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‘It’s Not Just a One-Off Incident:’ What the World Central Kitchen Deaths Reveal

When the Israeli military fired three missiles on a humanitarian convoy run by the leading international charity World Central Kitchen—killing seven aid workers of whom most were foreign nationals—it elicited a horrified global response. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who described the attack on the convoy as unintentional, lamented the loss of innocent life as a “tragic case,” adding: “This happens in wartime.”

But it’s not supposed to. While aid workers operating in war zones do so under dangerous conditions, there are protocols in place to ensure their safety. This includes coordinating with the Israeli military in order to achieve what is referred to as “deconfliction,” a system by which aid organizations notify and maintain regular contact with relevant military powers about their whereabouts and maneuvers in order to avoid coming under attack. The World Central Kitchen confirmed that its employees were traveling in a deconflicted zone in two armored cars and a third vehicle when the attack on their convoy occurred. Footage of the aftermath showed one of the vehicles with a gaping hole in its roof, where a munition appeared to puncture straight through the charity’s prominently displayed logo. World Central Kitchen’s CEO Erin Gore called the attack “unforgivable.”

Celebrity chef José Andrés, the organization’s founder, rejected Netanyahu’s assertion that the incident (which involved three successive strikes on cars in three different locations, roughly 1.5 miles apart) was accidental, telling Reuters that “This was not just a bad luck situation where ‘oops’ we dropped the bomb in the wrong place.” While Israel announced it would launch an internal investigation into the incident, World Central Kitchen has called for an independent one to be conducted, noting that it “is the only way to determine the truth of what happened, ensure transparency and accountability for those responsible, and prevent future attacks on humanitarian aid workers.”

Read More: The World Central Kitchen Aid Workers Killed in Gaza

As tragic as the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy was, it wasn’t unthinkable. That’s because Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza has proven to be one of the most deadly for humanitarian aid workers. Since Israel began its military campaign to root out Hamas from Gaza on Oct. 7, at least 203 aid workers have been killed, according to the Aid Worker Security Database, which tracks attacks on humanitarian relief workers worldwide. This figure is higher than the total number of aid worker fatalities that typically occur annually worldwide.

Arvind Das, the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee’s team lead for the Gaza crisis, tells TIME that while aid workers operating in conflict zones are typically afforded safe access and corridors to deliver essential life-saving services, such assurances have been absent from Israel’s war in Gaza, where the targeting of aid workers has become more of a feature than a bug. There have been multiple instances in which organizations and their staff have been targeted by Israeli military action, including one near-fatal airstrike involving Das. On Jan. 18, he and a group of doctors were on a dual U.S.-U.K.-led medical mission in Gaza when their residential compound housing, which was located within a demarcated safe zone in the coastal town of Al-Mawasi, was hit by an Israeli airstrike with the doctors inside. While the group was lucky to escape with only injuries, Das said it could have easily ended differently. Three months later, the Israeli military has provided no explanation for its targeting of the house, coordinates of which had been shared with Israeli authorities through the U.N.’s deconfliction process. (The Israeli military did not respond to requests for comment.)

“Almost all international organizations at some point or another have faced a similar situation,” Das says, noting that the situation in Gaza is worse than any previous conflict zone he’s been in—a list that includes Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, central Africa, and Ecuador. “It’s not just a one-off incident. That is what is so concerning.”

RAFAH, GAZA - APRIL 03: Bodies of World Central Kitchen workers killed after an Israeli attack are taken to El-Nejar Hospital in Rafah city, Gaza on April 3, 2024.<span class="copyright">Abed Rahim Khatib—Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
RAFAH, GAZA - APRIL 03: Bodies of World Central Kitchen workers killed after an Israeli attack are taken to El-Nejar Hospital in Rafah city, Gaza on April 3, 2024.Abed Rahim Khatib—Anadolu/Getty Images

These threats extend to more than just aid workers. At least 95 journalists have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in what has been the deadliest period for journalists since the NGO began tracking casualties in 1992. The war has been similarly devastating for healthcare workers. Christina Wille, the director of the humanitarian research organization Insecurity Insight, tells TIME that her organization has identified the location and date of death for at least 176 healthcare workers who have been killed in Gaza, but adds that the true figure is thought to exceed 450.

“The Israeli government has a decades-long track record of committing grave violations of the laws of war, including war crimes,” Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, tells TIME, noting that HRW has documented instances of unlawfully indiscriminate airstrikes as well as attacks on hospitals and ambulances. “It’s precisely the decades of impunity for unlawful attacks and other grave abuses, including Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, that has led to the unprecedented atrocities that we see taking place over the last six months.”

The deadly attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy has forced greater international attention on the conduct of Israel’s war in Gaza, which enters its sixth month this week. Responses from world leaders, among them Israel’s closest allies in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe, stressed that the attack was “appalling,” that “far too many aid workers and ordinary civilians have lost their lives in Gaza” and that “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.” While these statements represent some of the strongest public rebukes of Israel’s conduct in Gaza so far, it’s unclear what change, if any, will come from it.

Read More: Why Getting Rid of Netanyahu Is Unlikely to Shift Israel’s Approach to Gaza

What is clear, however, is that ordinary Palestinians in Gaza will pay the heaviest price for this tragedy. The attack has already had a chilling effect on humanitarian efforts in Gaza. In addition to World Central Kitchen, two other charities, Anera and Project Hope, announced that they are pausing their operations in Gaza until further notice—a decision that will have a devastating impact on a population facing imminent, if not already present, famine. In the absence of these aid groups, Shakir says the responsibility falls on Israel as the occupying power to provide Gaza’s population with the necessary food and aid needed for survival. But if the last six months are any indication—during which time the Israeli government has been seen to obstruct aid delivery and even deny the existence of starvation in Gaza—that doesn’t bode well for the Palestinian population.

“This is heartbreaking, but this is also absolutely shameful,” Das, of the IRC, says of the situation. “This is a shame on all of us.”

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.