Second and third vehicles were attacked 'for no real reason'

‘Serious failure’: IDF fires 2 top officers over deadly drone strike on Gaza aid convoy

Attack on World Central Kitchen cars was carried out in grave violation of orders, probe finds; commanders believed Hamas gunman was in one car; WCK insists on independent probe

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

  • An infographic released on April 5, 2024 from the IDF probe into a deadly drone strike against a group of aid workers with the World Central Kitchen organization in the central Gaza Strip on April 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
    An infographic released on April 5, 2024 from the IDF probe into a deadly drone strike against a group of aid workers with the World Central Kitchen organization in the central Gaza Strip on April 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • People inspect the site where World Central Kitchen workers were killed in an Israeli air strike in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)
    People inspect the site where World Central Kitchen workers were killed in an Israeli air strike in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)
  • IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) meets with the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman in northern Gaza, Feburary 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
    IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) meets with the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman in northern Gaza, Feburary 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • 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 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)
  • People gather around the carcass 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)
    People gather around the carcass 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)

Two senior officers were to be dismissed and several other top commanders in the Israel Defense Forces were formally censured for their involvement in a deadly drone strike against a group of aid workers with the World Central Kitchen organization in the central Gaza Strip earlier this week, the military said Friday.

The investigation into the incident late Monday, which left seven humanitarian workers dead, was carried out by the General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism, an independent military body responsible for investigating unusual incidents amid the war.

The probe found that the strike was ordered against the convoy of WCK vehicles after officers suspected they carried a Hamas gunman, despite a low level of confidence, and against army regulations. The officers did not identify the vehicles as belonging to WCK when the strike was ordered, according to the investigation.

The findings were presented to IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Thursday by the head of the mechanism, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Har-Even, as well as to WCK and ambassadors of countries whose citizens were killed in the strike.

Halevi ordered the removal of Col. (res.) Nochi Mendel — the chief of staff of the Nahal Infantry Brigade amid the war — and the brigade’s firepower coordination officer, who holds the rank of major, over their involvement in ordering the strike.

Additionally, Halevi reprimanded the commander of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, for his “overall responsibility for the incident,” as well as the commander of the 162nd Division, Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, and the commander of the Nahal Brigade, Col. Yair Zukerman.

An infographic released on April 5, 2024 from the IDF probe into a deadly drone strike against a group of aid workers with the World Central Kitchen organization in the central Gaza Strip on April 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the investigation, the incident began at around 10 p.m. Monday, with a ship carrying some 300 tons of WCK aid being unloaded at a makeshift jetty in the central Gaza Strip. A short while later, a convoy of trucks carrying the aid began to move toward a warehouse where the supplies were to be stored.

The IDF probe found that troops identified one gunman climbing on the roof of one of the trucks and opening fire. A video shown by the IDF to foreign reporters appeared to show a person shooting an automatic rifle from the top of a truck.

The convoy continued on its agreed route and stopped at the warehouse known as “Hangar A,” where the military said the gunman got off.

At this point, the IDF’s division commander in the area tried to contact WCK, Har-Even told foreign press. But the charity’s security officer in Europe could not contact the team on the ground, he said.

After the aid trucks and pickup trucks escorting them arrived at “Hangar A,” an Israeli Air Force drone spotted 15-20 individuals outside the warehouse, with at least two of them identified as being armed, according to the probe.

World Central Kitchen boat off the coast of Gaza on March 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

One of the IDF officers concluded that they were Hamas operatives, but was ordered by the division commander not to strike them due to their proximity to the aid convoy.

Close to 11 p.m., the pickup trucks began to drive away from the warehouse, after the aid had been unloaded. One vehicle drove north to Hangar B, where Har-Even said two to four gunmen were spotted entering the warehouse.

Just before the other three pickup trucks began driving toward the coast, the IDF probe found that one of the commanders mistakenly believed that a Hamas terrorist entered one of the escort cars. There was no evidence indicating the suspect was armed, and drone footage reviewed as part of the probe appeared to show he was holding a bag, not a gun.

