Witnesses to Deaths Near Gaza Aid Convoy Describe Shooting and Panic

They went out by the thousands, camping overnight along a coastal road in the cold Gaza night, huddled together by small fires, waiting for supplies to come so they could feed their families.

What they encountered was death and injury by the hundreds, according to witnesses and a doctor who treated the wounded, as Israeli forces opened fire toward desperate Palestinians who surged forward when aid trucks finally arrived before dawn on Thursday.

“I saw things I never, ever thought I would see,” said Mohammed Al-Sholi, who had camped out overnight for a chance to get food for his family. “I saw people falling to the ground after being shot, and others simply took the food items that were with them and continued running for their lives.”

Amid the chaos and bloodshed, some people were run over by the aid trucks, he said.

On Friday, President Biden said the United States would begin airdropping aid to Gaza to help relieve the suffering there, as European leaders condemned Israel for the deaths of scores of hungry Palestinians who were killed as they surrounded the aid convoy.

The Gazan health authorities have said that Israeli troops killed more than 100 people and wounded 700 others in a “massacre” as the convoy rolled along a dark road, a version of events that Israel disputed.

An Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said on Thursday that Israeli soldiers had been trying to secure the convoy and fired “when the mob moved in a manner that endangered them.” But he said the soldiers had not fired on people seeking aid. The military has said that most of the people died in a stampede and that some were run over by the trucks in Gaza City.

Around 150 wounded people and 12 of those killed were taken to Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza, said Dr. Eid Sabbah, the head of nursing there. He said that about 95 percent of the injuries were from gunshots to the chest and abdomen.

The deaths touched off global outrage and intensified pressure on Israel to agree to a cease-fire with Hamas that would allow more aid into Gaza.

France’s foreign minister, Stéphane Séjourné, called for an independent investigation and said the violence around the convoy was the result of a humanitarian catastrophe that had left people “fighting for food.”

“What is happening is indefensible and unjustifiable,” Mr. Séjourné told France Inter radio on Friday. “Israel must be able to hear it, and it must stop.”

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, called on the Israeli military to “fully explain” the killings and joined calls for a cease-fire.

“People in Gaza are closer to death than to life,” Ms. Baerbock said in a statement. “More humanitarian aid must come in. Immediately.”

Mr. Biden said that the United States would work with Jordan to airdrop aid into Gaza in the coming days.

“Innocent people got caught in a terrible war, unable to feed their families, and you saw the response when they tried to get aid,” Mr. Biden said at the White House, before meeting with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy. “But we need to do more, and the United States will do more.”

Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that regardless of how people near the convoy died, it was clear that they were trying to get food.

“That cannot happen,” she said. “Desperate civilians trying to feed their starving families should not be shot at.”

The British foreign secretary, David Cameron, said that Israel has an obligation to ensure that significantly more humanitarian aid reaches civilians in Gaza.

“A sustained pause in the fighting is the only way to get lifesaving aid in at the scale needed and free the hostages cruelly held by Hamas,” he said in a statement.

Palestinians, particularly in the north, have been fighting starvation and are regularly converging on the relatively few aid trucks that have entered the territory. Aid groups and the United Nations have accused Israel of blocking aid to north Gaza, which Israel has denied. Aid groups have also reported rampant looting of aid trucks in the area.

A small number of police officers from the Hamas-run security forces have shown up to work in Gaza City in recent weeks, but they have largely failed to restore basic security, residents said. Last week, the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, joined UNRWA, the U.N. agency that serves Palestinians in Gaza, in stopping aid shipments to the north, citing lawlessness in the area.

On Friday, the European Union said that it planned to increase funding substantially this year for UNRWA and would give it 50 million euros, or about $54 million, next week.

The announcement was a lifeline for the agency, which has been fighting for its survival after some donor nations suspended their funding, citing Israeli allegations that a dozen of the agency’s 13,000 workers were involved in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks.

The number of aid trucks entering Gaza dropped significantly in February, data shows, even as humanitarian leaders warned of famine and said that some people had resorted to eating bird seed and leaves.

​​An average of 96 trucks a day entered Gaza through Feb. 27, a 30 percent drop from the January average and the lowest monthly average since before a cease-fire in late November, according to UNRWA. Before the war, around 500 aid trucks entered Gaza each day.

The decline reflects, in part, Israel’s insistence on inspecting every truck at the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Israel, which has acted as the main gateway since it was reopened in December. Aid also passes into Gaza from Egypt through a crossing at the city of Rafah after Israeli officials inspect the cargo for weapons and other contraband.

Aid officials said that, while necessary, the inspection system had caused significant delays that resulted in less overall aid.

On Thursday, Israeli soldiers were providing security for the convoy that was entering Gaza City, with private vehicles distributing food from international donors, an Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, told Britain’s Channel 4.

Edited drone video footage released by the Israeli military, along with social media videos of the scene analyzed by The New York Times, does not fully explain the sequence of events. The videos show hundreds of people surrounding and climbing on trucks and people crawling and ducking for cover.

Mr. Al-Sholi, a 34-year-old taxi driver, said that he went to meet the convoy because he and his family, including three young children, had been surviving on little more than the spices, minced wheat and wild greens that they can find.

On Wednesday, he had heard that people had received bags of flour from aid trucks, and there were rumors that another convoy was coming. So he went to a traffic circle with friends to wait. He said he had never seen so many people gathered in one place.

“Right before the trucks arrived, a tank started to move toward us — it was around 3:30 a.m. — and fired a few shots in the air,” Mr. Al-Sholi said in a telephone interview, referring to Israeli tanks. “That tank fired at least one shell. It was dark, and I ran back toward a destroyed building and took shelter there.”

When the trucks arrived soon after, “people ran toward them to get food and drink and whatever else they could get,” said Mohammad Hamoudeh, a photographer in Gaza City. But when people reached the trucks, he said, “the tanks started firing directly at the people.”

He added, “I saw them firing direct machine gun fire.”

The witnesses said that Israeli tanks fired toward people even as they began to run away. Israeli forces continued to fire regularly toward Gazans from between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., when they first arrived, until around 7 a.m., the witnesses said.

On Thursday, Admiral Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said that troops “did not fire on those seeking aid, despite the accusations.”

“We did not fire on the humanitarian convoy, either from the air or the land,” he said. “We secured it so it could reach northern Gaza.”

Mr. Hamoudeh said that, despite the panic at the scene, many still rushed for the supplies. “People were terrified, but not everyone,” he said. “There were those who risked death just so they could get food. They just want to live.”

Reporting was contributed by Victoria Kim, Shashank Bengali, Abu Bakr Bashir, Nader Ibrahim, Julian E. Barnes, Lauren Leatherby, Gaya Gupta, Monika Pronczuk, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Adam Sella.