Israel has made Gaza the deadliest place for aid workers
Israel has made Gaza the deadliest place for aid workers
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Israel has made Gaza the deadliest place for aid workers

Only a ceasefire can stop the killing of aid workers and civilians in Gaza. Even without one, Israel could take measures to protect them. Here are some of them.

Shaken by a Hamas-led blitz on Israeli communities last October, Israel says it is "determined to dismantle" the military and governance capabilities of the group in besieged Palestinian enclave, Gaza. Yet, this quest has been overshadowed by the war's devastating effects, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed as “collateral damage."

Israel's military campaign has killed over 34,000 people and uprooted 2 million from their homes, out of a population of 2.2 million. The enclave's northern half is facing the world's worst famine, relative to population size, of the past few decades.

This is due not only to a shortage of aid, but also to the dangers of and restrictions on movement within Gaza.

Even aid workers, who are afforded protection under international humanitarian law, have not been spared, and have been killed as the result of "collateral damage" or even direct Israeli attacks. This is expected to escalate if and when Israel moves to invade Rafah.

Most dangerous

Gaza is currently the most dangerous place for aid workers in the world. The Aid Worker Security Database (AWDS) – an open source for tracking attacks on aid workers globally – has documented a staggering 308 incidents targeting aid workers in Gaza, causing 234 deaths in the seven months since October 7.

This marks the highest number of such incidents recorded in a single conflict year since 1997, surpassing Afghanistan's record of 81 incidents in 2013, and nearly matching the total recorded for aid workers in Syria over a decade-long conflict from 2011 to 2021, which stood at 320.

Most victims in Gaza were working for UNRWA, the UN agency caring for Palestinian refugees, with one in every 100 of its staff killed – the highest staff death toll in UN history.

The alarming rate of aid worker casualties in Gaza can be attributed to two main factors: Israel's use of massive aerial bombardments, and the absence of an effective deconfliction system that could facilitate coordination between the Israeli military and humanitarian agencies to ensure safe movement.

Israel's loose targeting protocols signal an approach to international humanitarian law that appears to distort the requirement of proportionality beyond recognition.

These protocols hold that the harm done to civilians and civilian objects should not be excessive in relation to the military advantage that is sought. Almost all aid workers killed in Gaza since October 2023 died as a result of aerial bombardment.

"Deconfliction system"

On October 7, the day of the Hamas attack, Israel also disabled the "deconfliction" system that facilitates coordination with aid groups. The process had been problematic in Gaza before that date but generally worked.

Since that time, aid workers have grappled with unprecedented hurdles in ensuring their safety amid the fighting. One aid worker told the International Crisis Group in April that, "at this point, it's easier to ensure deconfliction with a militia in rural South Sudan that has a single satellite phone than it is with the (Israeli army)."

Unlike in other conflict zones, where aid agencies can directly liaise with military field commanders, communication in Gaza must be channelled indirectly via COGAT, the Israeli military's Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. COGAT operates akin to "a switchboard without an operator," as an aid official described it.

When aid groups send planned movements and facility locations to COGAT, it limits itself to confirming receipt of this information.

The system does not guarantee safe passage or tell the aid agencies whether it intends to strike one of their facilities or the immediate vicinity. Instead, the Israelis tend to issue evacuation orders concerning a relevant area some 30-120 minutes prior to a planned attack.

The April 1 airstrike that killed seven World Central Kitchen workers forced Israel to issue a rare admission of responsibility, acknowledging that the army had approved the route on which the three vehicles transporting the aid workers were struck.

Officials later claimed that the drone operators who killed the aid workers had been unaware that the army had greenlighted the trip, confirming a longstanding suspicion among aid agency staff that humanitarian workers are not safe even when they inform the COGAT of their movements.

The absence of effective deconfliction mechanisms have not only resulted in harm to aid workers, but has also accelerated worsening famine in Gaza. Combating widespread hunger hinges on the safe and efficient movement of goods and people throughout the enclave.

The killing of the World Central Kitchen workers, which drew a global outcry, has now forced Israel to shift its approach, with the UN set to coordinate aid operations directly with Israel's southern command. The World Central Kitchen has now resumed its work in Gaza, after halting operations for almost a month following the incident.

Important steps

Despite the welcome additional measures announced by Israel in the incident's aftermath, such as opening the Ashdod port for aid deliveries, easing access to Gaza via the Erez crossing and partially restoring water flow from Israel, it is hard to imagine an effective famine response as long as fighting continues.

With nearly 55 percent of people in northern Gaza and one third of the entire population suffering catastrophic food insecurity, only a prolonged ceasefire accompanied by a massive influx of aid can improve the situation sufficiently to stop famine from spreading in the enclave.

Yet even without a ceasefire, Israel must protect aid workers and make the deconfliction system more efficient. This entails supporting and safeguarding aid operations to guarantee the secure delivery of assistance, rather than hindering them.

At least one aid worker has been killed in Gaza since the attack on the World Central Kitchen. Yet the deconfliction system's true efficacy will be tested if and when Israel moves to invade Rafah, with the risk of heightened attacks against civilians and the people trying to feed and save them.

Safeguarding the movement of aid workers in Gaza is vital, but preventing famine requires further changes. First, Israel should provide for a massive and rapid increase in access to and distribution throughout Gaza of humanitarian supplies and staff, particularly those that are essential for effective famine response.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said there has been incremental progress toward averting "an entirely preventable, human-made famine" in the north of Gaza, but much more is urgently needed.

Secondly, Israel should allow Gaza's civil authorities to protect the flow of goods and maintain public order, even if to do so they have to coordinate with Hamas.

Letting the civilian police or Hamas retain control of any facet of governance would be hard to swallow for Israel, but could be feasible as part of a deal to return the hostages.

None of these measures will work without the others, however, and all are likely moot without a ceasefire in place, because the scale, coordination and rapidity of the response now required are incompatible with ongoing fighting.

With every passing day, the possibility of stopping the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza recedes. The imperative for Israel is clear: implement an effective system to protect aid workers as well as the civic groups and civilian authorities with whom they partner; reach a ceasefire deal with Hamas to bring the war to an end; and stop the famine it has wrought.

This article was originally published in TRT World.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.