Officials warn killing of NGO workers imperils Gaza aid, could stymie Israel’s war goals

UAE halting maritime corridor supply activities; Cypriot officials say ships carrying more aid returning to Cyprus as World Central Kitchen stops operations

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)
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)

Israel risks being left without any partners to provide and deliver humanitarian assistance to Gaza after the deadly erroneous IDF strikes on a convoy belonging to the World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid group in central Gaza, a United States official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

An Israeli air strike killed seven people working for WCK in Gaza on Monday.

Israel took responsibility for the attack, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledging a “tragic” and “unintentional” incident and vowing to “do everything” to prevent a recurrence.

The strike saw WCK halt its operations and several other agencies and countries said they were pausing aid efforts, raising fears that there would be no one to supply aid to large parts of Gaza that are increasingly facing hunger and starvation.

US and Israeli officials expressed concern that such a situation could force Israel to shift its war goals in Gaza. 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.

“People aren’t exactly lining up to do this work, and they just took out one of the few groups that has volunteered,” the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

United Nations staff members gather around the car of the 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)

“They don’t want UNRWA involved? Fine. But they have to be… sure that the rest of the humanitarian workers are protected,” the official said, referring to the UN agency for Palestinians, which Israel has sought to sideline after accusing some of its staff of participating in the October 7 attack and many more of having ties to Hamas.

“If [WCK] doesn’t come back, and other groups follow suit, the onus is going to fall on Israel to provide aid to the Palestinians,” the US official continued, citing international law.

“To not have proper de-confliction mechanisms put in place six months into the war is inexcusable,” the official said.

“The IDF is talking about improving communications between the Southern Command and COGAT,” they said, referring to the military unit that coordinates activities with the Palestinians.

“How is this mechanism only being put in place now?” the official continued, warning that the strike could have implications on continued fighting in Gaza as well as negotiations to free the hostages in return for at least a temporary ceasefire.

The US also publicly expressed its anger.

An Open Arms vessel and a barge carrying humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip are pictured offshore in Gaza City as it awaits approval to dock, on April 1, 2024. (AFP)

The White House said it was “outraged” by the strike and that US President Joe Biden called the charity aid group’s founder to share his condolences.

“We were outraged to learn of an IDF strike that killed a number of civilian humanitarian workers yesterday from the World Central Kitchen,” White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a briefing in Washington.

Asked whether the US would condemn the Israeli airstrike, Kirby said of his use of the word “outraged”: “I think you can fairly characterize that as condemning the strike itself.”

File: Jose Andres speaks onstage at The New York Times Climate Forward Summit 2023 at The Times Center on September 21, 2023 in New York City. (Bennett Raglin / Getty Images via AFP)

Biden told WCK founder Jose Andres that he will make clear to Israel that aid workers must be protected, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told the same briefing.

The strike on the WCK convoy killed citizens of Australia, Britain and Poland, as well as Palestinians and a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.

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

The Israelis have “already said this was on them,” Kirby said. “There’s accountability to be held here.”

Speaking to Channel 12, a senior Israeli official echoed the fears that the incident could be a turning point in the war.

Channel 12 reported that Israeli officials fear the WCK deaths and disruptions to aid deliveries will exacerbate famine concerns. Other aid agencies may also stop their operations, which would leave Israel forced to choose between taking over food distribution — effectively making it a military governor of Gaza — or ending the war.

A senior political source told Channel 12 that there are concerns the incident could deeply impact the war, racking up the pressure on Israel to end the conflict before it has achieved its stated goals of destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages.

Those fears appeared to quickly be coming to pass with groups suspending aid and boats full of desperately needed food sailing away from Gaza.

The United Arab Emirates was pausing humanitarian aid efforts through the Gaza maritime corridor pending a full investigation of the deadly strike on aid workers and assurances from Israel that in future they will be protected, a senior Emirati official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

As the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas continues to disrupt essential aid via land causing a humanitarian crisis, the UAE has been the main financier for aid through a maritime corridor to Gaza, often in missions organized by WCK.

