April 24th, 2024

World Central Kitchen charity halts Gaza operations after Israeli strike kills 7 workers

By Wafaa Shurafa And Samy Magdy, The Associated Press on April 2, 2024.

The body of a person wearing a World Central Kitchen t-shirt lies on the ground at the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Monday, April 1, 2024. World Central Kitchen, an aid group, says an Israeli strike that hit its workers in Gaza killed at least seven people, including several foreigners. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – An Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen, leading the charity to suspend delivery Tuesday of vital food aid to Gaza, where Israel’s offensive has pushed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to the brink of starvation.

Cyprus, which has played a key role in trying to establish a sea route to bring food to territory, said ships that recently arrived were turning back – with some 240 tons of undelivered aid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that the country’s forces had carried out the “unintended strike” on “innocent people in the Gaza Strip.” He says officials are “checking this thoroughly” and “will do everything for this not to happen again.”

Footage showed the bodies, several wearing protective gear with the charity’s logo, at a hospital in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Those killed include three British nationals, an Australian, a Polish national, an American-Canadian dual citizen and a Palestinian, according to hospital records.

World Central Kitchen, a food charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, was key to the recently opened sea route, which offered some hope for northern Gaza – where the U.N. says much of the population is on the brink of starvation, largely cut off from the rest of the territory by Israeli forces.

Andrés – whose charity operates in several countries wracked by wars or natural disasters, including Israel after the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the current conflict – said he was “heartbroken” by the deaths of his colleagues.

“The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing. It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

The charity said the team was traveling in a three-car convoy that included two armored vehicles, and its movements had been coordinated with the Israeli army.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the top military spokesman, said earlier that officials have been “reviewing the incident at the highest levels.” He said an independent investigation will be launched that “will help us reduce the risk of such an event from occurring again.”

Erin Gore, the CEO of the charity, said “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.”

UNRWA, the main U.N. agency in Gaza, said in its latest report that 173 of its workers have been killed in the territory since the war began.

Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and abducting around 250 hostages. Israel responded with one of the deadliest and most destructive offensives in recent history.

In the face of a growing humanitarian disaster in Gaza’s north, several countries worked to open a sea route, hoping it would allow more aid to enter the territory, where supplies have only trickled in through the land routes controlled by Israel. The United States and other countries have also airdropped aid, but humanitarian workers say such efforts are far from sufficient to meet mounting needs.

Israel has barred UNRWA from making deliveries to the north, and other aid groups say sending truck convoys north has been too dangerous because of the military’s failure to ensure safe passage.

Three aid ships from the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus arrived earlier Monday carrying some 400 tons of food and supplies organized by World Central Kitchen and the United Arab Emirates following a pilot run last month.

Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesman Theodoros Gotsis said Tuesday that around 100 tons of aid had been unloaded before the charity suspended operations, and that the remaining 240 tons of aid would be transported back to Cyprus.

The United States, which has provided key military and diplomatic support for Israel’s offensive, has touted the sea route and plans to build its own floating dock, with construction expected to take several weeks.

Nael Eliyan, a displaced Palestinian, was in his tent about 100 meters (yards) away when he heard the explosion late Monday and raced to the scene. “Their injuries were serious, and they died quickly,” he said, describing them as “heroes, martyrs, brave people.”

The bodies of the aid workers were taken to a hospital in the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, according to an Associated Press reporter at the hospital.

The U.S., Britain, Poland and Australia – whose citizens were reportedly killed – called for an investigation or an explanation from Israel and expressed dismay.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. was “heartbroken and deeply troubled” by the strike, while British Foreign Secretary David Cameron called it “deeply distressing.”

“It is essential that humanitarian workers are protected and able to carry out their work,” he wrote on X, saying his country was working to verify reports of the deaths of U.K. nationals.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed that Zomi Frankcom, 44, of Melbourne, was among those killed. The mayor of the southeastern Polish city of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, named the victim on Facebook as Damian Soból and said he was from the city.

At least 32,916 Palestinians have been killed in the war, around two-thirds of them women and children, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count. Israel blames the civilian toll on Palestinian militants because they fight in dense residential areas but the army rarely comments on individual strikes.

Two other apparent Israeli strikes late Monday killed at least 12 Palestinians, including five children, in Rafah, where Israel has vowed to expand its ground operation despite the presence of some 1.4 million Palestinians, most of whom have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.

One of the strikes hit a family home, and a father and his three children, ages 7, 13 and 19, were among those killed, according to hospital records. Another hit a gathering near a mosque, killing at least six people, including three children.

Aid groups have repeatedly called for a humanitarian cease-fire, saying it’s the only way to reach people in need. The United States, Qatar and Egypt have spent months trying to broker such a pause and a hostage release but the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas remain bogged down.

Hamas is believed to be holding some 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others after freeing most of the rest during a cease-fire in November in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

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Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, Rod McGuirk in Melbourne, Australia, and Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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