BBC 2024-02-29 22:31:51

Israel-Gaza war: More than 100 reported killed in crowd near Gaza aid convoy, Hamas-run health ministry says

More than 110 Palestinians are reported to have been killed while trying to get desperately needed aid in north Gaza.

Crowds of waiting civilians descended on a convoy of lorries after it passed through an Israeli military checkpoint on the coastal road west of Gaza City.

Israel’s military said troops fired at some people they thought were a threat.

In the ensuing chaos, the lorries attempted to move forward. A Palestinian witness told the BBC that most of those who died were run over.

At least 112 people were killed and 760 others injured in the incident, the spokesman of Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, Ashraf al-Qudra, said in a statement on Thursday afternoon.

Dramatic aerial footage released by the Israeli military showed thousands of people on and around the lorries, while graphic videos of the aftermath posted on social media showed some of the dead loaded onto emptied aid lorries and a donkey cart.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry blamed Israel for what it called a “massacre”, while US President Joe Biden expressed concern that it would complicate efforts by the US and other mediators to broker a temporary ceasefire in the war between Hamas and Israel.

The incident happened hours before the health ministry announced that more than 30,000 people, including 21,000 children and women, had been confirmed killed in Gaza since the start of the conflict.

Some 7,000 others have been reported as missing and 70,450 have been treated for injuries over the past four months, according to the ministry.

“This is deeply shocking because if you add the number of people who have been injured and the number of people who are missing you have more than 100,000 people, which represents 5% of the population,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (Unrwa), told the BBC.

The UN is also warning of a looming famine in the north of the territory, where an estimated 300,000 people are living with little food or clean water.

The Israeli military launched a large-scale air and ground campaign to destroy Hamas – which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the UK and others – after its gunmen killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel on 7 October and took 253 other people back to Gaza as hostages.

  • More than 30,000 killed in Gaza, Hamas-run health ministry says
  • Checking Israel’s claim to have killed 10,000 Hamas fighters

Thursday’s incident took place shortly after 04:00 (02:00 GMT), past an Israeli military checkpoint on Rashid Street, which runs along the Mediterranean coast. Palestinian sources gave the location as the Nabulsi roundabout, on the south-western edge of Gaza City.

A convoy of between 18 and 30 aid lorries, likely to have been a few hundred metres long, passed through the checkpoint, heading north.

Shortly afterwards, with the last lorry only about 70m (230ft) north of the checkpoint, Palestinians – many of whom had been camped out nearby, waiting for the arrival of aid – descended on the convoy.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner said some civilians approached the checkpoint and ignored warning shots fired by the soldiers there.

Fearing that some of the civilians posed a threat, the soldiers then opened fire on those approaching in what Lt Col Lerner described as a “limited response”.

The BBC’s Palestinian witness source did not confirm that civilians approached the checkpoint – only that they were about 70m (229ft) away.

With crowds descending on all the lorries, and with machine-gun fire coming from the checkpoint, panic seems to have ensued.

The lorries – some of them now with many people clinging on – tried to move forward.

The Palestinian witness said the bulk of the casualties were caused by the lorries running people over, not by the Israeli gunfire.

The spokesman of Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, Ashraf al-Qudra, said that dozens of casualties in a critical or severe condition were brought to the nearby al-Shifa Hospital, in Gaza City, and that medics there were unable to cope with the volume and severity of cases.

At the hospital, one man who was cradling the body of this dead friend, Tamer Shinbari, told the BBC he had gone to Nabulsi roundabout hoping to get a bag of flour for his family who are sheltering in schools in Jabalia.

He said Israeli soldiers opened fire “and the aid lorry ran over the bodies”.

The director of the Kamal Adwan hospital in the northern town of Beit Lahia, Hussam Abu Safieyah, told Reuters news agency that it had received the bodies of 10 people and dozens of wounded from western Gaza City.

The acting director of the al-Awda Hospital in Jabalia meanwhile told the Associated Press that it had received 161 wounded patients, most of whom appeared to have been shot.

The IDF said in a statement that “every civilian casualty is a tragedy”.

“Despite the very difficult circumstances (brought about by Hamas’ decision to go to war against Israel), we are continuing to work to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to civilians across the Gaza Strip,” it added.

“We will learn from this difficult incident in order to try and find better solutions for the transfer of aid to those who need it.”

But Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the occupied West Bank, blamed Israeli forces for what they called a “heinous massacre”.

“The killing of this large number of innocent civilian victims who risked their livelihood is considered an integral part of the genocidal war committed by the occupation government against our people,” Mr Abbas said in a statement, adding that Israel bore “full responsibility”.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres said he “condemned” the incident.

“The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the besieged north where the United Nations has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week,” Stephane Dujarric said, adding that Mr Guterres reiterated his call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages”.

The north of Gaza suffered widespread devastation after being the focus of the first phase of the Israeli ground offensive.

