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Dying for a bag of flour: Videos and eyewitness accounts cast doubt on Israel’s timeline of deadly Gaza aid delivery

By Katie Polglase, Zahid Mahmood, Ibrahim Dahman and Gianluca Mezzofiore, CNN

(CNN) — Jihad Abu Watfa was standing in the rubble along a dark stretch of coastal road southwest of Gaza City when he saw Israeli military tanks approaching. He began recording on his phone just as a heavy barrage of gunfire flashed before his eyes.

“We are now under siege, a tank is beside us and it’s shelling,” Abu Watfa could be heard saying in the video, which he shared with CNN.

The 27-year-old was surrounded by hundreds of other Palestinians who had gathered for an aid delivery on February 29 when Israeli soldiers accompanying the humanitarian convoy opened fire. More than 100 people were killed and 700 injured, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The tragedy, which has become known among Palestinians as the “Flour Massacre,” is one of the single deadliest mass casualty events to take place in Gaza since Israel launched its assault on the strip following Hamas’ October 7 terror attack. It came after more than a month of Israel denying aid into Gaza City and northern Gaza and followed what the United Nations has called “a pattern of Israeli attacks” on civilians desperately seeking food, amid unprecedented levels of starvation.

CNN collected testimonies and videos from 22 eyewitnesses, many of whom had traveled from other cities across Gaza in the hopes of finding something for their families to eat. When the convoy passed through an Israeli checkpoint on Al Rashid Street, the main north-south route designated by the Israeli military for humanitarian aid, survivors recalled Israeli troops opening fire on crowds as they tried desperately to reach the food aid. Many said they were undeterred by the bullets, believing that if they weren’t killed attempting to get the flour, they would die of hunger instead.

Gazan and Israeli officials have provided conflicting accounts of what happened that night. Gazan health authorities said that scores of people had been killed in the gunfire and those injured were treated at hospitals for gunshot wounds, while the Israeli military said most people had been trampled to death in a “stampede” for the food aid or struck by the aid trucks driving away from the melee.

Mark Regev, the Israeli prime minister’s special adviser, initially told CNN that Israeli forces had not been involved. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) spokesman, said soon after that soldiers had not fired directly on Palestinians seeking aid, but rather fired “warning shots” in the air.

On March 8, after an internal investigation, the IDF released a timeline suggesting that the aid convoy began to cross into northern Gaza accompanied by its tanks at 4:29 a.m. A minute later, at 4:30 a.m., the IDF said its troops fired “warning shots” toward the east to disperse crowds before firing at “suspects” who they claimed posed a threat. At 4:45 a.m., the military said it fired more warning shots.

But CNN’s analysis of dozens of videos from the night and testimonies from eyewitnesses’ casts doubt on Israel’s version of events. The evidence, reviewed by forensic and ballistic experts, indicated that automatic gunfire began before the IDF said the convoy had started crossing through the checkpoint and that shots were fired within close range of crowds that had gathered for food.

The IDF did not answer CNN’s questions regarding its findings but said that it stood by its previous statements about what happened on February 29. It added that the incident was being examined by the General Staff’s Fact-Finding and Assessment Mechanism (FFAM), an independent body, and that no further information would be released until their investigation was complete.

Shot at while trying to get food

Khader Al Za’anoun, a journalist in Gaza with the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, told CNN at the time that the majority of the casualties occurred as a result of people being rammed by aid trucks as they tried to escape Israeli gunfire.

Al Za’anoun, who was at the scene and witnessed the incident, said the chaos and confusion that led to people being hit by the trucks only started once Israeli soldiers began shooting.

“Most of the people that were killed were rammed by the aid trucks during the chaos and while trying to escape the Israeli gunfire,” Al Za’anoun said.

The Israeli military released drone footage of the incident claiming it showed a stampede in which Palestinians were trampled and that the tanks were there to “secure the convoy,” but the quality and editing of the video make it difficult to confirm their claims.

The footage shows hundreds of people gathering around aid trucks on Al Rashid Street. Many people appear to be running and some crawling away, in an attempt to seek cover. But the crucial moment capturing what caused the crowd to scatter is missing. The video then cuts to show bodies on the ground – though it is not clear whether they are alive or dead – in a location geolocated by CNN near to the checkpoint.

Recorded using night-vision, the drone footage is the only available video that gives a clear view of the crowds. If nothing else, it shows just how difficult it would have been to fire with any degree of accuracy at what the IDF described as “suspects” among the tightly packed people surrounding the convoy.

The IDF has denied CNN’s requests for the full unedited drone footage from February 29.

All eyewitness videos obtained by CNN were recorded in darkness, so offer a limited view into what happened that night. But, drawing on their metadata, which includes the time they were filmed, the videos reveal an inconsistency with the IDF’s own account of when its troops started shooting.

Videos filmed in the hours before the deadly incident, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. and geolocated by CNN, show people gathered on the beach and roadside about 900 meters (just over half a mile) away from the checkpoint. Groups can be seen sitting around fires, while others walk around the beach. All appears calm.

Eyewitnesses told CNN that they had started to gather in anticipation of the arrival of food – aid convoys often travel at night to avoid being inundated by crowds en route – but that the trucks hadn’t even crossed the threshold of the checkpoint when Israeli tanks started shooting.

In a video recorded by eyewitness Belal Mortaja, which was shared directly with CNN, gunfire can be heard ringing out and people can be seen running away, urging others to flee, warning of a tank. The video was recorded at 4:22 a.m., seven minutes before the IDF said the convoy had crossed over into northern Gaza.

