US defense chief says killing of aid workers reinforces concerns over Rafah operation

Gallant tells Austin thorough investigation being conducted into deaths of World Central Kitchen staffers; officials say IDF has completed its part of probe into incident

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) greets US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ben Gurion Airport, March 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) greets US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ben Gurion Airport, March 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “expressed his outrage” on Wednesday in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, over an IDF strike in Gaza that killed seven staffers of aid agency World Central Kitchen, warning of its impact on future operations in the Strip.

A readout from the US Defense Department said Austin called “to immediately take concrete steps to protect aid workers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza after repeated coordination failures with foreign aid groups.”

Austin also urged Gallant “to conduct a swift and transparent investigation, to share their conclusions publicly, and to hold those responsible to account.”

The US defense chief also warned Gallant that the “tragedy reinforced the expressed concern over a potential Israeli military operation in Rafah, specifically focusing on the need to ensure the evacuation of Palestinian civilians and the flow of humanitarian aid.”

The statement stressed Austin’s praise for WCK, and said he told Gallant that the incident “makes it more difficult to flood the zone with humanitarian assistance, as Israeli officials have stated they seek to do.”

Austin urged the Israeli defense minister to push for a “rapid increase of aid coming through all crossings in the coming days, particularly to communities in northern Gaza that are at risk of famine.”

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)

Gallant, in turn, briefed Austin on the WCK incident, emphasizing that “a thorough and transparent investigation was being conducted and that its conclusions would be shared with partners, and lessons would be implemented by the defense establishment,” according to the Israeli readout of their call.

He also “expressed sorrow and condolences to all those affected by the incident and emphasized his commitment to working closely with partner countries and organizations to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid.”

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 two also discussed developments in the war against Hamas and ongoing efforts to ensure the return of 130 hostages kidnapped on October 7 who are still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

The Israeli investigation into the deadly IDF strike on the WCK convoy is progressing, Israeli officials told The Times of Israel on Wednesday night. The Southern Command has completed its probe, which it presented to IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, who will add to it and then pass it up the chain to the political leadership.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to the press from an army base in central Israel, March 17, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The war cabinet convened virtually on Wednesday to hear an update on the IDF investigation, said one of the officials.

Israel described the deadly strike as unintentional and has apologized for the incident, which has prompted an outpouring of anger from governments around the world.

Halevi apologized for the incident on Tuesday: “It was a mistake that followed a misidentification, at night, during a war, in very complex conditions. It shouldn’t have happened,” he clarified, adding that there was no “intention of harming WCK aid workers.”

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said Thursday that more than 33,037 Palestinians have been killed and 75,668 have been injured since the start of the war, an unverified figure that does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, including the more than 13,000 Hamas operatives Israel says it has killed in fighting.

Israel launched a war on Hamas in Gaza after the terror group’s deadly October 7 assault on southern Israel, in which close to 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage to the Strip, more than half of whom remain there. Amid the war, 256 IDF soldiers have been killed during the ground operation in Gaza.

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