Tuesday, June 25, 2024
World News

Before WCK strike, aid groups had warned of peril to Gaza relief workers

CAIRO — For months, aid groups in Gaza warned that the system used to coordinate their deliveries with Israel’s military was broken, putting the lives of relief workers at risk.

Then, on Monday, Israeli forces killed seven employees of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, six of whom were foreign nationals, as they traveled in their convoy in central Gaza — movements the organization had coordinated with Israel in advance.

The strike, which Israel said was a “serious violation” of its military procedures, stirred global outrage and prompted President Biden to tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the United States would reassess support for Israel if it didn’t take immediate steps to facilitate aid. It also highlighted what aid workers say is a faulty process for deconflicting humanitarian operations with the Israeli military in Gaza, one that has endangered staff, is rife with mistrust, and prevents lifesaving assistance from reaching starving civilians there.

Over the past six months, humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. relief agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), have publicized at least nine accounts of aid convoys or buildings coming under attack, despite their routes or coordinates being shared with Israeli authorities in advance. Nearly 200 Palestinian aid workers have been killed, according to Humanitarian Outcomes, an organization that tracks aid-worker deaths.

“What’s increasingly clear is that the deconfliction process is a fiction,” said Ciarán Donnelly, a senior vice president at the International Rescue Committee, which operates in Gaza. “It doesn’t provide any guarantees of safety.”

From the start of the conflict, when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli officials pledged to limit aid to Gaza, cutting off water, power, fuel and other supplies to the territory. Under U.S. pressure, Israel on Oct. 21 began allowing aid trucks to enter southern Gaza as its military pummeled the north.

But in recent months, it has severely curtailed supplies to northern Gaza, where the world’s leading body on food emergencies says famine could already be underway. Those restrictions, plus growing insecurity, have complicated further efforts by the United Nations and others to get aid to those in need.

In interviews this week with U.S. and U.N. officials, as well as former Israeli military commanders and aid agency employees, a picture emerges of a dangerous, opaque and inefficient system for coordinating aid deliveries, that, while nominally in place, has never really worked and is disconnected from the reality on the ground.

On the humanitarian side, the process is run chiefly by a dedicated unit of the United Nations, through which U.N. agencies and other organizations submit the coordinates of humanitarian sites such as offices, clinics, warehouses and guesthouses.

The process for notifying Israeli forces about aid workers’ movement around Gaza depends on where they intend to go, aid officials said. The United Nations shares a regularly updated map based on battlefield dynamics — and in areas where supposedly active fighting is not taking place, aid organizations are advised to share broad sketches of their travel plans in advance.

But for swaths of Gaza, where fighting continues to rage between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants, a much more intricate level of coordination is required. At least a day before planned travel, organizations must submit coordinates of their start and destination points, and details about vehicles, drivers and passengers in the convoy, said Nahreen Ahmed, medical director for the health nonprofit MedGlobal, who has been on two missions to Gaza this year.

The United Nations then sends the information to COGAT, the branch of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that is responsible for coordinating with aid agencies, which is supposed to share it with relevant Israeli forces and respond with a map of an approved route for the convoy.

But it’s here where aid organizations say they have little insight into the process, and how the information they pass to COGAT ultimately reaches ground troops, drone operators or fighter jet pilots.

“That is the million-dollar question, and I’ve been trying to figure that out for 15 years,” said Scott Anderson, deputy director of UNRWA in Gaza, who has worked for the agency there on and off since 2008. “It’s clear there’s a disconnect.”

According to retired Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi, a former deputy commander of the IDF’s Gaza division, COGAT representatives are embedded in each brigade and charged with “making sure that this coordination is on the war map.”

But a lack of trust between the IDF, the United Nations and other aid organizations has impacted deconfliction channels, said Grisha Yakubovich, a retired Israeli colonel who was head of the COGAT civil affairs department until 2016.

During past rounds of conflict in Gaza, COGAT would meet almost daily with U.N. officials to discuss plans for the coming 24 hours, he said.

“I think that now it’s way more complicated,” he said, citing what he said was the Israeli military’s reluctance to work with UNRWA. Israeli officials have accused UNRWA of being infiltrated by Hamas, a charge the agency denies.

The United Nations’ internal oversight body is investigating Israeli allegations that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

In February, UNRWA said that Israeli naval gunfire directly hit one of its food convoys, and that it “sends notifications about all aid convoys and coordinates all movements” with Israeli authorities.