Abu Watfa, the 27-year-old, told CNN that he started filming just after he heard gunfire. The video’s metadata showed that it was recorded at 4:28 a.m., two minutes before the IDF said it fired warning shots.

Robert Maher, a gunfire acoustics expert at Montana State University in the United States, who analyzed the footage for CNN, said that the bursts indicated heavy automatic gunfire at 600 rounds per minute. That assessment was also corroborated by Richard Weir, senior researcher in the Crisis and Conflict division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Abu Watfa continued filming and at 4:30 a.m., the video shows a truck driving along the road, and tracer rounds traveling from the southwest, where Israeli tanks were located. One round is seen ricocheting up into the air.

In reference to the tracer rounds, Weir told CNN it was difficult to know where the projectile originated due to low-light conditions. However, the trajectory of the round was flat and appeared to be traveling toward the ground at less than 180 degrees before it ricocheted up into the air, he said.

“If the barrel of the weapon is angled downward and not horizontal or up, then the trajectory of the projectile will travel much more quickly towards the ground than it would from [a] normal bullet drop,” he added.

Another video from a separate location along Al Rashid Street, released by Al Jazeera, also shows horizontal tracer rounds, likely originating from the southwest, traveling left to right as a huge crowd gathers around the trucks. Gunfire is also audible.

Despite the gunfire, Abu Watfa said he was determined to get aid for his children and didn’t want to go away empty-handed.

“I was running amongst a thousand individuals; people were suddenly falling and being injured. The (IDF) were busy shooting. I ran towards the first truck, but I was unable to get anything from it,” he said, adding that he managed to push his way to the third truck and leave with a bag of flour.

“I took the bag of flour and left (at) the side of the truck, shooting was taking place around me and had intensified.”

The aftermath: ‘Blood mixed with aid’

As daylight broke, the aftermath of the shooting became visible. Videos showed dead bodies, some with wounds to their head and chest, scattered along the coast. People could be seen attending to the dead, placing them on top of a truck’s cargo bed, draped with blood-stained sheets.

CNN interviewed seven survivors who were treated for injuries in what was Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa. Among them was Jihad Abd Rabu, who had a bandage wrapped around his chest where he had been shot – a bullet had hit his left shoulder. He said that he was struck with gunfire in the early hours but had to wait until sunrise before anyone came to help.

Another survivor, Hamouda Zamil, told CNN that he was shot at after he was given a bag of flour from the convoy. “As soon as I carried the bag of flour and started to walk, they (the IDF) shot at me,” he said. “I started to ask people to help me, they (the people) left me.”

Dr. Amjad Aliwa, a physician at Al-Shifa, told CNN he had gone to Al Rashid Street to get food for his family, and witnessed people panicking when the Israeli military started firing. He said that people started to push each other to get to the trucks, with some being pushed in front of them, and in the chaos, he was shot in his left thigh. He said he quickly bandaged his leg before returning to the hospital to provide treatment for the many wounded who had been taken there.

Georgios Petropoulos, who heads the UN humanitarian coordination sub-office in Gaza, estimated that he saw at least 200 injured being treated, including for gunshot wounds but did not specify how many.

CNN traced some of the aid in the convoy to Ummah Welfare Trust, a Muslim relief and development charity based in Bolton, northern England. Among videos and photos of the aftermath, cardboard boxes emblazoned with the nonprofit’s logo could be seen scattered on the ground, splattered with blood.

“It came as a shock,” Mohammed Ahmed, a trustee, told CNN in an interview at the organization’s headquarters a few weeks after the deadly incident. “This is the first time in 20 years of working in this field, where I’ve actually seen blood mixed with aid.”

Ahmed said the charity had been successful in delivering aid to southern Gaza before, but this was the first time they had attempted to go to the north. “We were very, very excited and happy that finally we have gone through,” he said.

That joy was short-lived. Still, Ahmed said the tragedy would not deter the team from trying again because they have “no other choice.”

“People are either going to die from starvation, from the famine, from the desperate situation, or they will be killed by indiscriminate shooting or targeted killings,” he said.

As the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says Israel is blocking it from making aid deliveries into northern Gaza and charities are increasingly filling that void, the February 29 attack raises serious questions about whether the Israeli military can facilitate the safe distribution of desperately needed assistance.

From January 25 to March 21, the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented reports of at least 26 attacks on civilians waiting for much-needed supplies at Al Nabulsi roundabout on Al Rashid Street and Al Kuwaiti roundabout on Salaheddin Street in Gaza City.

On February 26 – three days before the deadly incident on Al Rashid Street – videos shared with CNN by eyewitnesses showed heavy tank fire on Palestinian civilians gathered for an aid delivery along the same stretch, near the checkpoint.

In another video posted online on February 28 in the same area, a man can be seen carrying a bag of flour over his shoulder after a barrage of gunfire is heard followed by injured people being lifted from the scene on blankets. He turns to the person filming and says: “I have to die (for the flour), we must die in Gaza and feel humiliated for a bag of flour.”

This story has been updated to include a response from the IDF sent to CNN post-publication. The video at the top of this story was updated to replace some supplementary footage.

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Khader Al Za’anoun, a journalist with Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, was an eyewitness to the events of February 29. Later, he conducted interviews as a contributor to this report. CNN’s Abeer Salman, Julie Zink and Oscar Featherstone contributed additional reporting.

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