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Business News/ Politics / A new tragedy shows anarchy rules in Gaza
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A new tragedy shows anarchy rules in Gaza

The Economoist

A shooting and stampede kill 112 and injure hundreds

A Palestinian child walks amid the rubble of a house destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City on March 3, 2024. (Photo by AFP) (AFP)Premium
A Palestinian child walks amid the rubble of a house destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City on March 3, 2024. (Photo by AFP) (AFP)

Early on February 29th death descended on a coastal road in Gaza. As many as 112 people were killed and hundreds more were injured, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, when catastrophe befell an aid convoy of 30 lorries carrying desperately needed food. As with many events in the war between Israel and Hamas, the facts are destined to remain fiercely contested. Nonetheless this tragedy’s importance will go far beyond the immediate loss of life. The images of hungry people jostling for food illustrate the dearth of aid reaching Gaza. The anarchic circumstances surrounding so many deaths highlight a power vacuum there that no one, least of all Israel, knows how to fill. And another civilian calamity will test America’s appetite for letting the war rumble on.

The incident was in northern Gaza, where the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) has dominated for months. All agree the deaths occurred after the food convoy had passed an Israeli checkpoint and was surrounded by thousands of hungry civilians. Accounts differ over what happened next. Palestinian eye-witnesses say IDF soldiers fired on the crowd, killing some and sparking a stampede that claimed more lives. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called it an “ugly massacre conducted by the Israeli occupation army".

Contradicting this, the IDF says the stampede began as people surrounded the vehicles. Aerial video footage purporting to be of the incident shows many people running around and between trucks (see picture). The Israelis say that people were killed and crushed during this stampede, the first stage of the incident. In the second stage “several hundred metres away" from the first, they say, a crowd began moving towards the checkpoint that the convoy had already passed. An Israeli military spokesperson said IDF soldiers there “identified a threat" and after firing warning shots used only “limited fire".

Further investigations may reveal more details, and perhaps make it easier to establish an objective picture of what took place. Nonetheless, three things are already obvious. One is that the lack of food and other aid is causing mayhem in Gaza. Israeli security officials have been highly critical of the policy of the government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which has dragged its feet on allowing more humanitarian aid into Gaza from Israeli territory. Mr Netanyahu has tried to block cabinet discussions on alternative authorities which could organise food distribution into Gaza. The World Food Programme has warned that “if nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza."

The second consequence is another blow to the idea that local organisations unconnected to Hamas could quickly take de facto administrative control of Gaza. It is striking that the incident took place in northern Gaza, where Israel has largely ejected Hamas. The truck convoy was organised by private Palestinian firms. Yet the picture that emerges is not of an emerging new hierarchy, but of fear and chaos. Israel is unwilling to enforce public order and unwilling to exit, and no one else is able or prepared to step in. That matters because Mr Netanyahu’s plan for the “day after" in Gaza, a one-page document which was released to the cabinet on February 22nd, envisions administrative control by local groups “who are not affiliated with terrorist countries or groups and are not financially supported by them" who will rise from the rubble. Rule by mafias and mobs appears more likely.

The final knock-on effect relates to America. It has been pushing for a temporary ceasefire and hostage-release by Ramadan, which it sees as a way of catalysing a reset in the conflict, as well as creating a path to talks over a two-state solution. Mr Netanyahu said on February 29th that Israel was interested in a temporary ceasefire agreement but that “Hamas’ demands are delusional." He is wary of a ceasefire, which could cause his fragile coalition to collapse. Whoever is to blame for the latest tragedy, it piles on the pressure on all sides to find a way to pause the fighting. One Israeli official said that “we have had a much longer window of legitimacy from the Americans than we expected but it’s about to close."

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 04 Mar 2024, 09:44 AM IST
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