Outrage grows over Israeli strike on aid workers; Netanyahu says deaths unintentional


Editor's Note: For the latest news on the World Central Kitchen workers killed in an airstrike, please see our story for Wednesday, April 3.

Celebrity chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen, among the largest providers of desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza, is pausing its operations following the death of seven workers in an Israeli airstrike, the organization said Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said an investigation into "a tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people" was underway.

The White House said President Joe Biden had a conversation with Andrés about the deadly incident, which national security spokesman John Kirby said provoked outrage in the administration. Kirby called images of the carnage "devastating'' and confirmed more than 280 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since the war started.

Despite coordinating movements with the Israeli military, the WCK convoy was hit Monday as it was leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse, the charity said. The team had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid brought to Gaza on a maritime route.

WCK identified the workers who perished as Britons John Chapman, 57, Jim Henderson, 33, and James Kirby, 47, along with Palestinian Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, 25, Australian Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom, 43, Damian Sobol, 35, of Poland and Jacob Flickinger, 33, a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen.

Andrés, in a social media post, said he had served alongside the victims in Gaza, Ukraine and other countries. "They are not faceless. They are not nameless,'' he said. "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."

Who is José Andrés? What is the World Central Kitchen? What to know after deadly airstrike


∎ Three of the workers killed in the attack were British, prompting the U.K. to call in Israel's ambassador in London to express its "unequivocal condemnation of the appalling killing" and demand an explanation, Reuters reported.

∎ In addition to the U.S. and Britain, Poland and Australia are among the countries demanding Israel protect aid workers in Gaza.

∎ At a briefing with reporters in Paris, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called humanitarian workers "heroes.'' "They run into the fire, not away from it," he said. "We shouldn't have a situation where people who are simply trying to help their fellow human beings are themselves at grave risk."

∎ Refugee aid organization Anera, which said one of its staff members was killed by an Israeli airstrike less than a month ago, issued a statement saying it is "taking the unprecedented step of pausing its humanitarian operations in Gaza'' following the attack on the WCK workers.

US vows no prior knowledge of deadly attack on Iran embassy in Syria

The Biden administration said Tuesday it did not know ahead of time about the attack that killed two generals at the Iranian embassy complex in Syria, and U.S. officials warned against retaliation as fears of a wider Middle East conflict heighten near the six-month mark of the war in Gaza.

Iranian leaders are vowing revenge on Israel for an airstrike that also killed five military advisers Monday in Damascus, destroying a consulate building. Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps confirmed Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi of the elite Quds Force was among the dead.

Israel has not commented on the assault, in keeping with its policy, but it has been exchanging fire with several Iran-backed militias in a proxy war that has intensified since the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 ignited the current conflict in Gaza.

"The Zionist regime will be punished by the hands of our brave men,'' Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, referring to Israel. "We will make it regret this crime and others it has committed."

At the United Nations Security Council, Iran deputy Ambassador Zahra Ershadi accused the U.S. of trying to destabilize the region and held it "responsible for all crimes committed by the Israeli regime."

The American deputy Ambassador to the U.N., Robert Wood, responded with words of caution. "We will not hesitate to defend our personnel and repeat our prior warnings to Iran and its proxies not to take advantage of the situation − again, an attack in which we had no involvement or advanced knowledge − to resume their attacks on U.S. personnel."

Biden calls charity founder Andrés, joins him in grief

Biden expressed his condolences and told Andrés he was heartbroken by the news of the aid workers killed in the airstrike, saying in a phone call he is grieving with the World Central Kitchen family, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

“The president felt it was important to recognize the tremendous contribution the World Central Kitchen has made to the people in Gaza and people around the world,” Jean-Pierre said.

Biden will make it clear to Israel that humanitarian aid workers must be protected, she said.

John Kirby told reporters at a briefing that the U.S. is demanding accountability from Israel.

"The Israelis have already said this is on them and they're doing this investigation,'' Kirby said. "We obviously want to make sure that investigation is completed and is as transparent as possible.''

− Michael Collins

Sea route for aid imperiled by deadly airstrikes

Haaretz reported that Israeli forces fired three missiles in quick succession at three vehicles even though the Hamas militant they were targeting was still hiding in a warehouse. The WCK said in a statement its members were "traveling in a deconflicted zone in two armored cars branded with the WCK logo and a soft skin vehicle.''

The tragedy could worsen the already critical food crisis in the enclave.

Cyprus, which helped provide a new sea route bringing aid to Gaza, said ships that had reached Gaza were turning back with more than 200 tons of undelivered aid, the Associated Press reported. The United Arab Emirates, a primary financier of aid sent via the sea route, paused its involvement pending a full investigation of the tragedy. The UAE also wants assurances from Israel that aid workers will be protected.

