Killing Humanitarians: Israel’s War on Aid Workers in Gaza

Eulogies should rarely be taken at face value.  Plaster saints take the place of complex individuals; faults transmute into golden virtues.  But there was little in the way of fault regarding Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom’s messianic purpose, whose tireless work for the charity, World Central Kitchen (WCK) in northern Gaza had not gone unnoticed.  Sadly, the Australian national, along with six other members of WCK, were noticed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) around midnight of April 1 and 2 and targeted in a strike that killed all of them.

Other members of the slain crew included Polish citizen Damian Sobol, three British nationals whose names are yet to be released, a US-Canadian dual citizen, and the driver and translator Saif Abu Taha.

The charity workers had been unloading food supplies from Cyprus that had been sent via sea in a designated “deconflicted” area.  All three vehicles, two armoured and one “soft skin”, sported the WCK logo.  Even more galling for the charity was the fact that coordinating efforts between WCK and the IDF had taken place as it left the Deir al-Balah warehouse, where the individuals had been responsible for uploading over 100 tonnes of humanitarian food aid.

On April 2, Haaretz reported that three missiles had been fired in rapid succession at the convoy by a Hermes 450 UAV on direction of a unit guarding the aid transport route.  The troops in question claimed to have spotted what they thought was an armed figure riding a truck that had entered one of the aid storage areas with three WCK vehicles.  The armed figure, presumed to be a Hamas militant, never left the warehouse in the company of the vehicles.

In a public relations war Israel is increasingly losing, various statements of variable quality and sincerity could only confirm that fact.  IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari stated that he had spoken to WCK founder Chef José Andrés “and expressed the deepest condolences of the Israel Defense Forces to the families and the entire World Central Kitchen family.”

Hagari went on to add the IDF’s expression of “sincere sorrow to our allied nations who have been doing and continue to do so much to assist those in need.”  This was a bit rich given the programmatic efforts of the IDF and Israeli officials to stifle and strangulate the provision of aid into the Gaza Strip, from the logistical side of keeping land crossings closed and delaying access to existing ones, to aggressive efforts to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

As for the operation itself, Hagari announced that “the highest levels” of military officialdom had been “reviewing the incident” to comprehend the circumstances that led to the deaths.  “We will get to the bottom of this and we will share our findings transparently.”  Again exalting the prowess of his organisation in investigating such matters, he promised that the army’s General Staff Fact-Finding Assessment Mechanism – yet another independent body designed to give the impression of thoroughness and impartiality – would look into this “serious incident” to “reduce the risk of such an event from occurring again.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a better barometric reading of the mood, and it was certainly not one of grieving or feeling aggrieved.  The killings had merely been “a tragic instance of our forces unintentionally harming innocent people in the Gaza Strip.  It happens in war.”  Israel would “investigate it” and had been “in contact with the governments and we will do everything we can so that it doesn’t happen again.”

This is mightily optimistic given the butcher’s toll of 173 aid workers from UNRWA alone, with 196 humanitarians said to have died as of March 20, 2024 since October 7 last year.  Aid workers have been killed in IDF strikes despite the regular provision of coordinates on their locations.  Be it through reckless indifference, conscious intent, or a lack of competence, the morgues continue to be filled with humanitarian workers.

A bristling CEO of WCK, Erin Gore, proved blunter about the implications of the strike.  “This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organisations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war.”

Project HOPE’s Executive Vice President, Chris Skopec, drew attention to the obvious, yet repeatedly neglected fact in the Gaza conflict that aid workers are protected by international humanitarian law.  Gaza had become “one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a humanitarian worker.  This is unacceptable and demands accountability through the International Criminal Court.”

Responsibility for the killings is unlikely to translate into accountability, let alone any public outing of the individuals involved.  This is not to say that such exercises are impossible, even with Israel not being a member of the International Criminal Court.  The pageantry of guilt can still be pursued.

When Malaysian Airlines MH17 was downed over Ukraine in July 2014 by a Buk missile, killing all 298 on board, international efforts of terrier-like ferocity were initiated against those responsible for the deadly feat.  The MH17 Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprising the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine, identified the missile as having come from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian armed forces from Kursk.  Four suspects were identified.  Of the four, one was acquitted, with the district Court of The Hague handing down three life sentences in November 2022 along with an order to pay over €16 million in compensation to the victims.  The individuals remain at large, and the Kremlin largely unmoved, but the point was made.

In this case, any hope for seeking an external accounting for the event is likely to be kept in-house.  Excuses of error and misidentification are already filling press releases and conferences.  Doing so will enable the IDF to continue its program of quashing the Palestinian cause while pursuing an undisclosed war against those it considers, publicly or otherwise, to be its ameliorating collaborators.  With an announcement by various humanitarian groups, including WCK, Anera and Project Hope, that their operations will be suspended following the killings, starvation, as a policy in Gaza, can receive its official blessing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.