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How Israel's sadistic 'hunger games' target starving Gazans

Booby-traps and ambushes: How Israel's sadistic 'hunger games' target starving Gazans
10 min read
There are growing reports of Israel directly targeting civilians in Gaza as they wait for aid, often after fake texts signal that relief is on the way.

An investigation by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition, documents how Israeli forces appear to be targeting Palestinian civilians across the besieged Gaza Strip as they search desperately for food – using the famine conditions Israel has imposed on the trapped population to lure scores of civilians to their deaths.

Ahmad Ashour lies injured in a hospital bed at the Al-Shifa hospital, where he was rushed at noon on 25 January 2024. The semi-functioning hospital was suddenly overflowing with a new wave of the critically injured as 150 Palestinians - injured with gunshot and shrapnel wounds - were rushed in after Israeli forces and artillery opened fire on a crowd waiting for food aid to arrive.

Palestinians had gathered at the Kuwait roundabout on the Salah al-Din road, south of Gaza City, after receiving text messages claiming to be from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) stating that food relief trucks were due to arrive.

UNRWA denies sending texts

Ahmad's brother, Mahmoud, says he knew three others who had also received the text.

"As soon as a number of residents of Gaza City and the northern area of the Strip received the texts about the arrival of aid trucks, the news spread, and hundreds began heading to this area," says Dr Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for Gaza's health ministry.  

"However Israeli artillery, positioned a kilometre south of the roundabout, suddenly started firing directly on the people waiting, with bullets and shells, which killed 20 people and injured 150."

He was, in his words, "an Israeli massacre targeting the hungry".

Ismail Thawabta, head of the government media office in Gaza, says this isn't the first incident of its kind: "Gazans have become fearful of Israeli ambushes where [the army] simply shoot as many as they can - of the hungry who are looking for aid".

An UNRWA field worker responsible for aid distribution (who wished to remain anonymous) said the agency had no knowledge of the texts. It had never sent messages in that way, and would usually announce upcoming aid deliveries on its official website and social media pages, he explained.

Volunteers distribute food to children waiting in line in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on 10 February 2024 [Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty]

Hunting the hungry

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented four incidents up to and including 30 January, where the Israeli army fired on civilians as they waited for humanitarian relief lorries to arrive.

This had resulted in 72 deaths and hundreds of injuries, some critical, according to Lima Bustami who heads the legal department at Euro-Med.

The first incident occurred on 11 January, when tanks and quadcopter drones fired at hundreds of Palestinians gathered on Al-Rashid Street in northwest Gaza City, waiting for UN trucks which were supposed to be bringing flour. The unprovoked Israeli attacks killed 50 civilians and injured dozens.

The second incident was on 22 January, when Israeli tanks shelled hundreds of hungry civilians who had gathered at the Kuwait roundabout after false information had spread saying UN relief trucks were on their way. Two were killed and ten injured. The third massacre (in which Ahmad was injured) was committed at the same roundabout on 25 January.

Five days later, at 4 pm on 30 January, Israeli forces again opened fire on civilians, injuring several, also at the Kuwait roundabout, again, after they had gathered expecting to receive humanitarian aid.

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"This is the fourth reported incident of Palestinians coming under fire while gathering for food supplies," stated OCHA's situation report released on 31 January 2024.  

As well as the above four incidents, eye-witnesses attested to two other attacks which took place on 26 and 29 January, also at the Kuwait Roundabout, and also after rumours spread about aid arriving, in which six civilians were killed and 30 injured. Kuwait Roundabout is the closest location to Gaza City which the relief trucks can reach.

Thawabta says that in the documented cases where the Israeli army has attacked gatherings of Palestinians in this way, most attacks have followed false rumours spreading about the arrival of trucks, upon which civilians have gathered eagerly to wait.

Famine conditions in Gaza in the spotlight

Khaled Younis, who fled Gaza City and is now in Rafah, says his brother, who is still in Gaza City, survived the massacre on 25 January. He told him that though people knew how dangerous the area was, their desperation for food had pushed them thereafter news circulated about relief trucks being on their way.

"When faced with crying children and the needs of displaced families – who are living in inhumane conditions - for food, Gazans have no choice but to risk their lives," he says.

Israel's deliberate targeting and killing of civilians who are not taking part in hostilities – including those searching for food - is a war crime, highlights Bustami.

Added to this is Israel's deliberate starvation of the Gazan population which is prohibited and considered a war crime according to Article 8 of the Rome Statute: "Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions".

Sadistic: Booby-trapped tins in Gaza

Levels of hunger in Gaza have reached the extent that people are grinding animal fodder to feed themselves, a reality UNRWA highlighted in a tweet on social platform X, on 28 January 2024 captioned: "There is simply not enough food".

"The hunger people are suffering has made it easier to lure Gazans to specific areas under the pretext of that aid would be distributed, before killing them," says Thawabta.

This is not the only way Israel has been targeting the hungry. Testimonies from displaced Gazans who fled northern Gaza for the south have revealed even more horrific and depraved methods.

