Israeli military pledges investigation into strikes that killed World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza

"This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations," the charity's CEO said.

Israeli military pledges investigation into strikes that killed World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza

Relatives and friends mourn by the body of Saif Abu Taha, a staff member of the US-based aid group World Central Kitchen who was killed as Israeli strikes hit a convoy of the NGO delivering food aid in Gaza a day earlier, during his funeral in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024.

Ali Jadallah | Anadolu | Getty Images

Seven staff members of the non-profit food charity World Central Kitchen were killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza overnight, the organization said in a statement Tuesday morning, leading it to pause operations in the war-ravaged and blockaded territory.

"World Central Kitchen is devastated to confirm seven members of our team have been killed in an IDF strike in Gaza," the group said. "The WCK team was traveling in a deconflicted zone in two armored cars branded with the WCK logo and a soft skin vehicle."

"Despite coordinating movements with the IDF, the convoy was hit as it was leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse, where the team had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid brought to Gaza on the maritime route."

The WCK said it "is pausing our operations immediately in the region" and "will be making decisions about the future of our work soon."

In emailed comments attributed to spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military expressed "the deepest condolences of the Israel Defense Forces to the families and the entire World Central Kitchen family" and "sincere sorrow to our allied nations who have been doing and continue to do so much to assist those in need."

Hagari said that the IDF was "reviewing the incident at the highest levels to understand the circumstances of what happened" and that it "will be opening a probe to examine this serious incident further" to "help us reduce the risk of such an event from occurring again."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the aid worker deaths are a "tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people in the Gaza Strip. This happens in war, and we will investigate it to the end. We are in contact with the governments involved, and we will do everything to insure that this does not happen again."

Two men become emotional and comfort each other as they receive the bodies of World Central Kitchen workers who were killed by Israeli air strikes on April 02, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. 

Ahmad Hasaballah | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Footage of the attack's aftermath provided by Reuters and Getty show bloodied and mangled bodies, some wearing World Central Kitchen shirts and protective gear. One photo shows a white car with the organization's logo on its roof and a large hole blown into it.

The WCK was founded as a charity food organization in 2010 by Michelin-starred celebrity chef Jose Andres after a major earthquake hit Haiti. It has since provided hundreds of millions of meals in conflict zones around the world, including in Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion of 2022, and helped provide the first seaborne shipment of aid to Gaza from Cyprus in March.

"This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war. This is unforgivable," the organization's CEO Erin Gore said.

"Today @WCKitchen lost several of our sisters and brothers in an IDF air strike in Gaza," WCK's founder Andres wrote. "I am heartbroken and grieving for their families and friends and our whole WCK family ... The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing."

According to WCK the seven aid workers killed are from Australia, Poland, the U.K., a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, and the Palestinian territories.

'A human tragedy'

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese confirmed the death of 44-year-old Australian aid worker Lalzawmi Frankcom, telling press in televised comments, "This is a human tragedy that should never have occurred, that is completely unacceptable and Australia will seek full and proper accountability."

Albanese called for a lasting cease-fire in Gaza and for more help for those suffering from "tremendous deprivation."

Australian Lalzawmi Frankcom (L) and Chef Oli (R), employees of the US-based international volunteer aid organization World Central Kitchen (WCK), who were killed in an Israeli attack on a vehicle belonging to WCK, are seen in a video taken before the attack in Deir al-Balah, Gaza on April 02, 2024. 

World Central Kitchen | Handout | Anadolu | Getty Images

Other international leaders are also demanding accountability in the aftermath of the attack. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez made a statement while visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. WCK's founder, Jose Andres, is Spanish-American.

"I hope and demand that the Israeli government clarifies as soon as possible the circumstances of this brutal attack that has taken the lives of seven aid workers who were doing nothing more than helping," Reuters reports Sanchez as saying, after visiting the Jabal el-Hussein camp for Palestinian refugees in Amman.

"It is urgent that Israel allow access to humanitarian aid in Gaza, as demanded by various international bodies, including the International Court of Justice," the Spanish leader added.

Poland's foreign minister similarly said he was seeking explanations from the Israeli government.

"I personally asked the Israeli ambassador @YacovLivne for urgent explanations," Radoslaw Sikorski wrote in a post on social media platform X.

"He assured me that Poland would soon receive the results of the investigation into this tragedy," he said, adding that Poland's government is starting its own investigation. "I join in my condolences to the family of our brave volunteer and all civilian victims in the Gaza Strip."

Famine and obstacles to aid

Nearly six months into Israel's war in Gaza, more than half a million people in the besieged enclave are facing famine, the U.N. and other aid organizations warn.

Israel cut food and water supplies to the Gaza Strip, home to roughly 2.3 million people, after the Hamas-led terror attacks of Oct. 7 that killed some 1,200 people in Israel and took a further 253 hostage.

The subsequent Israeli aerial bombardment and land invasion has killed more than 32,000 people in Gaza, Palestinian health authorities say. In recent months, aid groups and Western government officials, including U.S. lawmakers, have called on Israel to allow more aid into the Gaza Strip, saying it is hindering the delivery of vital supplies like food and medicine.

Boys sit with empty pots as displaced Palestinians queue for meals provided by a charity organisation ahead of the fast-breaking "iftar" meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. 

Said Khatib | Afp | Getty Images

Juliette Touma, director of communications at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), said the lack of humanitarian access had made the situation in northern Gaza significantly worse.

"This is where starvation has been identified. We could have prevented that situation, it's a man-made situation," she told CNBC in mid-March. Gaza's health authorities say more than 20 children have died from malnutrition.

The U.S. began airdropping aid packages into Gaza in early March, a method that aid groups say is highly inefficient — and one that critics say wouldn't be necessary if the U.S. exercised its leverage over Israel to push it to allow more aid trucks into the Gaza Strip.

"If there was one item the Israeli authorities think should not enter, they will stop the whole truck and send it back without telling us the item that was denied access," Nebal Farsakh, spokesperson for the Palestine Red Crescent Society, told CNBC from the West Bank.  

A spokesperson for the IDF said it continues to expand its efforts to enable the entry of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. "The IDF takes great effort to facilitate the entrance of humanitarian aid and acts to enable the entrance of such in a safe and coordinated manner," the spokesperson told CNBC in March.

The staff of World Central Kitchen killed overnight were helping to transport food delivered via sea corridor from Cyprus, a means of transport increasingly crucial as land deliveries are hindered.

The organization says it has been providing 170,000 hot meals a day to Palestinians in Gaza via two main kitchens — one in the southern border city of Rafah and one in the central town of Deir al-Balah — and via 68 additional community kitchens it supports throughout the Gaza Strip.

In his written comments to the press, the IDF's Hagari lauded the work of WCK and noted that it provided meals to Israelis following the Oct. 7 attacks.

"For the last few months, the IDF has been working closely with the World Central Kitchen to assist them in fulfilling their noble mission of helping bring food and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. WCK also came to help Israelis after the massacre of October 7th; they were one of the first NGOs here," he said.

"The work of WCK is critical; they are on the frontlines of humanity."

— CNBC's Dalya Al Masri contributed to this report.