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World Central Kitchen pauses Gaza aid, as Netanyahu acknowledges an 'unintended hit'

People gather around the wreckage of a car used by the U.S.-based aid group World Central Kitchen on April 2, 2024, that was hit by an airstrike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.
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AFP via Getty Images
People gather around the wreckage of a car used by the U.S.-based aid group World Central Kitchen on April 2, 2024, that was hit by an airstrike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.

Updated April 2, 2024 at 4:31 PM ET

The World Central Kitchen, the international food charity founded by chef José Andrés, announced early on Tuesday that it was pausing aid operations after it said an Israeli airstrike killed seven of the organization's workers in Gaza.

The organization said its workers had been traveling in a "deconflicted zone" in two armored cars carrying the World Central Kitchen logo and a soft skin vehicle. It said that despite organizing travel with the Israeli military, the convoy was hit as it was leaving a warehouse in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged the strike in a video statement Tuesday. "Unfortunately, during the last day there was a tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people in the Gaza Strip. This happens in war," Netanyahu said in Hebrew. He added that Israel is investigating the incident, is in touch with other governments and "will do everything so that thing does not happen again."

Netanyahu later posted a message social media in English as well expressing regret and promising an investigation.

Earlier, the Israeli military said in a statement it was investigating the report "at the highest levels to understand the circumstances of this tragic incident." Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a video statement, "We will share our findings transparently."

In the World Central Kitchen's statement, it said the seven killed are from Australia, Poland, United Kingdom, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, and a Palestinian.

"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," the organization's CEO, Erin Gore, said. "This is unforgivable."

The WCK announcement followed an earlier statement from Andrés about the incident. "Today, @WCK lost several of our brothers and sisters in an IDF air strike in Gaza," he said on X, using the initials for the Israeli military known as the Israel Defense Forces. "I am heartbroken and grieving for the families and friends and our whole WCK family."

Several other aid groups suspended their Gaza operations after the attack, including Project HOPE, which provides health care in Gaza, and the group Anera, which helps refugees around the Middle East.

Governments condemn the attack

The national governments of the strike victims have been reacting to news of the attack.

The White House is "outraged" by the strike and expects Israel to conduct a broad investigation resulting in "appropriate accountability," John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters Tuesday.

The Israeli military "must do much more to improve deconfliction processes so that civilians and humanitarian aid workers are protected," Kirby said, estimating more than 200 aid workers have been killed in the six months of fighting in Gaza.

The White House said President Biden called Andrés, the chef who leads World Central Kitchen, to express his condolences for the loss of its seven workers.

U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron said three British nationals were among the dead. The Foreign Office said it summoned the Israeli ambassador, condemned the "appalling" killings and called for a humanitarian pause in the war in Gaza.

Poland's foreign minister asked the Israeli ambassador for "urgent explanations" over the death of a Polish citizen.

Zomi Frankcom works with colleagues and volunteers to unload and arrange for distribution lunch casseroles at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest on April 6, 2022. The Australian aid worker was among those killed by an Israeli strike in Gaza.
/ Ioana Moldovan for NPR
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Ioana Moldovan for NPR
Zomi Frankcom works with colleagues and volunteers to unload and arrange for distribution lunch casseroles at Gara de Nord railway station in Bucharest on April 6, 2022. The Australian aid worker was among those killed by an Israeli strike in Gaza.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese paid tribute to the Australian aid worker who died, Zomi Frankcom. "This is just completely unacceptable. Australia expects full accountability for the deaths of aid workers," he said.

Canada's foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, said she was "horrified to hear" the reports and condemned the Israeli military attack.

Aid workers in a three-car convoy in Gaza

World Central Kitchen operates in crisis areas around the globe. It had begun delivering food and aid to Gaza as U.N. experts and aid groups warn that large swaths of the population are suffering from malnutrition and thousands of people, particularly in the north of Gaza, are at risk of imminent famine. Last week, the International Court of Justice issued an order that Israel — which denies the reports of food shortages — should ensure sufficient aid gets into Gaza.

A Palestinian paramedic who was on the team that brought the aid workers' bodies to the hospital told The Associated Press that the WCK volunteers had been driving in a three-car convoy delivering aid to northern Gaza and were headed back to the south when an Israeli missile struck. The medic, Mahmoud Thabet, said they were heading back to Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering close to Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Footage that the AP said was from the Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza showed at least four bodies, some wearing protective body armor and one wearing a T-shirt with the WCK logo on it. Hospital staff showed passports of three of the dead from Australia, Poland and the U.K., before the World Central Kitchen said victims also included a dual U.S. Canadian citizen and a Palestinian.

Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in October after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel that killed some 1,200 people, and took about 240 hostages into Gaza.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed more than 32,000 people, the Gaza Health Ministry says.

"The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing," Andrés said on X. "It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon. No more innocent lives lost. Peace starts with our shared humanity. It needs to start now."

The WCK had sent three ships from Cyprus, which is among the countries working to set up a sea route to bring aid to Gaza. The AP reported that ships carrying 240 tons of aid have turned back from Gaza.

Cyprus' president, Nikos Christodoulides, said the global food charity is a "crucial partner" to getting aid to Gaza and pledged to continue efforts for the ship deliveries, according to Reuters.

The United States, which has been airdropping aid packages into Gaza, has said it will build a floating dock off the enclave's coast to facilitate aid deliveries, although that is not expected to be ready for several more weeks.

Michele Kelemen and Alex Leff contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Hider