The far-reaching consequences of Thursday’s Gaza aid disaster

Deadly incident will likely complicate both war aims — dismantling Hamas and returning the hostages — exacerbate friction on other fronts, boost global calls for permanent ceasefire

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

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. (IDF via AP)
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. (IDF via AP)

From early on in Israel’s vital war to dismantle Hamas and ensure it could not rise again to commit further October 7 atrocities, the United States, Israel’s key supportive ally, implored the government to do its best to ensure sufficient humanitarian aid was brought into the Gaza warzone and to give thought to alternative civil governance for the Strip to replace Hamas.

Both of those concerns were also shared by Israel’s own security authorities.

It is far from certain that even the most assiduous efforts by an Israeli leadership to address those two issues could have prevented Thursday morning’s deaths of many Gazans in the chaos and crush surrounding a convoy of aid trucks. But with Israel widely regarded, and regarding itself, as the only non-Hamas address for mid-war Gaza, it is Israel that the international community — relentless enemies and broad supporters alike — considers to be ultimately responsible for the incident.

The very nature of the disaster, involving large crowds desperately converging on precious supplies whose only route into Gaza is via Israeli inspection points, underlines why the finger of blame is being pointed at Israel. And never mind Israel’s claim that much more aid has been made available than the UN has proved able to distribute; that the desperation for food and supplies is largely a consequence of a still partly potent Hamas commandeering aid; and that the deaths on Thursday were almost all a consequence of a stampede around the trucks and of people being run over, with Gazan gunmen also firing at the scene.

On October 17, a Hamas claim that an Israeli airstrike had struck Gaza City’s al-Ahli hospital, killing hundreds, was initially widely reported, and may still be widely believed among Israel’s detractors, but was credibly and fairly rapidly debunked, with the blast shown to have been the result of a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket. The specifics and context of Thursday’s incident are more complex and potentially much more far-reaching.

US President Joe Biden has already stated that it will complicate the realization of one of Israel’s two prime aims of the war — achieving the return of the 130 hostages still held by terrorists in Gaza since October 7.

It is also likely to complicate the second core goal — the full dismantling of Hamas. From the president on down, the US, on which Israel heavily depends for both military and diplomatic support, has been warning that it has yet to see an Israeli plan for tackling the final Hamas stronghold, Rafah, on the Egyptian border, without causing heavy civilian casualties.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi presented his Rafah plan to the war cabinet earlier this week, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a press conference on Thursday night, was adamant that Israel will tackle the four Hamas battalions entrenched there. “We will do this by evacuating civilians from combat zones,” he promised. “We will do this by taking care of their humanitarian needs, and we will do this by following international law.”

Thursday’s civilian deaths in a northern Gaza area where Israel has for weeks said it has attained overall control will only deepen concerns among Israel’s allies regarding potential further noncombatant deaths in the ongoing war, and especially in Rafah.

The incident will bolster pressure in virtually every international quarter for a permanent ceasefire, with Hamas undestroyed.

Biden himself is already mistrustful of Netanyahu’s handling of the war, is bitterly opposed to the prime minister’s pro-settlement agenda, has been stepping up sanctions against violent settler extremists, has been publicly critical of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition allies, and is convinced that Israel’s ultimate survival depends on a viable accommodation with the Palestinians. For a president battling for reelection, finding the balance between his Zionism, his antipathy to the prime minister, his base and his campaign just got even more difficult.

Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, already reportedly bragging that he has Israel where he wants it, and assessing that international pressure will preempt the defeat of Hamas, will be only too delighted.

There must also be concern about the impact of the incident on the multiple other fronts where Israel and the IDF are already engaged — or could be.

That includes the country’s north, where Hezbollah and Israel are gradually escalating the fighting toward war. It includes the West Bank, where a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces killed two Israelis in a terrorist attack on Thursday afternoon.

It most definitely includes the Al-Aqsa compound atop Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as well as East Jerusalem, where the advent of Ramadan always presages friction, but where Hamas has been relentlessly trying to stir trouble since its October 7 slaughter — which it branded “Al-Aqsa Flood” in an effort to give religious legitimacy to barbaric mass-murder.

And it could also include internal Israel, where Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s efforts to impose unspecified restrictions on Arab citizens’ access to Al-Aqsa Mosque have yet to be definitively quashed by Netanyahu.

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