Israeli strike kills 7 aid workers, World Central Kitchen halts Gaza operations

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday his country’s forces had “unintentionally hit innocent people” in the Gaza Strip in the past day, after an airstrike killed seven aid workers with the disaster relief charity World Central Kitchen.

The U.S.-based nonprofit group, founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, said it was immediately pausing its operations in the region and Cyprus said that ships carrying aid were turning back after the incident — a major setback for efforts to get food into Gaza by sea for a population that has been pushed to the brink of starvation by the Israel-Hamas war.

Andrés said he was “heartbroken and grieving” for his colleagues who were killed.

“The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing,” he wrote on X. “It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon.”

Earlier, the Israel Defense Forces did not confirm that it was responsible for the deaths, and said that it would be opening a probe into the incident. “This will help us reduce the risk of such an event from occurring again,” IDF spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a video statement.

Speaking hours later as he departed a hospital, where he had undergone a hernia operation, Netanyahu said: “Unfortunately, in the last day, there was a tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people in the Gaza Strip.”

“It happens in war, we check it to the end, we are in contact with the governments, and we will do everything so that this thing does not happen again,” he added.

Netanyahu’s comments came as Israel faced a wave of indignation from humanitarian organizations and foreign leaders about the deadly strike. 

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The charity said that its team had coordinated its movements with the Israeli military and that it was traveling in a “deconflicted zone” in two armored cars branded with the World Central Kitchen logo and a soft-skin vehicle.

Photographs from the site of the strike provided by international news agencies showed one of the three cars that staff were moving in completely burned out by the roadside. Another car had a large hole in its roof, directly through a World Central Kitchen logo.

World Central Kitchen said its convoy was hit as it was leaving a warehouse in the Deir al-Balah area of central Gaza, where the team had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid that the charity had brought to Gaza by sea earlier in the day.

The first such ship reached the enclave last month, as part of a new U.S.-backed effort to increase the flow of aid to northern Gaza, where aid agencies say Israel’s bombardment and blocking of relief efforts by land have left hundreds of thousands of people facing a possible famine.

Those killed were six international aid workers — a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, and team members from Britain, Australia and Poland — and a Palestinian driver. The charity did not release their identities.

Relatives and friends mourned the deaths as they gathered in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.Said Khatib / AFP via Getty Images
World Central Kitchen Aid Worker Funeral
The body of a staff member of the U.S.-based aid group was carried through the streets of Rafah during his funeral.Said Khatib / AFP – Getty Images

The U.S. led calls for a swift probe into the incident.

“We are heartbroken and deeply troubled by the strike,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said on X. “Humanitarian aid workers must be protected as they deliver aid that is desperately needed, and we urge Israel to swiftly investigate what happened,” she added. U.S. officials have been in touch with Israeli officials directly about the strike, a U.S. official told NBC News. 

Australia condemned the strike and demanded accountability for the death of its citizen, whom it named as Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom. Her family paid tribute to “our brave and beloved Zomi” who, it said, had been killed “doing the work she loves.”

Poland also decried what it said was a “disregard for international humanitarian law,” and Britain said the news was “deeply distressing” as it called on Israel to “provide a full, transparent explanation of what happened.”

World Central Kitchen CEO Erin Gore said the strike was “unforgivable,” describing it as an “attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war.”

World Central Kitchen vehicles struck in Gaza
People gathered Tuesday around one of the cars that was hit by the strike in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.AFP via Getty Images

The charity said last week that it had served 42 million meals in 175 days of its operations in Gaza. Its suspension of those deliveries in the wake of Monday’s incident will add new uncertainty to international efforts to increase the flow of aid to northern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of civilians are largely cut off from the outside world.

Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesman Theodoros Gotsis told NBC News on Tuesday that about two-thirds of the undelivered aid shipment brought by World Central Kitchen to Gaza by sea this weekend is now returning to Cyprus in the aftermath of the incident.

“We already have too few organizations with real capacity on the ground,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council charity. “This is another blow to a lifeline to 2 million defenseless and starving civilians,” he said in a phone interview.

The humanitarian group is not currently planning to suspend its operations but would have to be “even more cautious” for the safety of the 60 staff members on the ground in Gaza, he said.

Egeland said that he hoped this would prove “a watershed moment” in the push for a new cease-fire deal. “It’s the only sensible thing,” he added.

Monday’s deadly strike is part of a troubling trend that has seen a record number of humanitarian workers killed since the Israel-Hamas war began, said Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations aid coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

“This is not an isolated incident,” he said in a statement. “As of March 20, at least 196 humanitarians had been killed in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since Oct. 2023. This is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year.”

In February, more than 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured as thousands of Palestinians gathered in Gaza City to receive a much-anticipated aid shipment. The Israeli military said the majority of the victims were trampled or run over in a chaotic surge, but witnesses said the civilians were killed by Israeli gunfire and tank artillery shells. 

More than 32,900 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to local health officials, with many more feared buried under the rubble and presumed dead.

Since launching its operation in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas-led terror attack, which killed more than 1,200 people, Israel has maintained a blockade and tightly controlled land crossings into the enclave, where the population of more than 2 million faces dire shortages of water and food, and is now on the brink of what the United Nations has said is an imminent famine.

Washington, Israel’s closest ally, has been pushing Netanyahu’s government to increase the flow of aid to Gaza, and has been airdropping humanitarian aid since last month.

President Joe Biden announced in his State of the Union address that he had directed an emergency mission to build a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza to enable ships to deliver humanitarian supplies by sea.

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