Army head implores aid groups not to abandon Gaza due to fear

IDF chief apologizes as details emerge of strike that picked off Gaza aid cars one by one

Halevi: Deaths of 7 WCK staffers ‘a mistake that followed a misidentification, at night, in very complex war conditions’; report claims ‘each commander makes his own rules’ in Gaza

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi issued an apology after midnight on Wednesday for a deadly Israeli strike on an aid convoy in Gaza, adding that it was a result of a “misidentification,” which was being investigated and learned from.

The stoic video statement from the military leader came as new details emerged from the Monday night incident, which reportedly saw three cars from a World Central Kitchen convoy targeted one after another by drone-fired missiles, leaving seven humanitarian workers dead.

The strike was far from the first that harmed aid workers in the Strip since the outbreak of a war waged by Israel against a Hamas terror group that is deeply embedded within the civilian population.

But the latest incident appeared on track to force a major shift in the war — similar to the one sparked by a mass casualty incident involving another aid convoy, which desperate Palestinians swarmed in northern Gaza on February 29. The dozens killed in the ensuing gunfire and stampede led to furious international reactions and an announcement by US President Joe Biden that he was done waiting for Israel to facilitate the delivery of more aid and was instead establishing a new maritime corridor to flood the Strip with food.

The Monday incident triggered even fiercer reactions from world leaders, with Biden saying it wasn’t an isolated incident because Israel has long failed to protect aid workers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

As anger bubbled, Halevi issued his own statement in which he hailed WCK — which froze its operations in Gaza following the strike — ostensibly recognizing that the IDF desperately needs such aid organizations in order to prevent the humanitarian crisis from deteriorating into full-fledged famine.

“We see great importance in the continued delivery of humanitarian aid, and we will keep working to facilitate this vital effort,” he said.

Halevi highlighted WCK’s work in Israel since Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which has included serving nearly two million meals to evacuated residents from the south and the north.

The aid organization has become a favorite of the IDF, which has sought to sideline UNRWA from the humanitarian effort over concerns about its ties to Hamas. “The IDF works together closely with the World Central Kitchen and greatly appreciates the important work that they do,” Halevi said.

The IDF chief of staff noted that the army had already completed its preliminary probe into the strike and that the findings were shared with him.

“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.”

The IDF established a new humanitarian command center following the incident “to improve the way we coordinate aid distribution in Gaza,” the army chief said, though, it was unclear why such a mechanism had not yet been established six months into the war. “We will continue taking immediate actions to ensure that more is done to protect humanitarian aid workers.”

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)

An “independent” body will also investigate the incident and will present its findings in the coming days, Halevi said, adding that the IDF will immediately implement its conclusions and share them with the WCK along with other relevant international organizations.

“This incident was a grave mistake. Israel is at war with Hamas, not with the people of Gaza,” Halevi asserted. “We are sorry for the unintentional harm to the members of WCK.”

Hours earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the incident “tragic” and “unintended.” But he qualified the statement of regret by saying, “This happens in war,” — a remark that infuriated WCK founder Jose Andres.

“The air strikes on our convoy were not just some unfortunate mistake in the fog of war. It was a direct attack on clearly marked vehicles whose movements were known by the IDF,” he wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

“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,” Andres added.

A man carries a cardboard box of food aid provided by World Central Kitchen in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Gunned down within half a mile of one another

The Washington Post revealed new details from the strike, which took place shortly after three, marked WCK vehicles began their trip through a coastal Gaza road used as a humanitarian corridor.

Two of the cars were armored SUVs and a third was a regular soft-skin vehicle. The seven WCK staffers inside were three British nationals, an Australian, a Polish national, an American-Canadian dual citizen and a Palestinian — one of many WCK teams that have been delivering food from Europe via barges, temporary piers and convoys.

The convoy was returning to the Egyptian border after unloading 100 tons of aid at a warehouse in the central city of Deir al-Balah, WCK said in a statement, noting that the staffers had coordinated their travel with the IDF beforehand.

But the route was still considered a “high-risk zone,” and the same group had reportedly come under IDF sniper fire days earlier in an incident from which the WCK workers miraculously escaped unscathed.

Some of the members of the convoy even met with the UN’s special humanitarian coordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag hours earlier to discuss improving conditions for aid delivery, The Washington Post said.

The White House said roughly 200 aid workers have been killed since the start of the war — a shockingly high figure compared to other conflicts.

People gather around the remains of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, that was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

At around 9:30 p.m., an explosion was heard by a Palestine Red Crescent technician stationed near the coastal aid route. Minutes later, he received alerts regarding subsequent airstrikes targeting other vehicles on the same road.

He provided the Post with footage showing him and another technician after they arrived at the site of one of the targeted vehicles to find lifeless bodies, including one of a WCK member still wearing his bulletproof vest.

Additional Red Crescent crews were dispatched to the two other WCK vehicles that were hit on the same half-mile stretch of road, according to the technician.

Security consultant and ex-British military officer Chris Cobb-Smith told the Post that the “small, confined detonation” indicated that the convoy was targeted by drone-fired missiles that are “very accurate with significant penetrating power.”

‘Every commander makes his own rules’

Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening, the Haaretz daily spoke to unnamed military sources who revealed that the cause of the strike was undisciplined, rogue commanders, not a lack of coordination between the IDF and the WCK.

A source in the intelligence branch told Haaretz that the IDF’s Southern Command “knows exactly what the cause of the attack was: in Gaza, everyone does as they please.”

Army regulations require final approvals from division commanders or those above them before strikes can be carried out on sensitive targets such as aid convoys.

People gather around the shell of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, which was allegedly hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, April 2, 2024. (AFP)

But in Gaza, “every commander makes his own rules” and his own interpretation of the rules of engagement, the source told Haaretz, which said it wasn’t clear whether the strikes on the convoy ever received final approval.

The intelligence source noted the IDF decision to establish a new coordination hub between COGAT — which facilitates aid delivery for Israel — and Southern Command but insisted that this wouldn’t solve the problem, as similar centers already exist.

“It has no connection to coordination… You can set up another 20 administrations or war rooms, but if someone doesn’t decide to put an end to the conduct of some of the troops inside Gaza, we’ll see more incidents like this,” the source told Haaretz.

Most Popular
read more: