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Israeli strike kills 7 World Central Kitchen workers, group halts aid

World Central Kitchen said Tuesday that it was immediately halting its operations in Gaza after seven of its workers were killed in an Israeli strike, threatening already precarious deliveries to the besieged enclave.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Israel carried out the strike but said it was “unintentional” and that Israel would investigate.

The attack on the aid convoy killed three British nationals, U.S.-Canadian dual national, one Palestinian worker and citizens of Australia and Poland, according to the group, which has been prominently involved in Gaza relief efforts.

WCK CEO Erin Gore described the strike on the convoy as a “targeted attack” by the Israel Defense Forces and “unforgivable.” The food aid nonprofit has sent more than 1,700 trucks of assistance into Gaza as well as sea deliveries from Cyprus.

It said it had coordinated its activities with Israeli authorities. The team was traveling in a “deconflicted zone” in vehicles that included two armored cars branded with the WCK logo.

“Despite coordinating movements with the [Israel Defense Forces], the convoy was hit as it was leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse, where the team had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid brought to Gaza on the maritime route,” the group said.

The strike is believed to be the first to kill foreigners working for an international aid organization in Gaza since the start of the war on Oct. 7, though a record number of Palestinians employed by the United Nations have been killed in the conflict. It sent shock waves through the humanitarian aid community, causing at least two other groups providing aid to pause their operations at a time when Gaza is on the brink of famine.

“This is not an isolated incident,” said United Nations humanitarian coordinator James McGoldrick, citing the killing of at least 196 humanitarians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza since October. “This is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year,” he said, adding that the United Nations would continue aid deliveries.

But the American Near East Refugee Aid organization, which works in partnership with the WCK to distribute 150,000 hot meals a day to Gazans, said it was taking the “unprecedented” step of suspending its operations in Gaza. A logistics coordinator for the U.S.-based NGO was killed last month when Israel bombed a house where he was sheltering with his family, according to Sean Carroll, the president and CEO. The coordinates for the property had been repeatedly shared with the IDF, he said.

Project HOPE, a global health nonprofit which operates three clinics in Gaza, is suspending its work inside Gaza for at least three days in the wake of the strike, Bria Justus, a spokeswoman for the organization said.

The WCK ships carrying nearly 400 tons of food had arrived to Gaza on Monday and around 100 tons of it had been offloaded and was being distributed when the attack happened. After the charity suspended its activities, the remaining 240 tons of aid will be returned to Cyprus, said Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesman Theodoros Gotsis told the Associated Press.

Images from the scene of the WCK attack showed a blackened hole puncturing the company’s logo on one vehicle’s roof, which was supposed to have made it identifiable from the air.

“Unfortunately, there was a tragic incident in which our forces unintentionally hit innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “As it happens in war, we are investigating the matter fully, we are in contact with the governments, and we will do everything possible to prevent this from happening again.”

The WCK statement did not name those killed, though the mayor of the Polish city of Przemyśl identified Damian Soból as one of the victims in a post on social media. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also said Tuesday that the death of Australian Lalzawmi Frankcom was “completely unacceptable.”

British Foreign Minister David Cameron described the strike as “deeply distressing.”

“British Nationals are reported to have been killed, we are urgently working to verify this information and will provide full support to their families,” he tweeted.

Another of those killed was identified by medics and a relative as Seif Issam Abu Taha, a Palestinian. His cousin Yousef Sharif, said the 26-year-old worked as a driver for the WCK team in Gaza describing his death as a “big loss” to the family.

On Monday, WCK founder and celebrity chef José Andrés called those who were killed his “sisters and brothers” and “angels” in a statement on social media.

“The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing. It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon,” Andrés wrote.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said it recovered the bodies of the seven victims in a “challenging operation” Tuesday morning and transported them to southern Gaza to await evacuation through the Rafah border crossing.

In a statement on social media platform X, PRCS said it brought the bodies first to al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, the area of central Gaza where the WCK convoy was hit, and then later to Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital on Gaza’s southern border.

“When the attack happened, we managed to evacuate five from the location to al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, but two at that time were still missing,” Nebal Farsakh, a spokeswoman for PRCS, told The Washington Post. “They were located in an area which was still dangerous.”

The coordination process with Israeli forces to retrieve the remaining two bodies took three hours, from about 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. local time, she said, “and then we managed to evacuate them.”

“This is not the first time that humanitarians and health-care workers were being targeted while on duty even with prior coordination,” Farsakh said, describing a pattern of Israeli forces firing on aid and medical missions that had previously been deconflicted with Israeli authorities.

Marwan al-Hams, director of al-Najjar Hospital, confirmed that the facility had received the bodies of the seven workers.

“Some of them were [just] body parts, another had their face amputated, some lost upper or lower body parts — deformations that show they were targeted by a rocket that hit their cars,” Hams said, adding that the WCK logo was visible on garments on the bodies. “They are currently being kept at Najjar Hospital until their embassies or consular representatives are present.”

U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson urged Israel to investigate what happened. “Humanitarian aid workers must be protected as they deliver aid that is desperately needed,” she wrote on social media.

“We want full accountability for this, because this is a tragedy that should never have occurred,” Albanese, the Australian prime minister, said at a news conference. “The truth is that this is beyond any reasonable circumstance — [that] someone going about providing aid and humanitarian assistance should lose their life.”

Israel is facing increasing pressure from the United States and other Western allies over the humanitarian toll of the war, as well as looming issues of international humanitarian law. In an order last week, the International Court of Justice called on Israel to “take all necessary and effective measures” to ensure the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in the enclave.

“If they are aid workers, they are civilians, and civilians are protected from attack under the law of war,” said Brian Finucane, a former legal adviser at the State Department and now a senior adviser at the Crisis Group think tank.

The Spanish-born Andrés formed WCK in 2010. It quickly grew into a high-profile relief organization for natural disasters and war zones, as Andrés used his status to raise awareness of crises in places such as Ukraine and Haiti.

In Gaza, the organization most notably led the construction of a jetty that allowed a ship chartered by the Spanish search-and-rescue group Open Arms to send about 200 tons of food and water to the enclave.

Israel declared a full-scale siege of Gaza in a bid to oust the militant group Hamas, which was behind the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. Global emergency experts have warned that up to half of the Gaza Strip’s population will face starvation before July.

In a statement last month, WCK said it had served more than 35 million meals since the war began and opened more than 60 community kitchens across Gaza.

Andrés has personally lobbied the Israeli government to allow more food into Gaza, according to a Wall Street Journal report. In its statement Monday, the IDF said it has been working with WCK to help the organization’s efforts.

“The IDF makes extensive efforts to enable the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, and has been working closely with [World Central Kitchen] in their vital efforts to provide food and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza,” the IDF said in the statement.

Michael Miller in Sydney, Hajar Harb in London, Heba Mahfouz in Cairo, Frances Vinall in Seoul, Kareem Fahim in Beirut, contributed to this report.


The Washington Post, 2024



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