RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s Health Ministry and witnesses said Israeli troops opened fire as a crowd of Palestinians gathered for humanitarian aid in Gaza City on Thursday, killing at least 20 and wounding dozens.
The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports. The Associated Press could not independently confirm the details of what happened.
Witnesses and health officials said the shooting took place at a roundabout on Gaza City's southern edge, where a large crowd had gathered for distribution of food. Footage posted online and confirmed to have been taken on the main road near the roundabout showed hundreds of people fleeing, some carrying boxes of aid, as shots rang out in the background. Men loaded wounded Palestinians onto horse and donkey carts that took off charging down the avenue.
At Shifa Hospital, where casualties were treated, Mohammad al-Reafi lay on the floor, his bloodied leg bandaged, as medics worked on other wounded around them. He said Israeli troops fired into the crowd.
“We were going to get flour … young people were martyred and other young people were injured," he said. Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said 20 people were killed and 150 others wounded by the shooting.
A number of aid agencies distribute food and other supplies in Gaza. It was not immediately known which one was operating in the area at the time of the incident. The United Nations refugee agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and the U.N. World Food Program both said they were not involved.
Israeli troops and tanks pushed into Gaza City shortly after the ground invasion began in October and have been battling Palestinian militants there for nearly two months. The military says it has largely dismantled Hamas in northern Gaza but is still facing pockets of resistance, and large swaths of Gaza City and surrounding areas have been reduced to rubble by Israeli bombardment.
The U.N. has said it has been struggling to deliver aid to the north amid Israeli restrictions and continued fighting. Several hundred thousand people are believed to remain in the north after most of the population fled south. U.N. officials say a quarter of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million are facing starvation.
Israel launched its offensive in Gaza vowing to destroy Hamas after the Oct. 7 cross-border attack in which the militants killed around 1,200 people and abducted around 250 others. One of the largest air and ground campaigns in recent history, the assault has killed over 25,900 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
Its count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but the ministry says most of the dead are women and minors. It says the real toll is higher because many casualties were buried under the rubble or are in areas where medics can’t reach them.
Israel blames the high civilian toll on Hamas because the militant group positions fighters, rocket launchers and tunnels in dense, residential neighborhoods. The military says it has killed thousands of militants, without providing the basis for its count, and that 219 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive.
For weeks, heavy fighting has raged as Israeli troops push into the southern city of Khan Younis and in a cluster of built-up refugee camps in central Gaza that date back to the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.
The death toll from a strike on a crowded U.N. shelter in Khan Younis on Wednesday has risen to 12, with over 75 wounded, according to Thomas White, a senior official with the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA. He said 15 of the wounded were in critical condition.
UNRWA says two tank shells hit a building in a carpentry training center housing thousands of displaced Palestinians on Wednesday, causing the building to catch fire. It did not directly blame Israel, which is the only party to the conflict that has tanks.
The Israeli military said it has “currently ruled out” that the strike was carried out by its aircraft or artillery but was still investigating. It says the building might have been hit by a Hamas rocket.
Fighting has cut off the two main hospitals, Nasser and Al Amal, trapping hundreds of patients and thousands of displaced people inside. White said another hospital, Al-Khair, was evacuated overnight and that among the patients who departed were women who had just undergone cesarean sections.
Israeli troops earlier in the week seized Al-Khair hospital, which is located in a coastal zone near Khan Younis that the military had previously said was a safe zone for Palestinians.
Thousands of Palestinians fled Khan Younis toward the Mediterranean coast Thursday to escape the fighting. Two women who spoke with the Associated Press said they were among a number of people that Israeli troops forced to evacuate from a school where they had been sheltering.
“Suddenly, they started calling from the microphones to evacuate the site within half an hour,” said one of the women, Amal, who said she gave birth three days earlier and fled the school with her newborn. "Now we are here, not knowing where to go,” she said. The troops detained young men at the school for interrogation, she said.
The Israeli military said its troops were engaging in close, urban combat with Hamas fighters in neighborhoods of Khan Younis, calling in airstrikes and attack helicopters to hit militants spotted with RPGs and weapons.
Footage released by the military showed paratroopers charging into the city's municipal building, which was battered and punctured from shelling, while the area around it was reduced to dirt mounds. The soldiers scoured through empty offices and fired out of windows.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the offensive until “complete victory" over Hamas, and to return all the hostages. The United States, Israel's top ally, has provided crucial military support and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire while urging it to scale back operations and facilitate the delivery of more humanitarian aid.
South Africa has accused Israel of committing genocide before the U.N. world court at The Hague, which announced that it would issue a decision Friday on its request for an interim order telling Israel to halt the hostilities.
Jeffery reported from London and Keath from Cairo.
Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war