Do not weaponize the tragic death of seven aid workers

by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD

In a statement issued Tuesday evening, April 4, President Joe Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” by the killings of seven humanitarian workers from World Central Kitchen, one of whom was a dual-American national.

This is an appropriate response to a wartime tragedy with the loss of humanitarian aid workers. The President insisted that Israel conduct a thorough investigation that “must be swift, it must bring accountability, and its findings must be made public.”

Israel Immediately Complied

The Prime Minister, the President, the Chief of Staff, and all of Israel’s top leadership accepted responsibility. They issued apologies and public appreciation for the World Central Kitchen’s mitzvah work since October 7.

A preliminary IDF assessment has been reported by “The Times of Israel”: “According to… [an] IDF’s [press] release, officials identified two gunmen entering an aid compound on trucks. They mistakenly presumed the gunmen were in the three vehicles leaving the compound and failed to identify markings that showed the trucks belonged to WCK, the group founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres, and which has delivered relief in Israel and Gaza during the current war.”

“Those who approved the strike were convinced that they were targeting armed Hamas operatives and not WCK employees,” the release said. “The strike on the aid vehicles is a grave mistake stemming from a serious failure due to a mistaken identification, errors in decision-making, and an attack contrary to the Standard Operating Procedures.”

Due to this inexcusable error, Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi fired the two senior officers supervising the operation. He reprimanded three others, including the commander of the Southern Command.

The IDF committed to a complete and transparent follow-up investigation: “An independent body will investigate the incident thoroughly,” Halevi said. “We will complete it in the next coming days. We will learn from the conclusions and implement them immediately. We will share, in full transparency, the findings of the investigation with the World Central Kitchen and other relevant international organizations. We see great importance in our continued delivery of humanitarian aid. To keep working to facilitate this vital effort.”

The IDF immediately responded by:

  • Creating a new Humanitarian Command Center to improve IDF coordination of aid distribution in Gaza
  • Opening the Erez Crossing to the Northern part of Gaza
  • Increased the number of trucks entering via Jordan from the Allenby Bridge crossing
  • Opened 20 bakeries in the Northern Strip, plus a waterline to supply the area
  • Other actions are in the process

Inflated Numbers of Aid Worker Fatalities

Joe Biden also stated that “even more tragically, this is not a standalone incident… [Israel’s war in Gaza] has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed.”

Is that true? On what basis?

The Biden Administration relies upon the statistic of 196 fatalities supplied by the UN’s Jamie McGoldrick. McGoldrick is the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Gaza and the West Bank). Ireland, a well-known critic of the Jewish State, appointed him. Ireland views the Israel-Hamas conflict through the lens of the Britain-Ireland struggle. The Jewish State is cast as the villain, as were the Brits. Ireland has joined with South Africa in charging “genocide” against Israel before the International Court of Justice.

A “Commentary Magazine Podcast” episode titled “The Israel Pile-On” discussed how the number of deceased “aid workers” became inflated to 196 by McGoldrick’s department. Seth Mandel noted that the UN does not restrict its count to the war zone in Gaza. Instead, it bundles “aid worker” deaths in Gaza with other deaths in the West Bank. The UN makes no distinction between aid staff dying while providing humanitarian assistance vs. 177 fatalities among UNRWA’s (Hamas-affiliated) personnel, “not all of whom were killed in the line of duty” as aid workers.

In other words, these figures are misleading, inflated, and not to be believed. As “Commentary Magazine” editor John Podhoretz adds, “If 200 aid workers had been killed by Israel in the past six months, this would not be the first time we would have heard about it. It would have been a major story [by a press eager to criticize the Jewish State].”

Accusations of IDF Intentionally Exacerbating Suffering in Gaza

Conspiracy theorists in the UN and elsewhere are accusing Israel of these killings to dissuade aid workers from combating food insecurity in Gaza. Is Israel starving the Gazan population? No!

In response, an April 6, “New York Post” editorial replies: “Nearly 300,000 tons of food and beverages have been delivered to Gaza since the start of the war. That alone, under the parameters set by the UN Food and Agriculture Office, should be enough to secure about half of Gazan’s food needs… provided it is not diverted elsewhere.”

“The vast majority of Gaza’s greenhouse acreage was still available as of mid-February (per the latest UN survey) – and the Strip was exporting [its excess] fruit and vegetables until… October 7.”

Matthew Continetti of the “Washington Free Beacon” added, “If ‘starving an entire population’ were Israel’s policy, what was the World Central Kitchen doing in Gaza in the first place.”

In actuality, the IDF has been working with World Central Kitchen since the outbreak of the war. With IDF coordination, WCK has successfully delivered 43 million meals in Gaza. No previous tragic death of WCK aid workers occurred. Had it been otherwise, this would have been all over CNN, the “New York Times,” and the “Washington Post”. Tuvia Tannenboim’s best-seller is entitled “Catch The Jew” (doing something wrong), and this week marked the first WCK-related opportunity for Israeli detractors to do so. This tragedy certainly is not a pattern, nor does it reflect a plan to starve the Gazans.

Nevertheless, President Biden claims that “this [tragedy] is a major reason why distributing the humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult – because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers.”

Left out of Biden’s assessment is the primary cause: Hamas. Hamas broke the ceasefire of October 6, launching a war. Then Hamas steals, hoards, and sells the aid; Hamas intimidates Palestinians who distribute aid rather than allow Hamas surrogates to do so.

The IDF Is Not The Only Military To Make Tragic Errors

Global outrage implies that the IDF intentionally targeted these specific aid workers. Israel is not to be permitted to make a single mistake. This is a distortion of “the fog” of war. Battlefield violence regrettably produces tragic mistakes. For example, the IDF mistakenly identified three escaped hostages as terrorists. Hamas dressed these frightened souls in prison attire. They mistakenly were shot and killed by the IDF, certainly not by design. So, too, one out of five IDF military fatalities have been victims of “friendly fire,” again clearly by mistake.

We should remember the October 7 attack as the largest and most painful example of an IDF tactical/strategic blunder. Also shocking was the IDF’s 12-hour delay in responding. Like all other armies, sometimes the IDF has unforced errors.

The concept of wartime mishaps leading to tragic accidents has not only occurred to Israel-at-war. It also happened to the US Armed Forces during Biden’s term as Vice President and then his term as President. Urban Warfare Veteran Colonel Richard Kemp of the UK points out that, “Nightmares like this [aid worker tragedy] occur frequently in the fog of war, with its confusion, chaos, danger, death, destruction, mental overload, human pressure and technical failure.”

“During President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, a US drone strike in Kabul mistakenly killed an aid worker and nine members of his family including seven children. General Mark Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained: ‘In a dynamic high-threat environment, the commanders on the ground had appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid. But after deeper post strike analysis we conclude that innocent civilians were killed.’ [Like the IDF episode this week] This strike also occurred due to a misidentified vehicle.”

“Yet another [aid worker] tragedy occurred in October 2015 [during Biden’s term as Vice President] when a US gunship attacked a hospital in Kunduz operated by Doctors Without Borders in which 42 staff and patients were killed and many wounded. The US attributed the incident to ‘avoidable human error compounded by process and equipment failures,’ with the aircrew misidentifying the hospital as a Taliban-controlled building.”

Israel Has Not Indiscriminately Killed Gaza Civilians

The Biden Administration reiterated its insistence that Israel has been insensitive to Gazan civilian life and to following international humanitarian standards for warfare. Yet this very week, White House spokesman John Kirby emphasized in a press conference, “They [the US State Department] have not found any incidents where the Israelis have violated International humanitarian law.”

In the current issue of “Newsweek Magazine,” long-time West Point Urban War Expert John Spencer affirmed that, “The IDF has gone to unprecedented lengths, not seen in the history of modern warfare, to abide by the laws of war and avoid harm to civilians, even when doing so puts the IDF’s soldiers at risk. This includes warning of impending attacks and creating safe corridors for civilians to evacuate. They have done this while continuing to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid and supplies.”

Obstacles to Ending The War

President Biden’s demand to Prime Minister Netanyahu was that this bloody war moves to an end. He is calling upon Israel for a ceasefire. Let’s be clear that Israel is not the lone obstacle. Israel has agreed several times to the ceasefire/hostage exchange proposals negotiated by the US, Egypt, and Qatar. However, seeing Biden’s rapid turn against Israel, Hamas has no reason to compromise. The longer they delay, the more Israeli concessions can be expected. Maximalist goals will now resurface, even though war can be concluded quickly if Hamas surrenders control of Gaza and returns the hostages. The Biden Administration could press Qatar to threaten expulsion of Hamas billionaire leaders if they do not comply. The US does have influence not only upon Israel but upon Qatar. That is where pressure should be exerted and not singularly upon Bibi Netanyahu.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”