Killing of 7 aid workers marks serious blow to WCK

Head of aid group struck by IDF: ‘Israel is better than the way this war is being waged’

In op-ed for Israeli paper, José Andrés urges ‘best of Israel to show up’; earlier, called for end to ‘indiscriminate killings,’ marking shift after defense of Israel post-October 7

File: José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, speaks onstage during a summit on September 19, 2023 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
File: José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, speaks onstage during a summit on September 19, 2023 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

In an op-ed for an Israeli newspaper, José Andrés, the head of the humanitarian organization that lost seven volunteers in an Israeli strike in Gaza on Monday, slammed Israel on Wednesday for its conduct in the ongoing war against Hamas and urged for “the best of Israel to show up.”

The deaths of seven World Central Kitchen workers in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza was a tragic turn for the American homegrown charity that, in less than 15 years, mushroomed from the grassroots brainchild of a celebrity chef into one of the world’s most recognized food relief organizations.

Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Andrés welcomed a military investigation into the incident, but added that the probe “needs to start at the top, not just the bottom.”

“The seven people killed on a World Central Kitchen mission in Gaza on Monday were the best of humanity. They risked everything for the most fundamentally human activity: to share our food with others,” he wrote. “Israel is better than the way this war is being waged.”

“In the worst conditions, after the worst terrorist attack in its history, it’s time for the best of Israel to show up. You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population,” he said.

“From day one [of the war], we have fed Israelis as well as Palestinians. All across Israel, we have served more than 1.75 million hot meals. We have fed families displaced by Hezbollah rockets in the north. We have fed grieving families from the south. We delivered meals to the hospitals where hostages were reunited with their families. We have called consistently, repeatedly, and passionately for the release of all the hostages,” he wrote.

File: People inspect the site where World Central Kitchen workers were killed in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, April 2, 2024. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP)

The killings marked a turning point in Andrés’s public perspective on the Israeli government. The chef was a vocal critic of Hamas in the immediate aftermath of the terror group’s October 7 massacre. He spoke on the X social media platform about Israel’s right to defend its citizens and called for the ouster of a Spanish government minister who accused the Jewish state of committing war crimes in Gaza.

“As a minister, you must first recognize that Hamas’s attack on Israel is a terrorist act and that Israel … is defending its citizens — then you can ask it for restraint and respect for civilian lives in Gaza,” he posted on X at the time.

Following the deadly strike this week, Andrés harshly criticized the Israeli military on X, urging it “to stop this indiscriminate killing… stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon.”

“We know Israelis. Israelis, in their heart of hearts, know that food is not a weapon of war,” he wrote Wednesday in Yedioth Ahronoth. “Israel is better than the way this war is being waged. It is better than blocking food and medicine to civilians. It is better than killing aid workers who coordinated their movements with the IDF.

“The Israeli government needs to open land routes to food and medicine today. It needs to stop killing civilians and aid workers today. It needs to start the long journey to peace today,” he continued.

“In the worst conditions, after the worst terrorist attack in its history, it’s time for the best of Israel to show up. You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population,” said Andrés. “The people of Israel need to remember, at this darkest hour, what strength truly looks like.”

The victims of the IDF strike on a World Central Kitchen convoy in Gaza (Clockwise from top right):
Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom, Damian Soból, Jacob Flickinger, James Kirby, James (Jim) Henderson and John Chapman. (World Central Kitchen/X)

The killings interrupted a crucial flow of desperately needed food into the besieged coastal territory, as international organizations and charities warn of a looming famine.

World Central Kitchen, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, had just delivered a cargo ship with 400 tons of canned goods from Cyprus to Gaza. Around 100 tons were unloaded before the charity suspended operations in the wake of the attack; the rest was being taken back to Cyprus, Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesman Theodoros Gotsis said.

Unprecedented crisis

It’s an unprecedented crisis for Andrés, the restaurateur who founded the charity to provide immediate food relief to disaster-stricken areas and has grown it into a global operation working in multiple war zones.

Founded in 2010, the organization achieved international prominence for its work in Puerto Rico in 2017 feeding victims of Hurricane Maria. It also operates in Ukraine, providing more than 100 million meals to refugees, according to the group’s website, and earning Andrés a medal from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

File: A member of the World Central Kitchen prepares a pallet with 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. (Petros Karadjias/AP)

World Central Kitchen has quickly become a mainstay of American philanthropy, with contributions on par with much older organizations. The charity in 2022 reported $518 million in total contributions and Andrés himself received $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2021.

Andrés rose to prominence with a string of successful restaurants in Washington, DC, just as the celebrity chef phenomenon was taking off. He developed close ties with former US president Barack Obama at a time when current President Joe Biden served as vice president. Andrés prepared meals at the White House, and Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were frequent guests at his restaurants. The Spanish-born Andrés became a naturalized citizen during the Obama administration in a ceremony at the White House.

He remains connected to the Biden administration, serving as co-chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. In February, he spoke at a conference on hunger hosted by second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Andrés publicly feuded with former US president Donald Trump over a planned restaurant in what was then the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The chef tried to pull out of a contract in protest over Trump’s incendiary comments about Mexican and Latin American immigrants crossing the US border. The pair sued each other and then settled out of court. When the hotel was sold and reopened as a Waldorf-Astoria, Andrés almost immediately announced new plans to launch a restaurant there.

In a statement Tuesday night, Biden said he had spoken with Andrés “to convey my deepest condolences for the deaths of these courageous aid workers and to express my continued support for his and his team’s relentless and heroic efforts to get food to hungry people around the globe.”

Biden said bluntly that Israel was not doing enough to protect aid workers. “This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” he said.

File: Chef Jose Andres, founder of the World Central Kitchen, right, walks with Sen. Peter Welch, Democrat-Vermont, at the Capitol in Washington, March 14, 2024, after a briefing with senators on how to get food aid into Gaza, Haiti and Ukraine. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

When thousands of Hamas-led terrorists breached the border on October 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and taking 253 hostages, Andrés quickly moved to organize support for Gazan civilians who would be caught up in the Israeli military response. With funding from the Emirati government, his group organized an initial food shipment from Cyprus and set up more than 60 kitchens in Gaza producing thousands of meals a day. The latest food shipment was meant to expand upon that model.

In a March telephone interview with The Associated Press shortly before the most recent shipment launched from Cyprus, Andrés credited his campaign with sparking governments into action and helping inspire the US government’s plan to build a temporary port in Gaza to receive aid shipments.

“We have awakened the international community to do more for the people of Gaza,” he told the AP. “Everybody should have food and water, it’s a universal right.”

The loss of World Central Kitchen’s efforts will be a serious blow to overall humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

“WCK is a key player in efforts to address food insecurity in Gaza and has provided essential food aid to thousands of families, contributing significantly to combating the catastrophic hunger there,” said a statement from the UN’s World Food Program.

His organization laid the blame squarely on the Israel Defense Forces, saying the IDF had coordinated the movement of the cars carrying the workers as they left northern Gaza late Monday.

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the military chief, said Tuesday that the strike was “a mistake that followed a misidentification — at night during a war in very complex conditions. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Footage of the aftermath showed a vehicle with the charity’s logo printed across its roof to make it identifiable from the air. A projectile had blasted a large hole through the roof. Two other vehicles in the convoy were incinerated and mangled, indicating multiple hits.

Other footage showed the bodies, several wearing protective gear with the charity’s logo, at a hospital in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Those killed were three British nationals, an Australian, a Polish national, an American-Canadian dual citizen, and a Palestinian, according to hospital records.

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