldwide. Anger at Israel rose in the Mideast and Europe, as well as in America.

In reality, most of the deaths were caused by a stampede. A convoy of 30 food trucks was surrounded by a throng of desperate civilians in northern Gaza trying to confiscate bags of foodstuff before they reach Hamas or criminals that take the aid to sell later. As seen in aerial footage issued by the IDF, most of the victims were crushed as the Arab drivers pushed the trucks into the crowd. 

In a separate incident in southern Gaza, where the trucks entered the Strip, a group of people closed in on an Israeli tank, there to secure the transfer of the aid convoy. According to the IDF, the tank crew at first fired warning shots, which failed to deter the crowd. It later aimed at limbs. Ten people were hurt, according to the IDF, and some of them were likely killed.    

America is sorting out the facts among “two competing versions of what happened,” Mr. Biden told reporters. He then corrected an earlier prediction, made in an interview with NBC’s Seth Myers, that a deal to release hostages in return for weeks of cease-fire could be reached by Monday.

“Hope springs eternal,” Mr. Biden said Thursday. After calling leaders of Qatar and Egypt who had issued strong condemnation of Israel earlier, he added, “I’m still working on it. Probably not by Monday.” The multiple deaths in Gaza seem to be complicating the American efforts. Yet the diplomacy had already been much less promising than Mr. Biden’s rosy predictions. 

International pressure on Israel to end the war is “growing steadily,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters. “Along with my partners I’m working hard to push back against pressure to end the war before its goals are achieved.” Israel, he added, “continues efforts to eradicate Hamas and will continue to the next stage — and there will be a next stage.”

He said that the IDF has already prepared a plan, for his approval, which included a humanitarian evacuation of an estimated 1.2 million Gazans sheltering in Rafah. While he declined to disclose timing or methods of sending troops to Rafah, Mr. Netanyahu vowed the war would not end before the four Hamas divisions that remain in there are eliminated. 

As Ramadan approaches, starting around March 10, Israel girds for what will likely be heightened passions in the Arab and Muslim world. The deadly attack at Eli is part of a pattern of a significant uptick in terrorism every year around the holy month, the military analyst for Israel Channel 11, Roee Sharon, said. 

Trying to calm accusations that Arab regimes don’t do enough to aid Gazans, King Abdullah II of Jordan led several air force missions to drop aid packages over Gaza. Several such parachuted packages ended up in the sea in the last few days, and on Thursday some landed outside of Gaza, in Israel’s territory.

Despite such mishaps, some in Washington are urging the Pentagon to send American planes to join the Arab countries that joined Jordan in the air drops.

Appearing at Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza Wednesday, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s chief, Samantha Powers, said Washington would provide an additional $53 million in aid. She urged Israel to allow more aid trucks in. Yet, distribution inside the Strip remains the thorniest stage of the operations.


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