Groups accuse Israel of ‘systematic’ attacks on aid workers, but won’t leave Gaza

Humanitarian NGOs say conditions have become impossible for them, with soldiers disregarding a mechanism in place to allow relief efforts to operate safely

A United Nations vehicle drives on a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
A United Nations vehicle drives on a street in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Aid groups said on Wednesday that the international community must treat the Israeli strike that killed seven humanitarian workers in Gaza as a watershed moment, accusing Israel of “systematic” attacks on civilians and NGOs working there.

Charities told AFP they had no immediate plans to pull out of Gaza after an Israeli air strike killed seven staff members of the US-based food charity World Central Kitchen late Monday.

But they said conditions were becoming increasingly impossible, pointing to serious problems with a coordination system that is designed to keep aid workers safe from military activity aimed at rooting out armed members of Hamas and other terror groups.

The United Nations says the bloodiest-ever Gaza war had left nearly 200 aid workers dead even before the Monday night attack, including more than 175 members of the UN’s staff.

The WCK stressed that its staff had come under attack “despite coordinating movements” with the IDF and traveling in a de-conflicted zone in two armored cars branded with the WCK logo and another vehicle.

Israel described the deadly strike as unintentional and apologized for the deadly strike, while vowing to probe the incident, at a time of an outpouring of anger from governments around the world.

United Nations staff members inspect the remains of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

But the UN and others say the way Israel has conducted the war puts relief providers and other civilians at grave risk.

“Israel has now killed more aid workers in Gaza than all other armies, militias, and terrorists in all other wars combined,” said Jan Egeland who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“I deeply hope that this terrible attack will act as some kind of watershed moment, and lead to a change in approach,” he said, reiterating calls for a sustained ceasefire.

Bushra Khalidi, Oxfam’s policy adviser for the Palestinian territories, said staff have been “terrified” and tried to minimize their movements.

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, during an interview with AFP in Oslo, Norway, on November 24, 2023. (Viken KANTARCI / AFP)

“There’s been a deliberate and systematic assault on humanitarian aid efforts, including humanitarian aid workers,” she said. “We’ve seen a systematic disregard for the de-confliction system.”

‘Deep crisis’

Benjamin Gaudin, who leads the Middle East operations of Premiere Urgence Internationale, a France-based NGO, said his organization had no immediate plans to pull out, even though it was “very difficult” to continue to work in Gaza.

“This attack is catastrophic, not only for the World Central Kitchen, but also for the entire humanitarian community,” said Gaudin.

Like other relief groups, Gaudin’s NGO has been seeking to closely coordinate their movements with Israel through a special “platform,” but pointed to communications problems.

A member of the World Central Kitchen prepares a pallet with the humanitarian aid for transport to the port of Larnaca from where it will be shipped to Gaza, at a warehouse near Larnaca, Cyprus, on March 13, 2024. (AP Photo/ Petros Karadjias, File)

“So far it hasn’t guaranteed the safety of the organizations, because many incidents have occurred, despite this system being put in place,” he said.

Egeland said the notification and coordination system with the IDF was “in deep crisis” and had to be rebooted.

The deadly attack “either shows that Israel has no control over its forces – that indiscriminately attack in Gaza — or that it has never communicated with its armed operations the notifications that it had promised to communicate,” he said. “Both would be unforgivable.”

Camilla Dogliotti of Handicap International, whose office in Gaza City was destroyed in a bombing strike in late January, said “the level of risk is very high in some southern and central areas of Gaza and unacceptable in all other areas.”

“This new attack is first and foremost the consequence of Israel’s continued disrespect of international humanitarian law and of the required protection of civilians, including aid workers, during conflict,” she charged.

‘Unprecedented danger’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the military had “unintentionally” killed the aid workers, calling it a “tragic case” that would be investigated “right to the end.”

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi apologized for the incident on Tuesday: “It was a mistake that followed a misidentification, at night, during a war, in very complex conditions. It shouldn’t have happened,” Halevi clarified, adding that there was no “intention of harming WCK aid workers.”

Troops of the Commando Brigade operate in the Khan Younis neighborhood of al-Amal, in a handout image published April 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The war erupted after Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in about 1,200 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, and 253 being taken hostage, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel believes 130 remain in Gaza, including 34 presumed dead.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza claims that more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel in the war, but the number cannot be independently verified as it is believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, some of whom were killed as a consequence of the terror group’s own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on and immediately following October 7.

The army has consistently denied intentionally targeting non-combatants.

Gaza is under a near-complete blockade, with the United Nations accusing Israel of preventing deliveries of humanitarian assistance to its population of 2.4 million.

France-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has lost five Palestinian staff since the start of the war. They were allegedly killed either in Israeli bombardments or shot at point-blank range close by an Israeli roadblock, according to the group.

The building that is home to medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which was reportedly targeted by Israeli tank fire in al-Mawasi area, west of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 21, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“The level of danger we are facing in Gaza is unprecedented in the history of MSF,” said spokeswoman Claire Magone.

Caroline Seguin, deputy program manager for the Middle East at MSF, believes Israeli authorities are targeting hospitals intentionally and also restricting their ability to deploy equipment.

“There are now only 10 or so hospitals operating in the Gaza Strip, whereas there used to be 36,” Seguin said. “There’s a lot of equipment that we’re trying to get in, but the Israelis are systematically rejecting it, particularly desalination plants so that we can give people plenty of water.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to carry on working,” she added. “We will continue, for as long as we can.”

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