Charities halt Gaza aid after drone attack that killed seven workers

<span>Seven people were killed in Deir al-Balah when Israeli missiles struck a World Central Kitchen convoy.</span><span>Photograph: Abdel Kareem Hana/AP</span>
Seven people were killed in Deir al-Balah when Israeli missiles struck a World Central Kitchen convoy.Photograph: Abdel Kareem Hana/AP

The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza seems likely to worsen after charities announced they are suspending operations in the territory in the aftermath of an Israeli drone attack which repeatedly targeted a clearly identified convoy of international aid workers, killing seven.

The strikes on a team from World Central Kitchen (WCK) led the charity – along with other aid organisations such as Anera, which helps refugees around the Middle East, and the US-based Project Hope, which focuses on healthcare – to announce on Tuesday that it would pause operations in Gaza to protect its staff.

Calling the decision an “unprecedented step”, Anera said the killings, “alongside the loss of numerous other aid workers and their families, has led our team to conclude that delivering aid safely is no longer feasible”.

“While we understand the severe consequences this suspension will have on the Palestinian population, 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,” a statement said.

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Famine is “projected and imminent” in the northern half of Gaza, a UN-backed report said last month, and according to Oxfam, since December, the number of people in the Palestinian territory facing “catastrophic levels” of hunger has nearly doubled. At least 27 children have died of malnutrition, according to the health ministry in the territory, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A convoy of three armoured cars belonging to WCK, which had been spearheading new efforts at creating a maritime corridor from Cyprus for the delivery of desperately needed aid in the face of Israeli bombardment and blockade of land crossings, was attacked on Monday evening while leaving a warehouse in Deir al-Balah, the charity said. Seven people were killed, including Palestinian, UK, Australian and Polish nationals, as well as a US-Canada dual citizen.

By Tuesday night, six victims had been named. The Guardian understands two of the three British aid workers to be James Henderson, 33, from Penryn, Cornwall, and John Chapman, 57, who was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The BBC reported the third Briton as James Kirby.

Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, 43, had worked all over the world and in her native Australia helping those in need. Damian Soból, 36, was from Poland. His colleagues say he quickly rose through the charity’s ranks.

Saif Issam Abu Taha was a 27-year-old Palestinian who had worked since early this year as a driver for the group.

Aid ships organised by WCK arrived in Gaza on Monday carrying 400 tonnes of food and supplies – enough for 1m meals – in a shipment funded by the United Arab Emirates, after a successful pilot run last month.

However, workers had only offloaded 100 tonnes before the drone attack led the charity to order the vessels carrying the remaining aid to return to Cyprus.

On Tuesday, the Israeli daily Haaretz published harrowing details of the strike, citing defence sources.

According to the report, an Israeli drone fired three missiles, one after the other, at the convoy of three armoured cars – all of which were clearly marked on the roof and sides with the WCK’s logo – because of a suspicion that an armed militant was travelling with them.

Despite the fact that the suspect did not leave the warehouse with the rest of the group, the cars were hit as they travelled back along a route pre-approved and coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

A Hermes 450 drone struck one car, causing some of the passengers to abandon it and switch to the other two vehicles. According to Haaretz, the team notified the IDF they had been attacked, but another missile then hit the second car.

Passengers in the third car tried to help the wounded, the newspaper said. According to the Guardian’s geolocation of the strikes, the last car was hit by a third missile about a mile farther south.


Video obtained by Reuters showed a large hole in the roof of a four-wheel-drive WCK vehicle and its burnt and torn interior, as well as paramedics moving bodies into a hospital and displaying the passports of three of those killed.

The Israeli military expressed “sincere sorrow” over the deaths, adding that an investigation was under way. Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Tuesday evening that Israel would open a “joint situation room” with international groups to enable better coordination of aid distribution.

More than 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began after the militant group’s attack on Israeli communities on 7 October, Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s top official for the coordination of humanitarian aid in Gaza, said on Tuesday.

The attack on WCK was not an “isolated incident”, he added, pointing out that the number of humanitarians killed in the last six months in Gaza was nearly three times as high as the death toll recorded in any other single conflict in a year.

Haaretz reported that WCK had filed a complaint with the IDF after one of its volunteers was fired at in the Khan Younis area on Saturday.

Monday’s killings caused an international outcry, including rebukes from some of Israel’s closest international allies, such as the US.

The White House said it was “outraged” by the attack, although John Kirby, the national security spokesperson, said there was no evidence Israel deliberately targeted the aid workers.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said of the seven aid workers: “These people are heroes, they run into the fire, not away from it … we shouldn’t have a situation where people who are simply trying to help their fellow human beings are themselves at grave risk.”

Washington had spoken directly to Israel’s government and “urged a swift, thorough and impartial investigation to understand exactly what happened”, he told reporters in Paris.

Rishi Sunak told broadcasters during a visit to the north-east of England on Tuesday: “We are asking Israel to investigate what happened urgently, because clearly there are questions that need to be answered.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, lamented the killings, describing the incident as tragic and unintended.

“This happens in wartime. We are thoroughly looking into it, are in contact with the governments [of the foreign nationals among the victims] and will do everything to ensure it does not happen again,” he said in a video statement.

Getting assistance to where it is needed most in Gaza, particularly the northern half of the territory, has been made difficult by damaged roads, a lack of fuel, a breakdown of public order and what aid agencies have described as unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles imposed by Israel. The number of aid trucks entering the territory by land over the past six months has been far below the 500 a day that entered before the conflict.

Israel has barred Unrwa, the main UN agency in Gaza, from making deliveries to the north after claiming several of its employees were involved in the Hamas attack that triggered the war. Other aid groups say sending truck convoys north has been too dangerous because of the military’s failure to ensure safe passage.

In February, more than 100 people were killed when Israeli forces opened fire at an aid distribution point in Gaza City. The Israeli military said most died in a crush, but Palestinian officials and witnesses denied this, saying the majority of those taken to hospital had bullet wounds.

“There is no safe place in Gaza, whether you are Palestinian, British or any other nationality … every day our team in Gaza has to risk their lives to provide vital aid to those in need. Gaza is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an aid worker right now,” a statement from UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians said.

A total of 71 people were killed in Israeli strikes in the past day, according to the local health ministry.

About 1,200 Israelis were killed and a further 250 taken hostage on 7 October, according to Israeli data. More than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ensuing Israeli offensive.

Although 100 Israelis were freed in a week-long ceasefire at the end of November in exchange for 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails, negotiations since aimed at a second, longer truce and the release of the remaining hostages have repeatedly faltered.