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Pressure grows on Israel after the death of aid workers

04 April 2024


A ship belonging to the Open Arms aid group loaded with canned food destined for Gaza, back in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus, on Wednesday, having returned with 240 tons of undelivered aid after the killing of the aid workers

A ship belonging to the Open Arms aid group loaded with canned food destined for Gaza, back in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus, on Wednesday, having retur...

DIPLOMATIC pressure on Israel has increased this week in response to the killing of seven aid workers. In the UK, the Government is facing calls to suspend the sale of armaments to the country.

On Monday, seven aid workers, including three British nationals, were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza which seemed to target a convoy of vehicles belonging to the aid organisation World Central Kitchen (WCK) (News, 5 April).

On Thursday evening, the Archbishop of Canterbury described the incident as “another appalling breach of international humanitarian law in this war”. 

Writing on social media, Archbishop Welby said “aid workers can never be a target in war”, and that “far too many humanitarian workers have been killed in Gaza”. 

At least 196 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.

Archbishop Welby reiterated his calls for an immediate ceasefire, the release of hostages, and the unimpeded provision of humanitarian aid, and said that he was praying for the “families and colleagues of those who were killed this week, and all those who have been killed in the last six months”.

Tributes have been paid by the families of the three British men killed in the attack. John Chapman, James Henderson, and James Kirby were former members of the British armed forces, and were working for WCK’s security team.

The others killed were a Palestinian, Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutahas; an Australian, Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom; Damian Soból, from Poland; and a dual US-Canadian citizen, Jacob Flickinger.

The governments of those killed have strongly condemned the attack. On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak told the Israeli President, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he was “appalled” by the killings.

In a government press release, issued after a phone call between the two leaders, Mr Sunak said that “far too many aid workers and ordinary civilians have lost their lives in Gaza,” and that the situation was “increasingly intolerable”.

He demanded a “thorough and transparent independent investigation into what happened” to the WCK convoy.

The cars in which the aid workers were travelling were marked with the organisation’s logo, and it has been reported that they were not travelling in close proximity to each other when a series of strikes were made.

Mr Sunak, the statement said, “reiterated that Israel’s rightful aim of defeating Hamas would not be achieved by allowing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza”.

The incident has led to further expressions of concern about Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza. In the United States, President Biden said that he was “outraged”. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, described the incident as an “inevitable result of the way the war was being conducted”.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Revd Professor Jerry Pillay, has condemned the killings. In a statement on Wednesday, he said: “It is tragic that people who give their time in serving others have to lose their own lives. Such attacks, which take the lives of innocent people, are absolutely unacceptable and cannot be justified at any level.”

The fall-out from the attack has led to renewed scrutiny of the UK Government’s approach to arms sales.

On Wednesday, three former Supreme Court justices joined a group of more than 600 legal experts calling for a suspension of arms deals between British firms and Israel, on the basis of “plausible risk of genocide” in Gaza.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, they say that “serious action” is needed in order to “avoid UK complicity in grave breaches of international law”. Lord Sumption and Lady Hale are among the retired senior judges to have signed the letter.

A YouGov poll commissioned before the attack on Monday suggests that a majority of voters in Britain want to see a ban on arms sales to Israel, by a margin of 56 per cent to 17 per cent, The Guardian reported.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, Lord Sumption said: “It seems to me that if you have a duty — as we do — to prevent genocide, and there is a plausible case that is what is happening, you should do what you can to obstruct it.”

Last week, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, presented a report in which she wrote: “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide against Palestinians as a group in Gaza has been met.” Israeli officials dismissed the report (News, 27 March).

The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party have called on the Government to block arms exports, while the Labour Party has asked the Government to publish any legal advice it has received on the risk that UK-made equipment is being used in breaches of international law.

In late March, a group of 107 MPs, along with 27 members of the House of Lords, signed a letter calling for the suspension of arms exports (News, 27 March). On Wednesday, the Labour MP, Zarah Sultana, who coordinated the letter suggested that Parliament should be recalled from its Easter recess in order to discuss the issue. 

According to a recording of a Conservative Party fund-raising event leaked to The Observer this week, the Conservative MP Alicia Kearns has said that the Foreign Office has “received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law but the Government has not announced it”.

This week, the Corporation of The Church House has been asked to explain how hosting the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Land Warfare Conference coheres with its ethical lettings policy (News, 3 April).

Humanitarian organisations operating in Gaza are taking further measures to keep their workers safe, following the attack on the WCK convoy, and are reiterating calls for a ceasefire.

On Wednesday, the UN announced that its night-time operations in Gaza would be suspended for “at least 48 hours” in response to the killings.

A UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told journalists in New York that the attack on the WCK convoy has had a “psychological and chilling effect on humanitarian workers, both Palestinian and international, who continue to do their utmost to deliver aid to those who need it”.

Several NGOs, including WCK, American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), and the health charity Project Hope, have paused their work in Gaza in response to the attack.

But on Wednesday, Christian Aid’s head of Middle East policy and advocacy, William Bell, said that the charity would “not be stopping or scaling down our life-saving humanitarian work in Gaza”.

Christian Aid operates through partners in the area to provide food and shelter and medical support. “Our partners have strict security measures in place, but, of course, they are not safe, and live in constant fear of being killed,” Mr Bell said.

“They are just trying to survive — as all civilians in Gaza are — what the ICJ believes might be genocide. The only way to stop the killing and ensure a safe and effective humanitarian response is with an immediate and permanent ceasefire.”

Pressure on Mr Netanyahu’s government is also mounting in Israel. On Wednesday, families of the 130 Israeli hostages still being held by Hamas stormed the Knesset, demanding a greater focus on extracting the hostages.

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