Troops raid Hamas leaders' homes in Khan Younis

Calls intensify for probe into Gaza aid stampede as global criticism of Israel mounts

Allies demand answers on how deadly event unfolded; Colombia president echoes Holocaust accusations, announces end to arms purchases from Israel

Palestinians run along a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City on March 1, 2024 (AFP)
Palestinians run along a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City on March 1, 2024 (AFP)

International calls intensified Friday for a probe into the deaths of dozens of Palestinians clamoring around an aid convoy in northern Gaza a day earlier, with many countries blaming Israel for the disaster and threatening diplomatic steps.

The calls came as officials involved in talks for a temporary ceasefire and prisoner swap expressed cautious optimism that such a deal could be struck before the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, on March 10.

“We are hopeful that we can reach a cessation of hostilities and exchange of hostages. Everyone recognizes that we have a time limit to be successful before the start of Ramadan,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum in Turkey on Friday.

Family members of people held hostage in Gaza also expressed their hope a deal would be reached before Ramadan. Family members held a demonstration outside the US consulate in Tel Aviv on Friday demanding US President Joe Biden pressure the government to accept a deal.

“The [Biden] administration is more committed to the issue of the hostages than the Israeli government, therefore the families of the hostages, together with other activists, will call on the responsible adult to apply pressure and save the abductees from Hamas captivity and the extremist government,” Ynet quoted the organizers as saying. “These are critical days, a deal is on the table, Ramadan is approaching and every hour must be used to bring about an orderly solution.”

Negotiations could be complicated by Thursday’s mass-casualty incident, in which Hamas claimed over 100 people were killed.

Hamas blamed the IDF for the deaths, calling it a massacre, but the military has said most of the casualties were caused by a stampede and people being run over by the supply vehicles. Gunmen also opened fire in the area as they looted the supplies. The IDF said its fire was responsible for no more than 10 casualties.

People call for the release of Israelis held kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in Gaza outside the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hamas warned in a statement that the incident could lead to the failure of talks aimed at a deal on a truce and hostage release.

“The negotiations conducted by the movement’s leadership are not an open process at the expense of the blood of our people,” it said, referring to Thursday’s deaths and saying Israel would be responsible for any failure of the talks.

French President Emmanuel Macron voiced “deep indignation” and the “strongest condemnation of these shootings.” His foreign minister, Stephane Sejourne, said Paris would back an independent investigation sought by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that “the Israeli army must fully explain how the mass panic and shooting could have happened.”

In this screen grab taken from video and released by the Israeli army on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024, Palestinians surround aid trucks in northern Gaza in what officials described the day before as the first major delivery in a month. (IDF via AP)

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.” Nonetheless, the US blocked a UN Security Council resolution blaming Israel for the tragedy.

Meanwhile, South Africa said Friday that in the aid convoy incident, Israel had breached the World Court’s provisional orders in a legal case in which Pretoria has accused Israel of committing genocide in the coastal enclave.

“South Africa condemns the massacre of 112 Palestinians and the injury of hundreds more as they sought life-saving aid,” South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation said in a statement, relying on Hamas’s death count from the Gaza City incident.

“This latest atrocity is another breach of international law and in breach of the binding provisional orders of the International Court of Justice.”

Illustrative: South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandorthe, left, attends the session of the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, January 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

In response to the incident, Colombia’s leftist president, Gustavo Petro, announced that his country would cease all arms purchases from Israel, as he ramped up already-heated rhetoric employed by some Latin American leaders to describe Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

“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. Colombia is suspending all arms purchases from Israel.”

Israel is one of the main providers of weapons to the South American country’s security forces, which are engaged in a decades-long conflict with leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels.

Petro’s decision represents an escalation in the diplomatic spat between Israel and certain leftist leaders in Latin America, which began on February 18 when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva likened Israel’s war in Gaza to the Holocaust.

Illustrative: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, poses for a picture with Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres, File)

Israel described the comments as a serious antisemitic attack and Holocaust denial and has demanded an apology; Brazilian sources have said that would not happen.

Petro, who along with Bolivian President Luis Acre rallied to Lula’s side in the spat, had voiced a similar sentiment in October, less than two weeks into the war,

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also took to X Friday to say that she was “deeply disturbed by images from Gaza,” adding that “[e]very effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency.”

Her colleague, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, had earlier expressed his dismay at the incident. “I am horrified by news of yet another carnage among civilians in Gaza desperate for humanitarian aid,” Borrell wrote on X. “These deaths are totally unacceptable.”

The Gaza war began on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took over 250 hostages.

Vowing to dismantle the Palestinian terror group and release the hostages, Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says that more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed so far. The figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed more than 13,000 Hamas operatives in addition to another 1,000 killed inside Israel on October 7.

Operations in Khan Younis

Fighting continued Friday.

The IDF released footage of the Givati Brigade operating in the southern Gaza Strip, killing Hamas gunmen in eastern Khan Younis suburbs.

Over the past week, the IDF said Givati troops killed dozens of Hamas operatives during operations in the so-called Abasan area — named after the towns of Abasan al-Jadida, Abasan al-Kabira, and Abasan al-Saghira — some two kilometers from the Israeli border.

Ahead of the brigade’s operations, airstrikes were carried out against dozens of Hamas sites above and below ground, the IDF said.

In the town of Abasan al-Saghira, the IDF said troops located a hideout apartment used by Hamas, where weapons, including anti-tank missiles, drones, sniper rifles, assault rifles, grenades, RPGS and other equipment were stored.

During operations in the Abasan area, the IDF says troops of Givati’s reconnaissance unit engaged in close-quarters combat with Hamas operatives. In one battle, two soldiers, Staff Sgt. Nerya Belete and Staff Sgt. Ido Eli Zrihen, were killed.

From the Abasan area towns, the IDF said Hamas terrorists set out to attack the Israeli border communities of Kissufim, Ein Hashlosha, Nirim and Nir Oz on October 7.

The IDF also released new footage from the operations of the 7th Armored Brigade in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, saying the troops have been raiding the homes of Hamas commanders and have nabbed operatives hiding in a school.

According to the IDF, the 7th Brigade operated this week in new areas of Khan Younis, where troops had not yet been, during which they searched the homes of senior Hamas officials.

“In the heart of the residential neighborhoods, the troops encountered dozens of terrorists and eliminated them with tank shelling, in close-quarters combat, and by directing airstrikes,” the IDF said.

At the homes of the Hamas officials, the IDF says the troops found RPGs, explosives, assault rifles and other military equipment.

The troops also captured dozens of suspected terror operatives hiding in a school in Khan Younis.

“During their interrogation, the terrorists provided intelligence information that went directly to the forces operating in Khan Younis,” the IDF said.

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