Before that, in November, sniper fire hit an Doctors Without Borders convoy traveling on a deconflicted route in northern Gaza, killing a volunteer and a relative of a staff member, the organization said, adding that “all elements point to the responsibility of the Israeli army for this attack.”

And last month, a logistics coordinator for American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) was killed when Israel bombed a house where he was sheltering with his family — despite the fact that the coordinates for the property were repeatedly shared with the IDF, according to Sean Carroll, the organization’s president.

The IDF did not respond to a request for comment about the Doctors Without Borders convoy, but said in a statement that the incident involving ANERA was “under review.”

In response to an earlier request for comment on the UNRWA convoy, the IDF said the strike “was not aimed at the convoy,” adding: “The incident was examined and conclusions and lessons were drawn accordingly.”

Among the problems aid officials cite: A lack of direct contact with Israel’s Southern Command, which oversees Gaza; delays at checkpoints on north-south routes; and poor communications infrastructure inside the territory.

Aid workers aren’t allowed to take radio equipment in; instead, they’ve been forced to rely on satellite phones during their forays through Gaza, which don’t always work.

“We’ve been asking for direct contact with the IDF and for the communications equipment for months, and it’s only now since the incident [Monday] we are starting to see traction,” said Jamie McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories.

Some aid organizations, including World Central Kitchen (WCK), coordinate with Israeli authorities bilaterally, rather than through the U.N. system, McGoldrick said.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, WCK founder José Andrés said his organization has “communicated extensively with Israeli military and civilian officials” in the course of its work in Israel and Gaza during the war.

Ahead of Monday’s attack, the team had coordinated with Israeli military officials and had clearance to drive the coastal route, WCK said. Israel’s probe of the WCK attack found that operators of the unmanned aerial vehicle tracking the convoy were not made aware of its coordination plan.

The airstrike targets were confirmed only by seeing an armed man, which the IDF said was an insufficient standard.

The current war is much more intense and complex than previous rounds of fighting, said Avivi.

“We have to remember that because Hamas is fighting across hospitals, schools and U.N. sites, Hamas doesn’t wear a uniform. Hamas drives civilian cars. It’s very hard to distinguish between terrorist and civilian,” he said.

An IDF official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues, said the rules of engagement and targeting during the war are unchanged from previous conflicts and that units in the field have no more authority than in the past to greenlight airstrikes on their own.

But according to Emily Tripp, director of the civilian casualty watchdog group Airwars, the IDF’s tolerance for civilian casualties appears considerably higher than in past campaigns in Gaza and than the level accepted by other militaries in recent conflicts.

At least 33,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says 13,000 of the dead are militants — and Gaza health officials say 70 percent of the casualties are women and children.

Israel has repeatedly attacked hospitals and used massive bombs to level high-rise apartment blocks.

The WCK attack touched a nerve in Washington, where Biden, who considers Andrés a friend, released a pointed statement Tuesday and noted that one of the aid workers killed, Jacob Flickinger, 33, was American.

“Their deaths are a tragedy,” Biden said of the WCK workers on Tuesday, calling for a “swift,” public investigation that would “bring accountability.”

“Even more tragically, this is not a stand-alone incident,” Biden said. “This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed.”

The situation has prompted exasperation in the Pentagon, considering WCK’s standing as a force for good and its professionalism and familiarity in handling such missions, a senior defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday pledged to open a “joint situation room” for coordination between the IDF’s Southern Command and international organizations and to “support distribution mechanisms by allocating appropriate resources,” according to a statement from his office.

“We have had conversations in the last 24, 36 hours about what we need and we’ve had some more reception on those issues,” McGoldrick, the U.N. aid coordinator, said Wednesday. “We are hoping now as we take stock we can prevent something happening again.”

On Thursday, Israel announced measures to ramp up the provision of aid in Gaza, including the opening of a new border crossing.

Two officers were removed from their positions following the WCK attack, the IDF said Friday, and three other officers are being “formally reprimanded,” including the head of the Southern Command.

The family of Australian aid worker Lalzawmi Frankcom, a WCK employee who was killed in Monday’s strikes, called this week for Israel to be investigated for war crimes. Separately, attacks on humanitarian workers form part of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But such legal processes can take years.

In a statement Friday responding to the results of Israel’s probe, WCK said the disciplinary actions represented “important steps forward.” But “without systemic change, there will be more military failures, more apologies and more grieving families,” it added, calling for an independent investigation.

Steve Hendrix, Dan Lamothe and Cate Brown in Washington, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul, Michael E. Miller in Sydney and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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