The IDF said the troops did not identify the escort vehicles as being associated with WCK, and as they mistakenly believed at least one was carrying a Hamas gunman, a drone strike was carried out at around 11:09 p.m.

After the initial strike, people were identified running out of the targeted car into another. Additional airstrikes were then carried out in quick succession against the other two WCK escort pickup trucks, despite no information indicating gunmen were in them, which was a violation of IDF procedures. “Even though there was no information on gunmen in the second and third vehicles, they too were attacked, within minutes of each other, for no real reason,” the probe stated.

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

“The attack on the three vehicles was carried out in serious violation of the relevant orders and instructions,” the IDF said.

The WCK convoy had been coordinated with the IDF, although information on its route was not passed down from senior commanders to the officers on the ground, who ultimately called in the attack, the probe found.

The IDF said the findings of the investigation show that the incident “could have been prevented, and at the same time, those who approved the attack were convinced that they were attacking armed Hamas operatives and not WCK members.”

“The attack on the aid vehicles is a serious mistake, which stemmed from a serious failure, as a result of wrong identification, a mistake in decision-making, and an attack contrary to the orders and open-fire regulations,” the IDF said.

A man displays blood-stained British, Polish, and Australian passports of World Central Kitchen aid workers after an Israeli airstrike, in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

“We express our deep sorrow for the loss, and share in the grief of the families and the WCK organization,” the IDF said, adding that the “vital humanitarian activity of the international aid organizations” is of “utmost importance.”

“We will continue to work to coordinate and assist their activities, while ensuring their safety and safeguarding their lives,” the military continued.

“The IDF once again emphasizes its commitment to uncompromising fighting against the Hamas organization, alongside upholding the values ​​of the IDF, the laws of war and avoiding harming innocents.

“The IDF will learn the lessons of the incident, and will implement the lessons,” it added.

IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari later Friday put out an English-language video statement expressing similar sentiments.

As part of the lessons learned, the IDF decided to brand aid vehicles with special stickers that are visible with thermal cameras.

The WCK vehicle had a sticker of the organization’s logo, although it was not visible to IDF drones at night.

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)

The deadly incident sparked international outrage, especially from countries whose civilians were killed.

WCK said it was suspending operations in Gaza following the strike, which marked a serious setback in Israel’s attempts to expedite aid into the Strip, where international agencies say many are on the verge of starvation as a result of the fighting.

Chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman (right) and Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, the commander of the 162nd Division, in northern Gaza, February 1, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The US and other allies have made it increasingly clear to Israel that continued support for the war on Hamas depends on Israel allowing and facilitating aid to Gaza’s civilian population.

Following the IDF’s publication of the probe on Friday, WCK demanded an independent commission to investigate the killings, saying the Israeli military “cannot credibly investigate its own failure.”

World Central Kitchen founder Jose Andres is interviewed by Channel 12 on April 3, 2024. (Screen capture/Channel 12)

WCK in a statement commended Israel on taking responsibility for the deadly attack and disciplinary action against those in command, but it claimed that the IDF has “deployed deadly force without regard to its own protocols, chain of command and rules of engagement.”

“We demand the creation of an independent commission to investigate the killings of our WCK colleagues. The IDF cannot credibly investigate its own failure in Gaza,” the statement said.

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)

Killed in the airstrike were three British nationals, an Australian, a Polish national, an American-Canadian dual citizen and a Palestinian. Some had traveled the world, participating in aid efforts in the aftermath of wars, earthquakes and wildfires.

WCK identified the victims as Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, 25, from the Palestinian territories; Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom, 43, from Australia; Damian Soból, 35, from Poland; Jacob Flickinger, 33, from the US and Canada; John Chapman, 57, from the UK; James (Jim) Henderson, 33, from the UK; and James Kirby, 47, from the UK.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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