Aid organization says 7 workers killed in Israeli strike in central Gaza

World Central Kitchen pauses operations; IDF says it’s ‘probing tragic incident’ as US urges swift investigation; Australian, Polish, UK, US citizens confirmed among dead

Palestinians carry the body of a person following an alleged Israeli airstrike, into the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Monday, April 1, 2024 (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)
Palestinians carry the body of a person following an alleged Israeli airstrike, into the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Monday, April 1, 2024 (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

Seven aid workers with the World Central Kitchen were killed in a strike on their vehicles in central Gaza late Monday after they helped deliver food and other supplies to northern Gaza that had arrived hours earlier by ship, the charity said Tuesday morning.

“This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war. This is unforgivable,” World Central Kitchen CEO Erin Gore said in a statement.

Footage showed the bodies of the dead at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Several of them wore protective gear with the charity’s logo. The WCK statement said the workers killed included citizens of Australia, Poland and Britain; a dual citizen of the US and Canada; and local Palestinian employees.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed the death of 44-year-old Australian aid worker Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom and said his government had contacted Israel to demand those responsible be held accountable.

“This is a human tragedy that should never have occurred, that is completely unacceptable and Australia will seek full and proper accountability,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The WKC statement said that two branded armored cars were hit as they were leaving a warehouse in Deir Balah in central Gaza, where the team had unloaded humanitarian aid brought to Gaza on the maritime route from Cyprus.

The source of fire could not be independently confirmed.

The ship Jenifer of the World Central Kitchen carrying food aid for the Gaza Strip stands close to the port of Larnaca in Cyprus on March 30, 2024. (Iakovos HATZISTAVROU / AFP)

In an initial response, the IDF did not say whether it was responsible for the strike, but stated that it was “carrying out an in-depth examination at the highest levels to understand the circumstances of this tragic incident.”

The army added that it was “making great efforts to enable safe delivery of humanitarian aid, and has worked closely with the World Central Kitchen in its efforts to provide food and humanitarian aid to Gaza residents.”

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement early Tuesday that the US was “heartbroken and deeply troubled” by the incident, and called for a swift probe into the alleged IDF strike.

“Humanitarian aid workers must be protected as they deliver aid that is desperately needed,” Watson said.

The aid ships that arrived Monday carried some 400 tons of food and supplies in a shipment organized by the United Arab Emirates and the World Central Kitchen, a charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés. Last month a ship delivered 200 tons of aid in a pilot run. The Israeli military was involved in coordinating both deliveries.

“We are aware of reports that members of the World Central Kitchen team have been killed in an IDF attack while working to support our humanitarian food delivery efforts in Gaza,” WCK posted on X. “This is a tragedy. Humanitarian aid workers and civilians should NEVER be a target. EVER.”

UN vehicles drive past a destroyed car on a road in Gaza City on April 1, 2024 (AFP)

The US has touted the sea route as a new way to deliver desperately needed aid to northern Gaza, where international aid groups warn some 300,000 Palestinians face imminent famine, largely cut off from the rest of the territory by Israeli forces. Israel has barred UNRWA, the main UN agency in Gaza, from making deliveries to the north, though it is working with other organizations. However, other aid groups allege sending truck convoys north has been too dangerous because of the military’s failure to ensure safe passage.

In its previous post from Monday on X, the WCK said its teams mobilize across Gaza daily to distribute food to displaced Palestinians.

“Our 60+ kitchens in southern and central Gaza are cooking hundreds of thousands of meals each day like this mujadara, a comforting dish of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions,” it said.

The strike came hours after Israeli troops ended a two-week raid on Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. During the raid, which began March 18, the IDF said troops captured some 900 suspects, of whom more than 500 were confirmed to be terror operatives, and killed more than 200 gunmen. Among those killed and detained were top commanders in Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Valuable intelligence was also seized, the IDF said.

Palestinians inspect the damage around Gaza’s Shifa Hospital after the Israeli military withdrew from the complex housing the hospital after two weeks fighting terror groups there, on April 1, 2024 (AFP)

Witnesses returning to the scene after the military’s pullout described scenes of destruction at the facility and surrounding neighborhoods. Footage showed Shifa’s main buildings had been reduced to burned-out husks.

Israel has said its forces did not harm civilians during the raid. Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the top military spokesman, said Hamas and Islamic Jihad established their main northern headquarters inside the hospital. He described days of close-quarters fighting and blamed Hamas for the destruction, saying some fighters barricaded themselves inside hospital wards while others launched mortar rounds at the compound.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has alleged that at least 21 patients died. Witnesses entering the hospital Monday said they found more bodies they believed were of civilians. The circumstances in which those people died were not clear.

The war began on October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 250 people hostage.

Hamas says at least 32,845 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes at least 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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