Jose Andres, a US-Spanish chef, and founder of World Central Kitchen unloads the humanitarian food packages delivered with WCK’s truck in Kherson. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

“The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza requires the adoption of such a collective international approach to immediately mitigate the threat to innocent lives, by ensuring urgent, safe, unhindered, and sustainable delivery of aid,” the UAE said in a joint statement with Cyprus, which has said it will seek to keep the aid corridor operational.

WCK also said it was halting its activities following the strike.

Cypriot officials said that ships waiting to unload more supplies had instead sailed away and were heading back to Cyprus.

WCK staff had just finished offloading 100 tons of food aid from a barge that sailed from Cyprus when their vehicle convoy was attacked overnight Monday in the Israeli airstrike.

The barge was part of a four-vessel flotilla that set sail from Larnaca, Cyprus on March 30. Another vessel still loaded with 240 tons of food, the Jennifer, was heading back to Cyprus on Tuesday with the empty barge, a salvage boat and a tugboat after WCK suspended operations.

“They only managed to offload the barge,” a Cypriot official told Reuters. “One-third [of the aid cargo] was delivered, and two-thirds is coming back.”

War erupted on October 7 when Palestinian terror group Hamas led a massive cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took a further 253 hostages.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing fighting as Israel has sought to dismantle a terror group deeply embedded within the civilian population.

This death count hasn’t been verified and doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants. The IDF says it has killed over 13,000 terrorists in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 killed inside Israel on and immediately following the October 7 onslaught.

IDF soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip in this undated handout photo published April 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Monday’s attack was a serious setback in attempts to expedite aid into Gaza, where international agencies say many are on the verge of famine as a result of the fighting.

Israel has faced intense international pressure to ensure more aid gets into the Strip, especially hard-to-reach areas of northern Gaza, amid repeated warnings that the population faces starvation and famine. There have already been previous deadly incidents during aid deliveries with desperate Palestinians dying in stampedes, being hit by falling packages air-dropped by military planes from a variety of countries, drowning as they try to retrieve aid that fell in the sea, or being caught in gunfire from Israeli troops.

Israel has said aid on trucks waiting to enter Gaza from Egypt is backed up due to poor coordination by United Nations and aid agency officials. It also accuses Hamas of looting aid deliveries for its own purposes and denying supplies to the civilian population.

In addition, the deaths of the aid workers are bound to raise more hurdles for Israel as it seeks to press ahead with a promised offensive in Rafah, a southern Gaza city that is the last Hamas stronghold not yet overrun by the IDF, the official said. The city and its surroundings have absorbed hundreds of thousands of Gazans who fled the fighting in other areas of Gaza, and the US is insisting that Israel implement a reasonable evacuation plan for the 1.4 million people in the area before it launches the operation.

Egyptian Red Crescent trucks loaded with aid wait outside the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Already another aid group said it is freezing its activities.

Anera, a Washington-based aid group that has been operating in the Palestinian territories for decades, said that in the wake of the strike it was taking the “unprecedented” step of pausing its own operations in Gaza, where it had been helping to provide around 150,000 meals daily.

“The escalating risks associated with aid delivery leave us with no choice,” it said in a statement.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides urged that the deadly strike not be allowed to disrupt aid efforts.

“The tragic events must not discourage us. We need to double down on efforts to get aid to Gaza,” Christodoulides said after a meeting with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola.

WCK has been active in Gaza since October when the war started, bringing food by land routes and also participating in airdrops.

In March, it launched an inaugural sea corridor transporting aid to the enclave from Cyprus.

People commute along the coastal road, as humanitarian aid is dropped on the Gaza Strip, west of Gaza City, on March 25, 2024. (AFP)

Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos, who said Cypriot authorities had been in touch with WCK, said the strike occurred 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the landing area for aid – a makeshift jetty created by the charity.

The aid workers had just ended a shift halfway through the offloading process, which was supposed to resume early Tuesday, the Cypriot minister said.

“This is something that has now been frozen and since WCK has made the announcement – they will be leaving the area in order to come back, regroup, and see and assess what the next steps are,” Kombos said.

Cyprus had played a pivotal role in establishing a maritime route to Gaza by offering a fast-track on-island security screening process overseen by Israel. WCK had received funding from the UAE for its maritime food missions.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, the UAE and Cyprus expressed “profound condemnation” over Israel’s strike.

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