"The UAE and Cyprus strongly denounced all acts of violence against humanitarian workers who dedicate their lives to serving those in need, and reiterated that targeting humanitarian aid staff is a flagrant violation of all international treaties that ensure the protection of relief and rescue workers," the two nations said in a statement.

Netanyahu calls incident unintentional, says 'it happens in war'

Netanyahu vowed Tuesday to probe the deaths of the World Central Kitchen workers.

"It happens in war," he said. "We are conducting a thorough inquiry and are in contact with the governments. We will do everything to prevent a recurrence."

The Israeli military issued a statement pledging to "get to the root of the matter" and publicly release the findings of the investigation.

"They were fulfilling their vital mission to bring food to those in need," military spokesman Daniel Hagari said. "As a professional army bound by international law, we are obliged to examine our actions in a thorough and transparent manner."

People gather around what remains of a car used by U.S.-based aid group World Central Kitchen, which was hit by an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024.
People gather around what remains of a car used by U.S.-based aid group World Central Kitchen, which was hit by an Israeli strike in the central Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024.

Hamas accuses Israel of terrorism

Hamas condemned the "heinous act" and demanded the U.N. Security Council put an end to Israel's "crimes of the occupation and its aggression" against Palestinians and their supporters.

"This crime reaffirms that the occupation still insists on the policy of systematic killing against defenseless civilians and against international relief teams and humanitarian organizations, within the framework of efforts to terrorize their employees, to prevent them from continuing their humanitarian duties," the militant group said in a statement.

Harris presses Israel on Gaza deaths: What does international law say?

World Central Kitchen pauses aid effort in Gaza

In announcing an immediate pause of its humanitarian efforts in Gaza, WCK said it will be "making decisions about the future of its operations soon."

“I am heartbroken and appalled that we, World Central Kitchen, and the world lost beautiful lives today because of a targeted attack by the Israeli military," CEO Erin Gore said. "The love they had for feeding people, the determination they embodied to show that humanity rises above all, and the impact they made in countless lives will forever be remembered and cherished."

The International Rescue Committee also called for an investigation − and a cease-fire.

"All civilians as well as humanitarian workers are protected under International Humanitarian Law and are not a target," spokesman James Sussman said. "The IRC reiterates the need for an urgent and sustained cease-fire in Gaza. Only a cease-fire will protect civilians from further harm and enable the level of humanitarian scale up needed to save lives."

UN agency has cited obstacles to food aid for months

The United Nations agency charged with leading the humanitarian aid effort in Gaza has complained for months about obstacles created by Israeli officials. In a report issued Monday, prior to the WCK tragedy, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said "access impediments continue to severely compromise the ability of humanitarian actors to reach people in the Gaza Strip." Since March 1, 30% of humanitarian aid missions to northern Gaza were denied by Israeli authorities, the agency said.

"UNRWA is disproportionately impacted, with Israeli authorities continuing to deny UNRWA access to northern Gaza to deliver emergency food assistance," the report said.

In January, Israel accused at least 12 UNRWA workers of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, prompting several nations and organizations − including the U.S. − to withhold their funding.

The obstacles to bringing aid into Gaza by land have engendered other efforts, including sea shipments such as the one World Central Kitchen was using Monday. The U.S., partnering with Jordan and other regional nations, has also used airdrops. But trucking in aid is regarded as the most efficient method for meeting the tremendous demand.

Humanitarian efforts have made some progress

There have been victories. Since the war began almost six months ago, over 1.8 million people, or 85% of the population, have been provided with flour, the UNRWA report said. Nearly 600,000 people have received emergency food parcels and almost 3.6 million patient consultations have been provided at health centers and points, the agency said.

But the WCK tragedy is far from the first involving aid workers − UNRWA said 173 of its workers have been killed since the war began.

“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," Gore said of Monday's airstrike. "This is unforgivable."

Andrés committed to feeding the hungry

Andrés is a celebrity Spanish-American chef who immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 and founded several restaurants with his partners, according to his website. Some of his restaurants include Minibar, which earned him two Michelin stars, and The Bazaar.

He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2015 and was included on the list of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people − both in 2012 and 2018, according to his website. Andrés and his wife, Patricia, founded the organization in 2010 after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and since then have served millions of meals to people recovering from hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis and volcano eruptions around the world. The organization has provided Ukrainians with millions of meals since Russia invaded its neighbor in 2022.

"When you need medical service, you bring doctors and nurses. When you need the rebuilding of infrastructure, you bring in engineers and architects. And if you have to feed people, you need professional chefs," Andrés says on the WCK website.

Contributing: Sudiksha Kochi, Josh Meyer and Swapna Venugopal, USA TODAY; Reuters

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Central Kitchen: 7 workers killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza