In World Central Kitchen accident, Israeli tactics undermine Israel’s strategic interests

The tragic killing of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Gaza on Monday poses a new crisis for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he “deeply regrets” the incident involving chef Jose Andres’s nongovernmental aid organization. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has pledged that a credible investigation will be carried out and to also establish a joint IDF-aid NGO situation room.

Yet major questions must be asked of the Israeli intelligence and targeting cycle that precipitated this strike. The WCK says the Israel Defense Forces had been informed of its aid workers’ location. It says that those personnel had just unloaded aid into a warehouse and were then driving south in a three-car convoy along the Gazan coast. At least one of the WCK vehicles was clearly marked with WCK’s name and logo. These identifiers should have been easily visible to Israeli overhead surveillance platforms. While Hamas hides behind international aid organizations, even if the WCK vehicle identifiers were unclear, they should have triggered a safeguarding check by other Israeli surveillance platforms to ensure that the convoy was an enemy force. Why the convoy was nonetheless targeted thus requires answering. And while Netanyahu is right in saying that incidents like this “happen in wartime,” that rhetoric strikes the wrong tone.

After all, international concern over Israel’s war against Hamas has been growing significantly in recent weeks. And while this concern belies the fact that Hamas started this war, continues to hold Israeli hostages, and refuses to disarm, Israel’s international isolation is becoming highly problematic. Now, with three Britons, an Australian, a Pole, a Palestinian, and a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen having been killed in the WCK strike, international pressure on Israel will only grow further. This accident will provide a great dose of fuel to already-significant populist pressures on Western politicians.

It won’t be enough for Israel to say that this is a terrible mistake that isn’t going to be repeated. Up until now, Israeli efforts to ensure deconfliction with aid providers and to facilitate speedier aid flows into Gaza have been inadequate and subject to seemingly deliberate bureaucratic delays. While Israel has obvious and legitimate concerns about aid helping Hamas rather than Palestinian civilians (Hamas often seizes and stockpiles aid meant for civilians), it is unquestionable that Palestinian civilian suffering in Gaza is significant in scale. This is particularly true in terms of inadequate food supplies.

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At the strategic level, however, this incident could not come at a worst time for Israel.

With the IDF preparing to launch what will inevitably be a bloody offensive on Hamas’s last major redoubt in Rafah, it needs to retain all the international support it can. But even before this incident, the Europeans were openly calling for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire. Important U.S. allies in Jordan (Jordan faces rising domestic instability, a major U.S. concern) and the Sunni Arab monarchies are similarly urging the Biden administration to demand an unconditional ceasefire. That’s aside from the Biden administration’s political fear that its support of Israel will lead to a loss in Michigan come November. This accident thus weakens Israel’s ability to pursue its moral and strategic interest of degrading Hamas and rescuing its citizens. Netanyahu, Gallant, and the IDF should have been aware of this strategic context.

In turn, while Israel is likely to take rapid disciplinary action against those who authorized and carried out this strike, Netanyahu will have to prove to the international community that he’ll now allow greater aid into Gaza at lower risk to aid workers. If not, and even if unfairly, Israel’s access to U.S. weapons and diplomatic cover will be at risk.

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