It has been largely cut off from humanitarian assistance for several months, despite some relief efforts by UN aid agencies.

Last week, the World Food Programme said it had been forced to suspend aid deliveries to northern Gaza after its first convoy in three weeks was surrounded by crowds of hungry people close to the Israeli military’s Wadi Gaza checkpoint, and then faced gunfire in Gaza City.

Another convoy faced what it called “complete chaos and violence due to the collapse of civil order”. Several lorries were looted in central Gaza and a driver was beaten.

On Tuesday, a senior UN aid official warned that at least 576,000 people across the Gaza Strip – one quarter of the population – faced catastrophic levels of food insecurity and were at risk of famine.

He also warned that one in six children under the age of two in the north were suffering from acute malnutrition and wasting.

On Wednesday, Gaza’s health ministry said six children had died from dehydration and malnutrition at hospitals in northern Gaza. Two of the deaths were at al-Shifa and four at the Kamal Adwan, it added.

Putin warns West against sending troops to Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Western countries against sending troops to Ukraine.

The consequences of such a decision would be “tragic”, he said.

In his annual state of the nation address, President Putin accused the West of trying to drag Russia into an arms race.

At the same time, he said that Russia needed to strengthen its defences on its western border now that Sweden and Finland were joining Nato.

President Putin said the West “provoked” the conflict in Ukraine and “continues to lie, without any embarrassment, saying that Russia allegedly intends to attack Europe”.

Probably referring to comments by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week that sending Nato ground troops to Ukraine “could not be excluded”, President Putin said: “The consequences for possible interventionists will be… tragic.”

“We also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory,” he added.

“All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilisation. Don’t they get that?”

Several Nato countries, including the US, Germany and the UK, ruled out deploying ground troops to Ukraine.

The US has criticised the Russian president’s latest remarks regarding the possibility of nuclear warfare. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said it was “not the first time we have seen irresponsible rhetoric from Vladimir Putin”.

“It is no way for the leader of a nuclear armed state to speak,” he said, adding that the US has seen no evidence that Moscow is planning to launch such weapons.

  • Rosenberg: How two years of war have changed Russia
  • ‘If not Putin, then who?’ – How Russians view looming elections

President Putin also boasted about Russia’s sophisticated weapons – like hypersonic aircraft and unmanned underwater vehicles – and said that Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are in a “state of full readiness”.

Notably, President Putin explicitly referred to the two years of fighting in Ukraine as a “war”, despite his repeated insistence that Russia’s invasion should be described as a “special military operation”.

He said that an “absolute majority” of Russians supported his decision to invade Ukraine, and that the Russian people were now united against what he called Western attempts to weaken the country.

He also hit out at accusations from the US that Russia is developing nuclear weapons for use against satellites in space.

The speech came just over two weeks before Russia’s presidential election, in which President Putin is widely expected to win a fifth term in office.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the address could “to a large degree be seen as [Putin’s] election programme”.

Indeed, much of the address focused on domestic issues ranging from the modernisation of the tax system to pensions and incentives aimed at boosting Russia’s dwindling birth rate.

He also talked about the need to improve the health of the nation, announcing a series of measures aimed at boosting Russia’s life expectancy, which at 70 is currently one of the lowest in Europe.

Urging people to focus on physical activity and cut down alcohol consumption, he joked: “Stop drinking and start skiing!”

The speech lasted a record two hours and was attended by all senior politicians, the CEOs of oil and gas firms Rosneft and Gazprom, as well as religious leaders of all denominations.

It was broadcast on giant screens across Moscow, and several cinemas in Russian cities reportedly screened it free of charge.

As expected, there was no mention of the death of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who died in a Siberian penal colony two weeks ago and who many saw as President Putin’s greatest opponent.

Navalny, who will be buried in Moscow on Friday, died under circumstances yet to be fully established on 16 February. His widow Yulia has insisted that President Putin was responsible.

Analysis: A royal dilemma as public curiosity over Kate grows

It has been a challenging few weeks for the Royal Family.

The health problems of both the King and the Princess of Wales have raised questions around what Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace want the public to know.

Their advisers are trying to navigate the appetite for information, the social media speculation and the need to protect two people who aren’t well.

It’s all proving quite the dilemma.

The spotlight has shone even brighter in recent days after the Prince of Wales withdrew at short notice from a memorial service in Windsor for his godfather, King Constantine of Greece. He was due to give a reading, and his name was on the order of service.

But less than an hour before the event was due to start came a message from Kensington Palace.

“Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales is no longer able to attend the service this morning due to a personal matter,” it said.

This was surprising. Prince William lives on the Windsor Estate. He had a job to do at the service. It was his godfather being remembered.

Immediately the rumour mill cranked into gear – was this a bad sign for Catherine? The advice from the prince’s team was that there was no need to panic.

The princess was doing well, they said, implying the absence was not related to his wife’s health.

But that was not enough to quell the speculation.

My own WhatsApp messages probably reflected what lots of people were wondering.

