The Malta Independent 19 April 2024, Friday
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World Central Kitchen charity halts Gaza operations after apparent Israeli strike kills 7 workers

Associated Press Tuesday, 2 April 2024, 13:42 Last update: about 16 days ago

An apparent 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.

The food charity, founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, said it was immediately suspending operations in the region. Cyprus, which has played a key role in trying to establish a maritime corridor, said the aid ships were returning with some 240 tons of undelivered aid.

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The source of fire late Monday could not be independently confirmed. The Israeli military expressed “sincere sorrow” over the deaths while stopping short of accepting responsibility.

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.

The charity, founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, was key to a recently opened sea route for delivering desperately needed aid to 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 officials have been “reviewing the incident at the highest levels.” He says 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 when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel, 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 was 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.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the U.S. was “heartbroken and deeply troubled” by the strike. “We urge Israel to swiftly investigate what happened," she posted on X.

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.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed that Zomi Frankcom, 44, of Melbourne, was among those killed and said his government has requested an explanation from Israel.

“This is someone who was volunteering overseas to provide aid through this charity for people who are suffering tremendous deprivation in Gaza. And this is just completely unacceptable,” Albanese told reporters.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said his country was working to verify reports of the deaths of U.K. nationals in the strike, which he said was “deeply distressing.”

“It is essential that humanitarian workers are protected and able to carry out their work,” he wrote on X, also calling for an investigation.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry posted “sincerest words of sympathy” to the family of a volunteer who had offered assistance to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, without saying how he was killed. The Foreign Ministry said it is requesting an explanation from Israel.

The mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, named the victim on Facebook as Damian Soból and said he was from the city in southeastern Poland.

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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