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Gaza: World's deadliest place to be a humanitarian worker

Gaza is the most lethal place in the world to be an aid worker
9 min read
23 April, 2024
In the past six months, Israel has killed over 200 humanitarian aid workers, despite deconfliction measures. So are Israel's attacks intentional?

The Israeli army’s attack that killed seven World Central Kitchen aid workers early this month is just one in a series of Israeli attacks on humanitarian aid workers.

The World Central Kitchen aid workers had just overseen the delivery of 100 tonnes of food aid to their warehouse in Deir El Balah, when Israeli airstrikes targeted the three cars they were travelling in on April 1.

The pattern in which they were killed – car by car – has made many believe that it was a targeted attack, including World Central Kitchen’s founder, chef Jose Andres.

"This was not just a bad luck situation where ‘oops’ we dropped the bomb in the wrong place," Andres said. "Even if we were not in coordination with the (Israel army), no democratic country and no military can be targeting civilians and humanitarians."

No humanitarian work under a foreign aid agency takes place in Gaza without a careful deconfliction plan being put in place first, which involves coordinating with the Israeli army and gaining their approval.

A plan is sent to COGAT, an Israeli defence agency, who then shares it with the Israeli army. Aid workers can communicate with the Israeli army in real-time as they carry out their work, and they carry GPS transmitters with them so that the Israeli army constantly knows their location.

Because of the meticulous manner in which foreign aid agencies plan their missions and constantly update the Israeli army with their whereabouts, this has resulted in many doubting that such attacks on humanitarian aid workers are ‘accidental’ or due to ‘errors.’

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) said the killing of the international charity workers highlighted that Gaza is the "most lethal place in the world to be an aid worker".

In the past six months, 203 humanitarian aid workers have been killed by the Israeli army, 95% of whom are Palestinian.

This does not take into account the hundreds of Palestinian doctors, medical workers, paramedics, ambulance drivers and rescue workers who also carry out humanitarian work.

A graph released by the Aid Worker Security Database at the end of March 2024 shows that the number of aid workers killed in Gaza in the last six months is more than the total number of aid workers killed per year in the past 30 years.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Secretary General Christopher Lockyear, the growing number of humanitarian aid workers killed in Gaza suggests that the current deconfliction measures are useless, or that the attacks are intentional.

In a statement given at a press conference on April 4 2024, Lockyear said, “Since the beginning of this war, nearly 200 humanitarian workers have been killed, including five MSF staff. Many of these humanitarians were killed while providing care for patients or sheltering with their families. We have been saying it for weeks now. This pattern of attacks is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence.

“It not only shows the failure of deconfliction measures, it shows the futility of these measures in a war fought with no rules, that these attacks on humanitarian workers are allowed to happen is a political choice. Israel faces no political cost…The number of aid workers killed in Gaza is extraordinary, yet it is but a fraction of the total number of people killed so far: now, nearly 33,000 men, women, and children.”

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Of the 203 humanitarian aid workers that have been killed, 178 of them are UN workers. UNRWA spokesman Jonathan Fowler told The New Arab that in the entire history of the United Nations, this war on Gaza has been the deadliest war for their aid workers.

“We’ve had a litany of strikes impact on our facilities and people have died in displacement and died in their homes as well. Our warehouse was hit in Rafah in March. Other UN agencies that have lost staff as well are the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme," Fowler said.

"The Palestine Red Crescent has also lost people, for some it's been in their homes, for others it's been when they've been doing their work, for example, while driving an ambulance. The World Central Kitchen is the latest in a series of incidents of various kinds, just one of the most high-profile ones, but it was an indication of a pattern of failure of deconfliction and that surely is a problem.”

Before the attack that killed World Central Kitchen’s aid workers, similar incidents include a sniper attack on a Médecins Sans Frontières’ convoy in November 2023, which was travelling on a deconflicted route in northern Gaza.

There was a near-fatal airstrike in January 2024 on the residential compound that was housing Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) workers and the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s Emergency Medical Team workers, along with local workers and their families.

As of April 4 2024, IRC says the Israeli Government has still not carried out an investigation into this attack or given a credible explanation.

In February the Israeli army directly hit one of UNRWA’s food aid convoys with naval gunfire. Spokesman Jonathan Fowler told The New Arab that it was nothing short of a miracle that no one died in that attack. He stressed that as normal the deconfliction process had been carried out first and the Israeli army had their coordinates.

