Escalating threat to aid workers and its implications - Hindustan Times

Escalating threat to aid workers and its implications

Apr 27, 2024 11:53 AM IST

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Early April 2024, an Israeli air strike resulted in the deaths of seven aid workers who were distributing food to Palestinians in Gaza, where famine looms. The victims, mostly foreign nationals, were associated with World Central Kitchen, a non-profit founded by Spanish American chef and humanitarian José Andrés. The incident has sparked widespread international condemnation and highlighted the perilous conditions faced by humanitarian workers striving to alleviate the acute food shortage in Gaza. World Central Kitchen CEO Erin Gore emphasised that the attack not only targeted their organization but also struck at the very heart of humanitarian efforts in situations where food becomes a weapon of war. She described the incident as reprehensible.

A passerby looks on as Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 21, 2024.(REUTERS) PREMIUM
A passerby looks on as Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 21, 2024.(REUTERS)

The individuals killed, identifiable by their organisation's logo on bulletproof vests, hailed from Australia, Poland, the United Kingdom, Palestine, the United States (US), and Canada. Israel has recognized the incident, labelling it an accident, and offered condolences to the families. In response to the attack, World Central Kitchen has suspended its operations in Gaza. This action not only jeopardises one of the scarce sources of food aid in the region but also underscores the difficulties humanitarian workers encounter amidst Israel's potential escalation of its assault on Rafah and ongoing hindrance of aid delivery.

In a statement, US President Joe Biden expressed his profound dismay and sorrow over the killings. Biden criticized Israel, stating that they haven't taken sufficient measures to safeguard aid workers endeavouring to provide crucial assistance to civilians. He emphasised that incidents like the recent one should not occur and urged Israel to better coordinate military operations to prevent civilian casualties. Biden also lamented that this incident is not an isolated one, highlighting the high number of aid workers killed in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. According to a White House National Security Council spokesperson, more than 200 aid workers have lost their lives, based on UN figures. Biden strongly condemned Israel's conduct in the conflict, attributing the difficulties in distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza to their failure to adequately protect aid workers. Last year, according to the Aid Worker Security Database, 260 aid workers lost their lives in Gaza and the West Bank, with an additional 60 casualties recorded so far this year. Ciarán Donnelly, the senior vice president for Crisis, Response, Recovery, and Development at the International Rescue Committee, emphasised that the recent attack is part of a broader pattern of violence against humanitarian aid operations, facilities, medical workers, and facilities throughout the conflict.

The aftermath of the recent attack underscores the ongoing challenges faced in delivering aid to Gaza. Despite a January ruling from the International Court of Justice mandating Israel to enhance aid delivery efforts, tangible progress has yet to be seen.

Critics have previously raised concerns about World Central Kitchen's approach to worker safety, noting instances where workers were deployed to disaster zones with inadequate preparation. However, this recent strike reflects a broader trend of risks faced by humanitarian workers in Gaza.

Among those killed during the conflict are five staff members from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an organisation providing health care in Gaza, and 14 on-duty staff members from the Palestinian Red Crescent. Both organizations boast extensive experience operating in war zones, highlighting the severity of the situation.

The humanitarian infrastructure in Gaza, including hospitals and refugee camps, has faced relentless Israeli bombardment since the onset of the conflict. By March 1, only 12 out of Gaza's 36 hospitals were functioning partially, and those operational still grappled with critical shortages of medical supplies. Moreover, essential food infrastructure such as bakeries and flour mills has been targeted and destroyed.

Recent reports indicate that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from al-Shifa hospital, alleging the arrest of over 500 suspected militants. However, their departure left behind significant destruction, including hundreds of bodies, illustrating the devastating impact of the conflict on civilian infrastructure.

Despite assertions from Israel that it does not obstruct aid deliveries, Oxfam's recent report accuses Israel of deliberate hindrance. The report highlights that aid trucks face an average waiting period of 20 days before entry, and Israel has rejected a significant amount of aid supplies, including crucial medical equipment like oxygen, incubators, and sanitation resources.

Ciarán Donnelly of the International Rescue Committee describes Gaza as "one of the most dangerous and restrictive spaces" they have operated in. The consequences for Gaza's population are dire, with access to essential services severely compromised.

According to projections by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, without a ceasefire, Gaza could witness a staggering number of excess deaths by August. If the current situation persists, these deaths, including those from disease outbreaks, could reach nearly 67,000. However, if the conflict escalates, this figure could surpass 85,000. The possibility of an escalation in Rafah remains, although Israel has indicated a willingness to consider US concerns regarding a potential invasion. Yet, it is uncertain whether Israel will delay or abandon the offensive altogether.

These developments have sparked allegations that Israel is deliberately employing starvation as a weapon of war, potentially constituting a war crime. However, senior members of Netanyahu's Likud party dismiss these allegations as baseless. Proving such war crimes would be challenging and require protracted legal proceedings. Israel is already facing accusations of genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice, a case expected to take years to resolve.

Nonetheless, Israel's tactics in Gaza have resulted in a tragic death toll, exceeding 33,000. Moreover, its screening policies for aid deliveries are effectively exacerbating the humanitarian crisis by depriving Palestinians of essential resources. Whether intentional or not, the consequences of these actions are undeniably dire.

The recent attack on Monday further complicates the already challenging task for aid workers to respond to the worsening crisis in Gaza. The risks to staff safety have become so concerning that the United Arab Emirates has reportedly decided to halt its participation in the maritime aid corridor to Gaza until Israel can guarantee the safety of its workers.

Ciarán Donnelly emphasised that the only viable solution to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians and create an environment conducive for aid agencies to operate effectively is for the fighting to cease. Ending the conflict is imperative to enable humanitarian organizations to address the urgent and severe needs of the population in Gaza.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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