Palestinian children gather around containers of water in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 1, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Image Credit: AFP

Paris/Jerusalem: Pressure mounted on Israel on Friday over the deaths of Palestinians queuing for aid in an incident during which its soldiers fired at the crowd, with several countries backing a UN call for an inquiry.

Gaza health authorities said Israeli forces had killed more than 100 people trying to reach a relief convoy near Gaza City early on Thursday, with famine looming nearly five months into the war that began with a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

Israel blamed most of the deaths on crowds that swarmed around aid trucks, saying victims had been trampled or run over.

An Israeli official also said troops had “in a limited response” later fired on crowds they felt had posed a threat.

The incident has underscored the collapse of orderly aid deliveries in areas of Gaza occupied by Israeli forces with no administration in place and the main UN agency UNRWA hamstrung by an inquiry into alleged links with Hamas.

The Hamas attack on Oct. 7 killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and involved the seizure of 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military campaign has since killed more than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza, health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave say.

With a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza, many countries have urged a ceasefire, but US President Joe Biden said Thursday’s incident will complicate talks for a deal involving a truce and hostage release.

France and Germany have backed a call for an international inquiry. The US has also urged an inquiry. India said it was “deeply shocked” at the deaths and Brazil said the incident was beyond “ethical or legal limits” South Africa, which has brought a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, condemned the deaths. Israel denies genocide.

French President Emmanuel Macron voiced “deep indignation” and the “strongest condemnation of these shootings”. Germany said “the Israeli army must fully explain how the mass panic and shooting could have happened.” Israel’s closest ally, the United States, has also urged a thorough investigation, saying the incident shows the need for “expanded humanitarian aid to make its way into Gaza”.

A columnist in the biggest daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said the incident would “create a turning point in the war” and could “exert international pressure that Israel will not be able to withstand, including from the White House,” it said.

Aid delivery row

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in the Gaza Strip, particularly the north, after nearly five months of an Israeli air and ground campaign that has ruined swathes of the crowded coastal enclave and pushed it to the edge of famine.

With people eating animal feed and even cactuses to survive, and with medics saying children are dying in hospitals from malnutrition and dehydration, the UN has said it faces “overwhelming obstacles” getting in aid.

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said obstacles included “crossing closures, restrictions on movement and communications, onerous vetting procedures, unrest, damaged roads and unexploded ordnance.” Last week the UN said aid flows into Gaza were drying up and it was becoming increasingly hard to distribute aid within the enclave because of a collapse in security, with most residents hemmed into makeshift camps.

Israel has said there is no limit on humanitarian aid in Gaza and has said the quantity and pace of delivery was down to the UN.

Israel’s military said Thursday’s delivery was operated by private contractors as part of an aid operation it had been overseeing for the previous four days.

OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke said the delivery was made without any coordination with the UN.

The war has driven out the Hamas-run government that previously administered Gaza and rendered municipal police helpless, while the work of the main UN agency operating in the enclave has been constrained by Israeli accusations it was complicit in the Oct. 7 attack, which it denies.

“This tragic massacre, as some are calling it, is an illustration of why UNRWA needs to be distributing aid in Gaza to stave off mass starvation, which has already begun,” said Chris Gunness, a former UNRWA spokesperson.

“It’s an illustration that you cannot leave the protection of the Palestinians in Gaza in terms of food security to the Israelis,” he added.