Israel’s offensive in Gaza leaves 200 aid workers dead in six months

The strike that killed seven members of World Central Kitchen ‘is not an isolated incident,’ says the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Israel-Hamas war
The body of a World Central Kitchen aid worker at Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah in Gaza, this Monday.Abdel Kareem Hana (AP)
Antonio Pita

An Israeli air strike killed seven members of World Central Kitchen (WCK), the disaster relief group that has been distributing meals to alleviate the serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recovering from hernia surgery in a Jerusalem hospital. As soon as he was discharged and became aware of the international outrage over an attack that also killed citizens of Western countries such as the United Kingdom, Poland and Australia, Netanyahu described the incident as “tragic” and “unintentional” and promised an investigation. He also added: “It happens in war.”

In this war, at least, it happens a lot. Almost 200 humanitarian aid workers have died in Gaza between the start of the war following the massive surprise attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023 and March 20, according to United Nations data. That is around triple the figure recorded in other conflicts around the world, including in Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia, in their deadliest year, as the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Jamie McGoldrick, pointed out on Tuesday. “This is not an isolated incident,” he said of the attack against the WCK convoy. “As of 20 March, at least 196 humanitarians had been killed in the OPT since October 2023. This is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year.”

Most of the deceased worked for United Nations agencies, NGOs or the Palestinian Red Crescent. They were almost all Palestinians, and their fate did not generate announcements of “exhaustive investigations.” Since October 2023, the OPT has become one of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world to work, McGoldrick added. “There is no safe place left in Gaza.”

The latest cumulative impact report of the war from the U.N. humanitarian affairs office, dated March 13, shows the disproportionate impact on the agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), the largest and “beating heart of the humanitarian response in Gaza,” in the words of the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths. Of the 174 deaths from United Nations agencies, 171 were from UNRWA. The other three victims worked for the World Health Organization, the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Project Services Office. Another 14 deceased served in the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Palestinian women and children cross from the north to the south of Gaza along the Al Rashid highway, on the 21st.
Palestinian women and children cross from the north to the south of Gaza along the Al Rashid highway, on the 21st.MOHAMMED SABER (EFE)

One of the main nonprofits, Doctors Without Borders, has lost five local workers. Two of them died in an air strike against their shelter in Al Mawasi, the area that the Israeli army had declared as “safe” and where it urged displaced people in the north and then Khan Yunis, in the south, to go.

In February, a convoy carrying humanitarian aid, clearly marked with U.N. logos and whose route had been previously coordinated with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was bombed by the Israeli Navy while waiting at a military checkpoint. No one was injured. A month earlier, another attack destroyed the Gaza City headquarters of the NGO Handicap International, focused on rehabilitating wounded individuals and amputees in armed conflicts. The Israeli army knew the coordinates of the building through the U.N. system.

Paused operations

Another organization working in Gaza is American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), a U.S. based group that announced on Tuesday that it is temporarily pausing its aid operations in Gaza because “it is no longer viable” to deliver aid safely. Its logistics coordinator, Mousa Shawwa, died on March 8 in an air strike in the Deir al Balah area. The IDF had received the coordinates of the place where he was sheltering with his family, according to the NGO.

On Tuesday, Hamas accused Israel of having shot at humanitarian workers deliberately to “terrorize” them and force them to desist.

The technical term deconfliction has often been used in Gaza in these months. It means coordination with the IDF to prevent humanitarian workers and civilians from being hurt or killed, as happened on Tuesday. The aid group informs the IDF about the day, time and route they will follow (in the case of a convoy) or the coordinates of the homes or hotels where they are staying. International humanitarian law clearly protects humanitarian workers in conflict situations.

Yagil Levy, a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel who specializes in military sociology and the legitimacy of the use of force, links the Tuesday incident to the “easy trigger” that Israeli forces are showing in Gaza, where the number of dead exceeds 32,500 and the destruction is immeasurable. “I wasn’t surprised that it happened. Practically no real rules of combat are being used,” he says by phone, alluding to the Rules of Engagement (ROE) by which armies are meant to be governed.

Images captured by journalists and on mobile phones, as well as some recorded and disseminated by the Israeli soldiers themselves, show numerous cases of ROE violations, as well as war crimes. “There is an urge to kill Hamas people and that means that soldiers, including drone operators, are not carefully considering when to open fire. The troops do not understand the importance of protecting these humanitarian aid convoys,” says Levy.

There is also a pervading mood in the country against the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza (the majority of the population opposes it) and a prevailing argument that Hamas is stealing more than half of it for its own benefit. The fact of the matter is that Hamas police officers hardly dare to protect the aid convoys anymore, because they become the target of bombings when they are exposed.

In Israel, there is also a widespread rhetoric criminalizing the United Nations, and in particular the UNRWA agency. Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said that the United Nations under the leadership of its Secretary General, António Guterres, has become “an anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli organization that protects and encourages terrorism.”

Gazans collect bags of flour distributed by UNRWA last February in the city of Rafah.
Gazans collect bags of flour distributed by UNRWA last February in the city of Rafah.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)

UNRWA has reported mistreatment and humiliation of its staff in Israeli detention centers, and estimates that more than 150 of its facilities have been attacked. Some have been completely destroyed. An Israeli attack on March 13 against an aid distribution center in Rafah (whose coordinates it had provided to the army the day before) killed some of its workers and injured 22 others. “How are we going to maintain aid operations when our equipment and supplies are constantly under threat?” protested the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator.

The Israeli army is progressively preventing the agency from carrying out its mission, with a view to ensuring that it does not play any role in post-war Gaza, as Netanyahu has promised. It already prohibits its vehicles from crossing the military checkpoint to deliver aid in northern Gaza and its top official, Philippe Lazzarini, from entering Gaza.

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