Israel's version of the global central kitchen strike raises broader legal questions, experts say

Israel's account of the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy raises important legal questions, even if the attack was the result of a series of mistakes, experts say.

The Israeli army announced on Friday that its preliminary investigation had revealed a series of errors that led to the deaths of seven aid workers. He took responsibility for the failure, saying there was “no excuse” and citing “misidentification, errors in decision making and an attack against standard operating procedures.”

But the description of events that emerged raises broader questions about the military's ability to identify civilians and its procedures for protecting them, legal experts told the New York Times — including new concerns about whether Israel complied with international law in its conduct of the operation. war in Gaza more generally.

The first, fundamental principle of international humanitarian law is that civilians cannot be the target of a military attack. The military must have procedures to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets.

“When in doubt about the status of a convoy or a person, civilian status should be presumed,” said Tom Dannenbaum, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an expert in humanitarian law. “And therefore, attacking in a context of doubt is itself a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Aid workers and aid facilities are entitled to greater protections as they provide relief to civilians in danger, said Janina Dill, co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.

“These are civilian vehicles first and foremost,” he said, referring to the World Central Kitchen convoy. “They are also vehicles involved in humanitarian assistance missions, which are specifically protected. It should be assumed that the people on these trucks are people involved in humanitarian assistance missions, which means they are protected people.”

Israeli soldiers assumed that some of the World Central Kitchen vehicles were carrying militants, according to the Israeli military's explanation, even though they were seen joining a humanitarian convoy and then leaving from a food warehouse.

Some officials did not review military documentation for the convoy to confirm that it included cars in addition to trucks. If they had, they would have discovered that the cars had received military approval.

Each car was marked with the World Central Kitchen logo, but the military said its preliminary investigation had found that drone footage had not captured the organization's logo in the dark and that a drone operator had misidentified a humanitarian worker as a member of an armed organization. Palestinian group with a gun. (The worker most likely had a bag with him.)

Once the Israeli soldiers involved decided to hit a car, they failed to give the presumption of civilian status to the other people in the cars, who were believed to be unarmed.

Instead, soldiers mistakenly thought all three cars were carrying militants, officials said, and targeted the cars in turns, even as survivors of previous attacks sought safety in the remaining vehicles. This failed to comply with the Israeli army's rules of engagement, officials said.

Having an adequate deconfliction process can be a key element in ensuring military compliance with international humanitarian law. Deconfliction, a process in which humanitarian organizations inform the military of their planned movements and gain approval to take a particular route, is used in conflicts around the world to allow humanitarian workers to work in areas where fighting.

For months, aid organizations have urged the Israeli military to open a direct channel with Israeli soldiers operating in Gaza so as to avoid deadly miscommunications, said Jamie McGoldrick, a senior U.N. relief official. After the attack, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said he had ordered the creation of a “joint room” between the southern military command and humanitarian groups.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Friday that the United States wants to see “a much better system for deconfliction and coordination so that humanitarian workers, the people who deliver the aid, can do so safely and securely.” .

David Cameron, the British foreign secretary, also called for “reform of Israel's deconfliction mechanism,” in a statement on Friday.

“The use of pre-established, non-conflict routes and the insignia of a humanitarian organization are intended to avoid erroneous targeting and to give even greater weight to the presumption of civilian status,” Dannenbaum said.

He noted that it is a war crime under customary international law to attack regardless of whether the targets are civilians. (To be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court, however, the attack would have to knowingly target civilians, rather than simply harming them recklessly.)

“Taken together, these rules and the description of what happened in this case strongly indicate a violation of international humanitarian law and provide a clear reason to investigate this as a war crime,” he said.

The Israeli military's description of how troops violated protocols raises broader concerns about the procedures the army is using to identify military targets and authorize attacks, Dill said.

“If you have a humanitarian assistance vehicle that is clearly marked,” Dill said, “that communicated its route to the IDF and that was taking a route that the IDF supposedly indicated was safe, and you continue to misidentify that vehicle as a military target, it is a very safe inference that your precautions in the attack are insufficient, that the IDF procedures for target verification are insufficient.” (IDF refers to the Israeli army.)

This could affect Israel's conduct of hostilities in ways that go far beyond this particular attack, he said, raising concerns about whether the military is meeting minimum threshold requirements under international law.

“There is a pattern of attacks against humanitarian assistance missions here,” Dill said.

According to a statement by McGoldrick, the UN's top relief official, at least 196 aid workers were killed in Gaza from October 2023 to the end of March. The Aid Worker Security Database, a USAID-backed project that tracks attacks on aid workers around the world, listed the same total.

“This pattern of attacks is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence,” Christopher Lockyear, secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization working in Gaza, said at a news conference Thursday. “Our movements are already shared, coordinated and identified. It's about impunity, about total disregard for the laws of war. And now it must become a question of responsibility.”

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on its reaction to the argument of some international law experts that the attack should be investigated as a war crime and raised doubts about the sufficient legality of the military protocols.

Tomer Herzig, a lawyer in the Israeli military's international law department, said last week that once investigators concluded their initial probe, they would forward their findings to the top military prosecutor. “You have to look at the results and decide whether there is suspicion of criminal conduct,” Herzig told reporters.

“When you have a pattern of attacks, whether against protected objects or protected people,” Dill said, “there is always the suspicion that the rules of engagement in that particular operational context are too lax or, even worse, that you have a command problem – that some commanders or units make the decision to place their own judgment above international humanitarian law or rules of engagement.”

Asked last week whether the military was concerned that multiple cases of indiscriminate fire had occurred during months of intense Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, its spokesman, did not provide a substantive response.

He told reporters on Thursday that the Israeli army would change its procedures to ensure that aid groups' vehicles are clearly marked and easily identifiable by troops, without providing further details.

The Israeli army announced that it had fired two officers from the brigade responsible for the attack. Additionally, the military chief of staff will formally reprimand the commander of the Southern Command and two other senior officers, the military said in a statement.

A military spokesman, Peter Lerner, She said in a statement on social media that Israeli forces will integrate lessons learned from this episode into their operations to prevent similar situations in the future.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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