In Wake of Food Aid Workers’ Deaths, WHO Demands Stronger ‘Deconfliction’ Mechanism for Gaza Relief Missions 
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday decried the deaths of seven aid workers by Israeli fire while delivering food aid to Palestinians in besieged northern Gaza, demanding a major revamp of “deconfliction” procedures so that aid missions could proceed safely and predictably. 

“WHO is horrified by the killing of 7 humanitarian workers from World Central Kitchen in Gaza on Monday.  The work they were doing was saving lives, providing food to thousands of starving people,” said the director general at a press briefing. 

Responding to a blast of international criticism, Israel’s top military and political leadership expressed deep regret for the incident in which air force drones deliberately picked off, one by one, three cars carrying the seven aid workers affiliated with an organisation widely recognised even by Israelis as a neutral partner. The country pledged a high-level investigation of the incident. 

But Tedros said that the incident reflects systemic problems faced by virtually every agency mission WHO has conducted in Gaza in coordinating missions with Israel’s military through areas of Gaza that it now controls. Those problems are also putting its aid workers at risk almost daily from combat fire, as well as taking the lives of other innocent people in the past six months of war, Tedros and other senior WHO officials said.

“The DG rightly highlights why we are all appalled by the killings of our colleagues, in clearly marked vehicles in a deconflicted area. It clearly shows that the  deconfliction mechanism is not working,” said Richard Peeperkorn, head of WHO’s Jerusalem-based Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).  

“What is needed is an effective, transparent and workable deconfliction and notification mechanism. The UN has to be assured that convoys and facilities are not targeted. It means that assuring movement of aid in Gaza, including through checkpoints, is predictable, expedited, etc. That roads are operational and cleared.”

Fraught with cancellations, delays and uncertainties 

Dr Richard Peeperkorn, head of WHO’s Jerusalem-based office for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In particular, WHO relief missions to northern Gaza, which Israel nominally controls although heavy pockets of fighting with Hamas continue – have been fraught with cancellations, delays and other uncertainties for months, Peeperkorn complained. 

“We see too many missions delayed or denied. It’s also making the missions which are delayed, and I’ve been on quite a few myself, more arduous and dangerous. You sometimes return at 11 o’clock at night, or past midnight. So it becomes unnecessarily dangerous.” 

“Even today, who my team was in an mission to the north, again, to deliver a few medical supplies, food and water, to Al-Ahli Hospital and Al-Sahabah Hospital in the north… They were, as was planned and agreed on, between 6 and 7 a.m. ready to go,” he recounted. 

“They went to the checkpoint, and just before the checkpoint, they’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting up till now. Now they had to return back to their to their guest houses.”

Not an isolated incident 

Shell of WCK car that came under drone attack, with the NGOs identity clearly marked on its roof

Along with the blast of international criticism, the WCK attack has been deplored widely inside Israel, where the organisation has been praised for having also delivered food aid to Israelis displaced by the Hamas attacks on Jewish communities around the perimeter of Gaza on 7 October. 

While the Israeli army has sought to portray the killings as a tragic, but isolated incident, critics say it reflects more systemic problems related not only to poor coordination of aid, but an expanding culture of “shoot first ask questions later.”

Peeperkorn underlined that the attack also wasn’t an isolated incident for UN and WHO operations. 

“We shouldn’t forget that already in December, January, we have seen, unfortunately, attacks and sometimes the shooting at the UN vehicles,” he said. 

This included a mission to the north in which he participated in early December, he recalled. 

“There was an airstrike 150 meters from our car. The truck delivering medical supplies was shot at, the PRCS (Palestinian Red Crescent Society) people were shot at. And PRCS staff were actually arrested and detained for a while.” 

Painstaking detail for every mission prepared 

Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. Each WHO convoy to southern Gaza, and northward, requires painstaking preparation.

Detailed planning is required for every mission WHO or its partners prepare. For WHO missions, not only international and local health workers, but also a security officer and an ordnance expert are typically included in the team as well. 

“It’s an enormous amount of work, and every mission that gets delayed, impeded or denied, that other missions cannot take place,” Peeperkorn said.

“All of those details – the timing, the people on the missions, are shared through Israeli counterparts, and then there is agreement that the mission can take place at this hour,” he stressed. 

“You want to start this as early as possible. For some of the food transport, it’s even better to do that at night, before sunrise. But in the case of medical supplies, food or fuel for patients, we normally start a mission around 5 or 6 in the morning. …. Because there will always be delays, and you want to be back in daylight. 

A team sets out on the road only after it has received an OK from the Israeli army. “Then, normally, there’s a holding point at military checkpoints, where you have to wait again,” Peeperkorn said. 

“Most of the missions, there were always problems.  Delays, delays, delays – and often denials in the end,” he said. 

“And the mission today was a good example – to bring a few medical supplies, food and water to those two hospitals in the north. 

“It was all agreed, they would leave at 6:30 to 7 am. First of all they don’t get a green light to go. And finally, they get a green light to go to the checkpoint…. 

“And then they waited before the checkpoint. And they wait and they wait and they wait. In the meantime, very little discussion. Nothing is going on.  

“They realize that even if they get a green light now, they can’t go to Al Sahaba anymore. They would only deliver supplies to Al Ahli hospital and then go back.” Eventually, after more waiting, they realise that “they will never be able to return [in time], and they have to cancel the mission.” 

Workable deconfliction

“So what is a workable deconfliction mechanism?” Peeperkorn asked. 

“That routes are coordinated. That it’s a predictable mechanism. That the roads are going to be clear. And anyone who knows Gaza, know that there are a number of roads, which can be easily cleared and made operational. 

“So in a way, it’s a simple mechanism, and somehow, it has never properly worked.”

Given the mass hunger that northern Gaza faces, followed by the near total destruction of Al Shifa Hospital, the area’s main health facility, over the past two weeks, those missions are needed now more than ever, Peeperkorn stressed.

“There should be 50 missions going to the north every day. Multiple [missions] of food, water, shelter, and maybe one medical mission. That should be happening everywhere, including in the south,” said Peeperkorn. 

“And even if there’s active conflict going on, then you expect that humanitarian corridors are created, where the UN partners can safely deliver their aid and do their job. And clearly the horrific attack on WCK is clearly a sign that this is not working.

“So I really do expect, whatever comes out now, that we get a functional deconfliction mechanism and a proper notification system and that the UN and partners can do their work.” 

Image Credits: AFP/TImes of Israel, WHO/EMRO.

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