The World Central Kitchen Killings Are a Tragedy—and an Important Sign

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Two Israeli air strikes on Tuesday—one killing seven food-aid workers on a convoy in Gaza, another killing seven officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard at their country’s embassy in Syria—could spark a new stage of this six-month-old war, possibly worsening its misery and widening its scope.

The incidents highlight with new urgency the need to bring this war to a rapid end—especially for outside powers, Arab and Western, to make it so—before things spin out of control any further.

Israel’s attack on three vehicles of the World Central Kitchen—which has fed thousands of war victims and refugees in Gaza, Israel, Ukraine, and other areas in crisis—was unpardonable, whatever the findings of an official investigation into how it took place. In any case, it has prompted WCK and other aid groups to suspend operations in Gaza—where, even with the relief efforts, hunger and sanitary conditions are nearing catastrophic levels.

The air strike on the Iranian officers was obviously a deliberate move, but it is not clear what spurred it, and it was carried out without first notifying President Biden, even though the United States might well be a target—thus drawing us into the war directly—if Iran decides to retaliate.

It is hard to imagine Tehran not responding at all to Tuesday’s attack. Five years ago, after a U.S. drone strike killed one of Iran’s top generals, Qassem Soleimani, and four of his aides on a runway at Baghdad’s airport, Shiite militiamen launched an attack on the U.S. Embassy. No one was killed, but 34 American troops suffered serious brain damage.

Whatever action Iran takes now, it could mark a tactical shift and strategic escalation. Tehran has taken pains to avoid direct involvement in this war—perhaps deterred by, among other factors, the U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Mediterranean—and in recent weeks has pressured its proxy militias in the region to tone down their attacks.

Iran tightened its control after one such attack killed three U.S. military personnel in Jordan. In response, U.S. Central Command launched a wave of attacks that killed 40 Iran-backed militiamen—and U.S. diplomats had secret talks with Iranian counterparts. That being the case, Israel had an obligation to consult with Washington before taking any action that might alter Tehran’s calculation of risks and benefits.

We still don’t know how an Israeli fighter jet came to fire precision-guided munitions on the three separate vehicles of the WCK convoy. The organization’s CEO, Erin Gore, called it a “targeted attack by the IDF.” The term suggests the Israel Defense Forces knowingly and deliberately killed the aid workers. This is unlikely; the IDF has no interest in killing members of an international aid group—one of them an American citizen—that is much beloved across the political spectrum. It is significant that the IDF chief and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly acknowledged the IDF’s blame and apologized for the mistake, something they have rarely done after any of the other attacks that have killed civilians. (A headline in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz read: “If only Israel thought of all its Gaza victims as a PR disaster.”)

However, it would be too lenient to sigh and shrug it off, as some have done, as the sort of instance of “friendly fire” that “happens” on a tangled battlefield at night. As José Andrés, WCK’s founder, wrote in a New York Times op-ed, the three vehicles were “clearly marked” and traveling on a route and a schedule known to the IDF.

This sort of coordination—which the WCK has handled with great care and frequency—is known as “deconfliction.” The term usually applies to communications between rival nations’ militaries to let each other know when and where they’re conducting flights, maneuvers, and missile tests in order to avoid misinterpretations and thus reduce the risk of accidental conflict. U.S. and Russia regularly sent deconfliction notices to each other when their jets were scheduled to fly over or near Syria. The WCK and other aid groups have gone through this same process in timing and mapping out their convoy routes.

The significance of the WCK killings, besides the tragedy itself, is that it shows that the Israeli military is not paying as much attention as it should to its deconfliction arrangements. President Biden made this point clearly in a statement released Tuesday night. After declaring himself “outraged and heartbroken” by the deaths, he said:

Even more tragically, this is not a stand-alone incident. … This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult—because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers. … The United States has repeatedly urged Israel to deconflict their military operations against Hamas with humanitarian operations, in order to avoid civilian casualties.

Veteran foreign-policy journalist Laura Rozen, who has reported extensively on this failing, referred after the attack to Israel’s “bullshit deconfliction system,” noting that, whatever the precise cause of this incident, “Israel evidently did not care enough to make deconfliction a priority.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, president of Refugees International, tweeted shortly after the air strike, “Humanitarians have spent SIX MONTHS telling anyone who would listen that deconfliction is broken. President Biden and his senior officials know it. But they’ve done little beyond scold the Israelis over it while continuing to send weapons. This is the inevitable result.”

Israel is not the only obstacle to aid getting through to Gazans. The IDF has said that Hamas gunmen have intercepted food deliveries meant for Gazan civilians. Early on in the war, one Hamas leader said the terrorist organization, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, has no obligation to protect civilians in Gaza—that’s a matter, he said, for the U.N.

Still, it is salutary, after the WCK killing, for Biden to pin a “major” part of the problem on Israeli carelessness. Now that he has publicly criticized Israel for ignoring Americans’ pressure on deconfliction, maybe he will start doing more than merely scold.

All of the many Arab-Israeli wars in the last 76 years have ended as a result of pressure from outside powers. For a few months now, the outside powers with some relevance to the outcome of this war—the U.S., Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—have hammered out elaborate, precisely detailed plans for cease-fires, hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, and diplomatic moves beyond that. It’s time for all of them to step up the pressure.