Deadly strike shows aid workers' protection in crisis, agencies say

2 weeks ago 21

WCK car hitImage source, EPA

By Paul Adams

Diplomatic correspondent

A UN official says the Israeli attack which killed seven staff of the charity World Central Kitchen (WCK) is either a "dreadful failure of deconfliction" or evidence that the system that exists now is not fit for purpose.

The official, who has extensive experience in Gaza and asked not to be identified, said that the greatest fear of aid workers is that the Civilian Liaison Administration, the branch of the Israeli military tasked with co-ordinating with humanitarian organisations, "doesn't really have a grip".

What's known as "deconfliction" is a system that allows aid organisations to work in some of the world's hottest conflicts, including Yemen, Ukraine, Syria and Gaza.

It generally takes two forms. One is "notification" - making sure that the relevant military powers know where humanitarian organisations are located (including providing GPS co-ordinates of all facilities) and where vehicles are expected to be moving at any given time on any given day.

"Co-ordination" is a more detailed level, involving real-time communication with the CLA while humanitarian teams are actually on the move.

It's designed to make sure that all military personnel along the route know exactly where vehicles are.

"The whole apparatus, whether it's a drone operator, a radar operator, a guy in a tank, a guy at a checkpoint, a sniper on the roof, they're all aware that in the next 20 minutes, five white cars are going to come down the road. So no-one is surprised," Giorgios Petropoulos, head of the Gaza sub-office of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told me.

A trip from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, he said, could involve as many as eight conversations to make sure the journey goes smoothly.

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told the BBC the relationship between aid groups and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) needed to be reset.

"If they shoot at anything moving as it seems here, with a deconflicted and notified convoy, there has to be a complete reboot in the relationship between the Israeli war machine and all of us aid groups," he said.

Israel has acknowledged it killed the WCK staff. "We will do everything so that this thing does not happen again," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Aid workers in Gaza agree that the area is one of the most challenging places in the world for humanitarian workers to operate.

"Gaza is a shitty place to work," one told me. The aid worker said the existing deconfliction system was not working properly.

"The notification system essentially doesn't work," they added. "It's not a disciplined system from the Israeli side."

The aid worker said there had been "some pretty dramatic failures", including an incident on 5 February in which Israeli naval fire hit an UNRWA convoy (carrying food from World Central Kitchen) as it headed up the coast road towards the north. The incident forced the UN to suspend aid convoys to the north.

The IDF said at the time that it was looking into the incident, in which no-one was hurt.

However, Monday's deadly incident is a disaster: for WCK, the people of Gaza, and Israel's image.

As Israel moves to ban UNRWA - the main UN organisation responsible for the welfare of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip - it has come to rely heavily on other humanitarian organisations.

Mr Netanyahu's government has accused UNWRA of employing more than 2,000 members of Hamas, the Palestinian armed group which attacked Israel on 7 October last year.

WCK, which has been on the ground for months and which had just brought in a second 400-tonne shipment of aid by sea from Cyprus, had been playing an increasingly prominent and important role in preventing Gaza from sliding into famine.

Israel has trumpeted the role of WCK and other aid organisations as proof UNRWA is no longer needed.

At a recent briefing, Israeli diplomats said WCK had "come out of nowhere and has become around 13% of the food story inside Gaza".

Israel also says it is doing everything in its power to facilitate the distribution of aid throughout the Gaza Strip.

But WCK has now suspended its operations in Gaza. Meanwhile, Mr Egeland said that movement between Gaza's south - where most aid enters, via two crossings from Israel and Egypt - and its north "will again be completely paralysed. And that is extremely serious, because it's in the north that famine is already taking a grip."

He added that the WCK suspending operations "means more famine, more dead children, more epidemic disease because people are so malnourished".

Mr Egeland urged Israel to open more crossing points into Gaza.

"Let me remind all that there are two border crossings minutes away from the north, they are called Karni crossing and Erez crossing, and Israel has refused to open them for aid convoys," he said.

"Israel can open the borders for organised relief and safety. They are not willing to do that."

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