With regards to the attack on their warehouse in Rafah in March, he says, “That was on a static building, the coordinates of which are known and is a UN facility and a staff member died in that in the incident and then another one passed away from injuries later. Those kinds of things should not happen, sites under the UN flag should be protected, that's what international humanitarian law says.”

Canada-based human rights advocate, lawyer and activism leader for Amnesty International Canada Katrina Sriranpong, explains that the Israeli army’s failure to distinguish between military objects and civilian objects and its disregard for the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks is in direct violation of international humanitarian law.

“International humanitarian law requires the parties to abide by the principle of distinction, where they must ensure targets are military and not civilian. Attacks on civilians such as doctors, humanitarian aid workers, journalists and children as well as civilian objects are considered war crimes,” she adds.

According to Gazan social and political researcher and author of Trust in Divided Societies, Abdalhadi Alijla, Israel has a long history of killing humanitarian aid workers which did not start with the current war on Gaza.

“Almost in every war against the Gaza Strip in the last 20 years, Israel has targeted UN aid workers, the Palestinian Civil Defence, ambulances and health workers, so it’s not the first time,” he explains to The New Arab.

“It also has a history of targeting the UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon); just last month they targeted the United Nations Peacekeeping in Southern Lebanon.”

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For Gazans like Alijla, Western media’s uproar over the killing of the World Central Kitchen’s aid workers, which included British, American, Canadian and Australian citizens, has proven something that they have been arguing since October 2023 – that there is a hierarchy of death.

They are equally devastated by the deaths of the seven aid workers, which included 25-year-old Palestinian driver Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha but have highlighted the sudden shift in the narrative in the Western media’s coverage of Gaza since some of the West’s ‘own’ people were killed by the Israeli army.

“I see it as pure racism and differentiation between the lives of Palestinians and the lives of other people,” says Alijla. “It is not only sad and traumatic, but it also reveals and uncovers the real face of the international community, i.e. the Western world, that they are differentiating between the blood of white foreign people and that of the Palestinian people.”

The April attack on the World Central Kitchen aid workers has caused all international humanitarian agencies operating in Gaza to question the current deconfliction process.

For agencies like the World Central Kitchen and American Near East Refugee Aid (anera), it has resulted in them ceasing their operations in Gaza. UNRWA spokesman Jonathan Fowler says it is a horrible decision to have to make, but if humanitarian agencies cannot guarantee the safety of their aid workers, they must pause operations or they risk putting more of their aid workers’ lives on the line. After all, in order to be able to continue doing the work they do, they need their staff to be alive.

“There will be constant situational assessments to see whether it's possible to resume in certain areas, partially resume operations. A blanket halt is never something that any of us want to do because that leaves people who are already desperate in an even more desperate situation when you consider there are over a million people staring famine in the face in the Gaza Strip,” he explains.

“We do not want to find ourselves in this kind of situation. We may have to do temporary pauses in some locations, but the ability to operate of course is severely constrained," he continues.

"We are not able to do the kind of job that we need to do at scale to meet the needs of the population, which is precisely why everybody's been ringing the alarm bells for months about tipping into a famine, and this would be the largest, fastest onset famine for many decades, just the number of people, but also the speed of it coming in, and it's entirely man-made.”

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International humanitarian agencies are united in calling on the Israeli government to ensure that measures are put in place to stop the killing of aid workers and for the deconfliction process to mean something.

Médecins Sans Frontières called the current deconfliction process ‘blatantly unreliable.’

“There must not be repeats of this, there must be an understanding of why these things happen, what can be done to make sure that they do not happen again,” says UNRWA spokesman Jonathan Fowler.

“We do everything to coordinate our movements. In any war situation, there's always going to be that element of risk, it's not a risk-free operating environment, but we need to we need to calculate risk to the minimum level. We don't move without permission, so we have to ensure that those permissions actually mean something.”

For now, UNRWA, Médecins Sans Frontières, Medical Aid for Palestinians and the International Rescue Committee have decided to continue to operate in Gaza, working alongside Palestinian medical workers, health workers and rescue workers, all the while knowing that their lives are just as fragile as their Palestinian counterparts.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA