World Central Kitchen Charity Halts Gaza Operations After Israeli Strike Kills 7 Workers

Israel Palestinians
People inspect the site where World Central Kitchen workers were killed in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP Photo)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike killed seven aid workers from 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.

Ships still laden with some 240 tons of aid that arrived just a day earlier turned back from Gaza, according to Cyprus, which has played a key role in trying to establish a sea route to bring food to territory. Israel has only allowed a trickle of aid into devastated northern Gaza, where experts say famine is imminent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that the country's forces had carried out the “unintended strike ... on innocent people.” He said officials were looking into the strike and would work to ensure it did not 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.

    Other footage of the aftermath of the strike showed a vehicle with the charity's logo printed across its roof to make it identifiable from the air. The projectile had punched a large hole through the roof.

    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 United States and other countries have also airdropped aid, but humanitarian workers say such efforts on their own are insufficient.

    World Central Kitchen, a food charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, was key to the new route. Israel has barred UNRWA, the main U.N. agency in Gaza, from making deliveries to the north, and other aid groups say sending truck convoys north has been extremely difficult because of the military’s failure to either grant permission or ensure safe passage.

    Andrés — whose charity operates in several countries wracked by wars or natural disasters, including Israel after the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war — said he was “heartbroken” by the deaths.

    “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 officials have been “reviewing the incident at the highest levels" and that an independent investigation will be launched.

    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 but to halt operations until our staff regain confidence that they can do their work without undue risk,” it said in a statement.

    Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said the strike was “not an isolated incident,” noting that around 200 humanitarian workers have been killed since the war broke out in October.

    “This is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year,” he said.

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

    Tensions have soared across the Middle East, and an apparent Israeli strike on Iran's consulate in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Monday has ratcheted them up even further. Iran and its allies have vowed to respond to the strike, which killed two Iranian generals.

    On Monday, three aid ships from the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus arrived with 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 taken back to Cyprus.

    The United States, which has provided key military 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.

    The U.S., Britain, Poland and Australia — whose citizens were among those killed, according to the hospital — called for an investigation or an explanation from Israel.

    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 killed. Damian Soból was also among the victims, according to a post on Facebook by Wojciech Bakun, the mayor of the southeastern Polish city of Przemysl, where the aid worker was from.

    More than 32,900 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 16 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, killing 10 people, including five children, 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.

    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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