Sat 02 Mar 2024 12:15 pm - Jerusalem Time

Food convoy carnage distills what’s gone terribly wrong in Gaza

By David Ignatius

The drone videos taken early Thursday over Gaza City brought a new level of horror to this conflict: They showed hundreds of people, so tiny in the images that their human forms had almost vanished, desperately swarming a convoy of food trucks to grab what they could.

And then, off camera, the worst happened: The crowd stampeded, trucks crushed people under their wheels and a few Israeli troops opened fire, according to U.S. officials. The pre-dawn mayhem had an appalling toll. Gaza health officials said more than 100 Palestinians died and 700 were wounded as the aid convoy moved toward Gaza City.

How to describe this tragedy? For me, it was like watching a real-life version of “Lord of the Flies,” illustrating the hell on Earth when order and security disappear, and life becomes a primitive battle to survive. Israel’s war aim is to destroy Hamas, but sadly, it is also destroying any vestige of orderly life in Gaza.

Here’s how President Biden put it Friday as he announced the United States would start airdropping assistance to Palestinians: “Innocent people got caught in a terrible war unable to feed their families, and you saw the response when they tried to get aid.” The U.S. airdrops will be the most dramatic American intervention yet in Gaza. Officials say the administration will try to “flood the zone” with assistance by air, land and sea.

The Biden administration sees this incident as a distillation of what’s gone wrong in Gaza. ‘“Israel doesn’t have a plan” for maintaining order, a senior administration official told me. Israeli officials have been “dismissive” of American warnings about their muddled plans for “the day after.” But these latest events suggest that Israel’s stated plan for loose control of Gaza by clans and local leaders is hollow at its core.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued last week that future governance in Gaza should be “civil management by local groups” unaffiliated with Hamas. But as former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak wrote Friday in Foreign Affairs, “In practice, this would mean empowering a number of influential Gazan families, some of which are involved in organized crime.”

As at every point in this conflict, there was an immediate quarrel about who was to blame for the food-truck carnage. Palestinians claimed Israeli troops had massacred civilians, but those allegations apparently were false, as were Israel’s claims that its troops had no role. According to U.S. officials who spoke Friday with Israel Defense Forces commanders, Israeli troops at a checkpoint at the rear of the convoy opened fire and killed about 10 people.

The picture could change as details continue to emerge, but it appears that the cause of most of the deaths was raw panic, driven by months of hunger and suffering as Israel launched a response to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack. Palestinian civilians have been bombed out of their homes, driven into refugee camps, deprived of food and sanitation, and now this: clawing at trucks in their struggle to survive — while Hamas hides underground, and Israel protects its own troops but not the civilian population.

The background to Thursday’s tragedy is a case study in Israel’s badly flawed management of this war. After the savage first months of fighting, humanitarian assistance was finally beginning to flow smoothly early this year, with more than 200 trucks a day distributing aid, according to U.S. officials. But in late January, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told police to allow demonstrators to close the main border crossing at Kerem Shalom to protest Hamas’s refusal to release all hostages.

 With the crossing blocked, panic began to spread, U.S. officials say. Food supplies in Gaza soon became scarce, triggering hoarding and looting. United Nations relief workers were attacked by armed gangs as they tried to bring trucks into Gaza. The trucks had been accompanied by Gazan police. But the police were affiliated with Hamas, and after Israel began targeting them with drones, the U.S. officials told me, the police backed away.

To combat the food-scarcity panic, U.S. officials, led by David Satterfield, the U.S. coordinator of humanitarian assistance, decided to pump enough aid into Gaza to deflate prices and undermine the thieves. That was the strategy behind this week’s convoys.

A first run convoy of 21 trucks, operated by Gazan businesses that have long dealt with Israel, entered northern Gaza early Wednesday morning. They successfully delivered a shipment of supplies from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society — some “self-distributed” as it was snatched off trucks.

 A bigger convoy of 30 trucks was scheduled for Thursday. But the Gazan contractors posted notice of the planned delivery on Facebook, U.S. officials said. That’s why hundreds of Palestinians gathered before dawn Thursday to grab their share of what was coming. The line of 30 trucks stretched for a kilometer. As Palestinians raced alongside the trucks in the darkness, the horror began.

Watching the drone footage of the scramble for food, it’s hard not to conclude that Israel and Hamas have unintentionally combined to create an interim status of mob rule for Gaza. Israel now finds on its border a version of Mogadishu in Somalia.

When this war began on Oct. 7, Israelis rightly felt they were the victims. The United States and its allies should now help Israelis — force them, if necessary — to become the rescuers.


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