One practice involves Israeli soldiers leaving "booby-trapped" tins (resembling food tins) in houses after they withdraw from an area they had taken control of. When civilians return home, looking for food, they mistake these tins for food left by the soldiers, but upon opening them, they explode, injuring or even killing those close by.

Amna Issa's son Mahmoud (14) lost three of his fingers and suffered severe face and neck injuries after opening a can the Israeli army had "left" behind, thinking it contained tinned meat.

"In the beginning, the occupation soldiers would actually leave real food, like tins, and bread and hungry citizens would take them after [the army] withdrew, but they have exploited that and now deliberately leave booby-trapped cans – one of them killed my neighbour's son, and another injured my son Mahmoud", said Amna.

An explosives engineer (who wished to remain anonymous) in the bombs disposal unit of Gaza's security services, which is responsible for collecting and neutralising unexploded munitions after Israel's military assaults, explained the working mechanism of these bombs.

He explained that they resemble food tins, but contain two interconnected explosive parts. The top contains a detonator, and the bottom contains TNT, an explosive material. If someone removes the cover, the detonator activates and gives off a spark which ignites the TNT, and the can explodes.

Sharp-edged metal fragments are often stuffed into the tins to ensure maximum damage – the blast can injure people up to a 20-metre diameter circle around the explosion.

"This is not a new method for the occupation," he says, "as in the past [Israel] has prepared similar traps using dolls and children's toys".  

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Killing returnees searching for food

Abdullah Razzaq, a Gazan civilian, said Israeli forces are targeting those who try to return home to gather food supplies – especially when they think the Israeli tanks have withdrawn. Most of the displaced have been forced to flee their homes in a hurry due to sudden bombardment and so have only taken small amounts of food and other items. As time goes by, and food grows increasingly scarce, many attempt to go back so they can retrieve supplies from their homes.

"It appears the occupation realised people need to return to their homes, so it pretends to withdraw its tanks from this or that street or area, and then spreads hidden snipers high up on buildings. The area looks empty completely, but as soon as citizens start to gather looking for food, [Israel] takes them by surprise, with snipers and drones firing at them".

This kind of ambush has reportedly led to dozens of deaths and injuries, particularly in Gaza City and northern Gaza. Thawabta confirmed that Israeli forces were deliberately killing those returning to their homes in neighbourhoods in the north.

However, the south is not safe either. In Khan Younis governorate, south Gaza, similar ambushes have been reported in Batn Al-Sameen in west Khan Younis, Qizan an-Najjar village, and Al Balad area.

Gazan Khamis Fojo believes his son Muhammad (19) has fallen victim to one of these ambushes. He went to the Batn Al-Sameen neighbourhood to fetch food and supplies from the home of a relative who had fled to Rafah in late January, but he has been missing since that day and no one has heard from him.

Additionally, when the Israeli army fully withdraws from an area, soldiers deliberately set fire to civilian homes and all their contents, especially in northern Gaza.

The goal seems to be depriving Gazans of their own resources to exacerbate the starvation levels amongst the population.

It is difficult to estimate the number of dead and wounded resulting from such incidents as most hospitals in north Gaza are out-of-service or only semi-functioning.

However, the Ministry of Health stated that at least 20 people had been killed by "food tins" laden with explosives, and around 50 wounded. The ministry also estimated that in January alone, around 95 martyrs had been killed in attacks while returning to their homes, alongside 400 injured.

Targeting aid convoys

Alongside murdering those searching for food, Israeli forces have also worked hard to prevent relief from arriving in the first place, according to Euro-Med, which has documented several cases where humanitarian aid convoys were targeted.

On 8 November, the Israeli army opened fire on a Red Cross aid convoy carrying medical supplies, injuring a driver and damaging two trucks.

On 29 December the army opened fire on a UNRWA aid convoy, but no casualties occurred. Then, on 10 January an UNRWA staff member was killed and several injured, when the Israeli army targeted them as they distributed aid in the south of Gaza City.

On 5 February, Israeli forces targeted an aid convoy heading from southern Gaza to the north even though it was being escorted by UN vehicles and Israel had been informed of its route and coordinates in advance, according to Euro-Med.

Thawabta said by attacking aid distribution workers "the occupation army is intentionally exacerbating the chaos […] to prevent [aid] from reaching its beneficiaries - the absence of these people obstructs aid distribution mechanisms. As a consequence, people just rush towards the trucks, and obtaining aid becomes limited to whoever can climb the truck [first]".

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According to the Rome Statue, "Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance" is considered a war crime.

Thawabta highlights that 1,300 food trucks are required daily to alleviate the severity of the famine, which is even more severe in the northern governorates. However, in the last week of January, only 80-100 trucks were entering per day via the Rafah crossing. Before that, only 180 had been entering.

"The Gaza [city] and north governorates are subject to a severe and absolute siege in conjunction with the continuing genocidal war waged by the Israeli occupation army, which has prevented any aid from reaching the two governorates since the start of the assault", he says.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. 

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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