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U.N. official says he saw Israeli troops kill 2 Palestinians fishing off Gaza coast

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Two men fishing in the waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip were killed Wednesday by Israeli troops firing at them with automatic weapons, James Elder, the global spokesperson for the United Nations' children's agency UNICEF, told CBS News.

Elder said he was in a truck attempting to deliver food and medical supplies for 10,000 children in northern Gaza when his team was stopped at an Israeli checkpoint. From his position, he said he could see about 10 men fishing with a single net in knee-deep water.

"I was standing outside the vehicle and suddenly saw a tank coming and then firing, and saw those two men seek to run from their fishing spot and then hit the sand," Elder said.

Elder said he heard the sound of an automatic weapon coming from near the tank before the men fell. He said his group eventually made contact with the military and that some of the fishermen who fled the shooting were able to return to the beach to retrieve the bodies of those who were killed.

"I don't know if they were brothers or friends. I just saw those people carrying their dead friends or relatives, obviously in tears," Elder told CBS News.

Asked if the men in the water had shown any signs of hostility toward Israeli forces, he told CBS News: "They were fishermen. They were fishing."

Asked about the purported shooting, which Elder first reported in an Instagram post, the Israel Defense Forces provided CBS News a statement saying: "After being brought to our attention, the IDF is looking into the incident on the beach which was mentioned in the interview."

Elder said he and his team were prevented from delivering their aid shipment and forced to turn back that day.

"We spent about eight or nine hours at military checkpoints. In the end, our truck, despite all the approvals, was denied access and returned ... Yes, we will try again. Obviously, we'll try again. But this is consistent with the denials that we and many other agencies have experienced," Elder said.

Israel has previously said that it allows hundreds of trucks carrying aid to enter Gaza daily, and the Israeli government has blamed the U.N. for failing to distribute it. 

Responding to Elder's description of the stopping of the UNICEF truck on Thursday, the IDF, in its statement to CBS News the following day, said Elder had presented "a partial picture" blaming Israel "while completely ignoring Hamas's responsibility for the situation in the Gaza Strip and Hamas's exploitation of aid organisations for military activities."

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The military said the type of truck Elder was in, which it said had an enclosed cabin, required advance coordination and clearance by the IDF, which UNICEF knew and had failed to obtain before making the journey.

The statement said when the UNICEF convoy reached the IDF checkpoint, Israeli forces "communicated directly with the convoy, which initially claimed that the truck did not include a closed cabin, information that unfortunately turned out to be false. Nonetheless, once the situation was clarified, the organization was offered to continue its movement northward without the mentioned truck or to submit appropriate coordination for the following day."

Elder, who has visited the Gaza Strip repeatedly since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, told CBS News the violence he's witnessed over the past several days has increased to levels he saw shortly after the conflict was sparked by Hamas' Oct. 7 terrorist attack.

"It felt again like Day 1 of the war," he said. "Walking in this hospital, absolutely heaving with people, children, little, you know, 3-year-olds, 7-year-olds with these grotesque wounds of war, head injuries, and the burns ... And children are on the floor. They're on makeshift stretchers. They're on beds. There's just not the capacity. Gaza has seen the systematic devastation of its health care system, so at a time when children are so woefully, wildly under attack from the skies, but also from malnutrition on the ground, we've never needed more health care and we've never had less."

CBS News' Chris Livesay and Erin Lyall contributed to this report.

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