What’s wrong with Kate? Why won’t they tell us? Is that why William hasn’t turned up?

And if you then delved into social media and online searches, you found rumours about the princess’s condition growing more outlandish by the hour.

The lack of detailed information and Prince William’s sudden withdrawal was fuelling the speculation.

We still don’t know why the prince pulled out of the service – but it is worth noting that he attended an event on Thursday as planned.

Advisers to the Waleses are well aware of the online gossip – they read it, they chat about it, they know the conversation.

But they stress that nothing has changed.

A spokesperson for Catherine brushed off social media speculation.

“Kensington Palace made it clear in January the timelines of the princess’s recovery. We said we’d only be providing significant updates. That guidance stands.”

There is, of course, the issue of privacy.

For Prince William, protecting his wife while she recovers is paramount.

Kensington Palace quite simply does not want the details of her health made public and aides feel no need to say anymore about it.

But when Catherine does return to public duty the scrutiny will be intense.

All eyes will be on her.

How does she look? How does she seem? Does she appear any different?

Her team are well aware of the interest there will be in that moment so protecting her now has added importance.

They will choose when and how we first see her in public again very carefully.

Things are different over at Buckingham Palace as they manage King Charles III’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

There, courtiers feel there is a need to see the monarch in action carrying out some of his duties.

It is why we have seen pictures of the King with the prime minister, going to church, and reading “get well” cards.

This is a King who is compromised at the moment but can still do some of his regular work and the Palace wants to show us that.

There is not that same pressure on Catherine to go public.

She is not the monarch, she does not have to reassure in the same way.

Yes, there is a clamour for information but “so be it” seems to be the mood.

This is a princess who wants to keep things private.

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Biden and Trump in Texas for competing border trips as immigration dominates election

We’ve now heard both Trump and Biden speak at the Mexican border – as they carry out competing trips more than 300 miles apart.

Immigration is shaping up to be one of the hottest issues of this year’s presidential election.

And – with the number of people crossing the border hitting a record high under Biden – it’s proving to be a serious political problem for Biden and increasingly threatening his campaign for re-election.

Along with the economy, polling consistently ranks it as one of voters’ dominant concerns. More than two thirds of people said they disapproved of Biden’s
handling of the border situation, according to a poll in January by
the BBC’s US partner CBS News.

At the same time, immigration has always been Trump’s signature issue, as our North America editor wrote earlier. His rants against illegal immigrants chime with many voters’ views.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin grilled over secret hospital stay

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has been pressed by lawmakers for not informing the White House of recent hospital stays, with one calling the failure an “embarrassment”.

The Pentagon chief acknowledged there was “a breakdown in notifications” about his January hospital stay during a contentious Thursday hearing.

Mr Austin, 70, has been undergoing prostate cancer treatment.

The Pentagon has found no “indication of ill intent” by Mr Austin.

“I never told anyone not to inform the president, White House or anyone else about my hospitalization,” Mr Austin said in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, the first chance lawmakers have had to question him since the incident came to light earlier this year.

Representative Mike Rogers said it was “totally unacceptable” it took three days for the president to be informed Mr Austin was in hospital.

“Wars were raging in Ukraine and Israel, our ships were under fire in the Red Sea, and our bases were bracing for attack in Syria and Iraq. But the commander in chief did not know that his secretary of defense was out of action,” he said early on in the hearing.

“Who will be held accountable for this embarrassment?” Republican Congressman Jim Banks asked Mr Austin, later pressing him about the length of time he and President Joe Biden went without speaking while he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“Either the president is that aloof or you are irrelevant,” said Mr Banks.

“The president is not aloof,” Mr Austin responded, adding that he is involved with all critical decision making.

Republican Nancy Mace asked: “When a soldier goes AWOL…what happens? What is the punishment?”

“I wouldn’t equate my going to the hospital as going AWOL,” Mr Austin replied. “I did not disappear. I was in a military medical facility in Washington DC.”

Mr Austin told the committee in his opening statement that there has been a review of the chain of command process, saying the “system must be postured better” so this does not happen again.

They defence department has already implemented two out of the eight recommendations, he said.

The defence secretary is just below the president in the chain of command for the US military and is regarded as one of the most important members of the cabinet.

Mr Austin also spoke more about his cancer diagnosis saying it was “personal and deeply troubling” when he found out.

“I described it as a gut punch,” he told the committee.

He said he did not want to “burden” the president with one of his personal issues but said “I should have talked to him about it”.

On Monday, a Pentagon report cleared Mr Austin of wrongdoing and found no “indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate” by either him or his staff.

Mr Austin began a “transfer of authority” to his deputy on 2 January – one day after he entered hospital and as he was being taken into critical care.

It was not until 4 January that the White House and Mr Austin’s deputy – who was on leave in Puerto Rico – were made aware of his admission to hospital.

Mr Austin is expected to return to provide more testimony next month.