World Central Kitchen | The charity that Israel bombed in Gaza

Israeli forces say ‘misidentification at night’ led to the bombing of an aid convoy belonging to the charity in which seven of its members were killed, but its founder Jose Andres says the IDF systematically targeted the aid workers, ‘car by car’

Updated - April 07, 2024 11:59 am IST

Published - April 07, 2024 02:15 am IST

Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024.

Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip on April 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

“I don’t open restaurants, I tell stories,” two-star Michelin chef Jose Andres said in an interview in January. Little could he have imagined back then of the sad chapter that would bookend the story three months later. On the night of April 2, seven workers of his non-profit aid group, World Central Kitchen, operating in Gaza, were killed in Israeli strikes.

Hamas’s cross-border attacks of October 7 spawned a full-blown Israeli invasion of Gaza costing over 33,000 Palestinian lives, mostly women and children, and injuring more than 75,000. Along with air strikes and ground operations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has imposed a choke-hold on the enclave.

Tel Aviv’s measures to this end have included discrediting the UN Relief Works Agency, accusing it of harbouring extremists within its fold, and hampering the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Together, these actions have wrung the territory dry of food and water, with a famine looming in the enclave.

Stepping up to these challenges was the World Central Kitchen (WCK), which tried to minimise the fallout from Israeli actions by preparing 42 million meals through 68 community kitchens on the Strip. Before that, the group served 1.75 million hot meals to Israelis displaced by the Hamas attacks. This is, however, set to become a thing of the past as the WCK, along with ANERA and Project HOPE — two other groups carrying out aid work in the territory — has paused operations in the attack’s aftermath.

Before the Israeli Defence Forces’ attack, the WCK was engaged in a range of activities on the Strip. In the words of Mr. Andres, “We don’t just feed people, we create systems”; a spirit best reflected by the makeshift jetty the charity built in the southwest of Gaza using building rubble. Expanding on this, the cooks’ collective helped facilitate a maritime corridor to bring humanitarian aid from Cyprus to Gaza with funding from the UAE and in collaboration with the Spanish NGO Open Arms.

Last month’s pilot project saw 200 tonnes of aid arrive at the jetty. Soon after, a second convoy of 332 tonnes set sail from Cyprus on March 30. WCK workers, who had overseen the offloading at the pier, had unloaded 100 tonnes of aid at a warehouse in Deir-al-Balah in central Gaza and were returning to Rafah in the south when their convoy was hit on April 2. That they were travelling on a route pre-approved by the Israeli Army, or in a band of three vehicles, of which two were armoured and had giant logos of the WCK emblazoned on top, had little bearing on the IDF which proceeded with the strike.

Mr. Andres, while appearing on a talk show in November, said he was proud that the individuals of his group who possessed the courage to move into a disaster zone when others stepped away from it; just that this time around, they were forced to pay the price for that courage.

‘Grave mistake’

In the wake of the strike, the ship with the remaining 220 tonnes of food returned to Cyprus while the IDF held an inquiry. Headed by a former General of the Israeli Army, the inquiry announced the findings on April 5, leading to the dismissal of two officers. Mr. Netanyahu, while calling the attack ‘tragic’, callously remarked, “These incidents happen during wartime.” However, the Israeli Army put out a rare admission in which it acknowledged that the strike was a ‘grave mistake’ and said ‘misidentification at night’ had led to the error in judgment.

But this is not the first time aid delivery has come under attack in Gaza. On February 29, Israeli forces fired at an aid distribution point in northern Gaza causing a stampede and killing 115 Palestinians. Similar incidents, though smaller in magnitude, were reported through March. Also prevalent is the targeting of police officials guarding aid distribution works, who the IDF says nurture militants within their ranks.

Given that the victims of the latest strike involved six foreigners — three Britons, an Australian, a Polish national, and a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada — along with a Palestinian driver, the attack triggered sharp responses from world powers, who until now had largely turned a blind eye towards the plight of aid workers in Gaza. U.S. President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk are among the leaders who have criticised Israel now.

For Mr. Andres, who called out the IDF for systematically targeting his team “car by car”, the incident marks an about-turn in his stand towards the conflict. What began in the form of support for Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of the Hamas attack — so much so that the 54-year-old chef even criticised a Spanish Minister for accusing the Jewish nation of committing war crimes in Gaza — has given way to the condemnation of the Netanyahu government’s ‘indiscriminate killing’.

He also said Israel should stop using food as a weapon — a sentiment echoed by the International Court of Justice when it asked Israel to ensure an unfettered flow of food aid into the enclave.

This is not the WCK’s first brush with casualties. According to the BBC, the charity lost seven volunteers in Ukraine, which was the first active conflict zone it served in. Until then, it specialised in preparing and distributing food in disaster zones.

Mr. Andres was vacationing in the Cayman Islands when he learned about the Haiti earthquake in 2010 which killed more than 2,00,000 people. It was then that the idea for a collective struck him; one that inspires cooks and chefs to join the ranks of first responders, one that puts them on the front line and teaches them to adapt to situations.

The WCK is a non-profit that functions with a “private sector mentality”, says its former CEO Nate Mook in the Ron Howard-directed documentary We Feed People. The NGO cooks by procuring food locally and employing local infrastructure.

Global operations

After its Haiti stint, the WCK helped people during earthquakes in Turkey, Morocco and Japan, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and the wildfires in Chile. Riding on the goodwill garnered through these activities, the charity functions on donations. In 2022, it raked in $518 million and Mr. Andres received $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2021.

The group has not been without its share of controversies. The charity acknowledged reports of fraud in 2023 and said it was looking into its activities in Ukraine, where it said it was spending some $2 million per day. Media reports had also blamed Mr. Andres for asking volunteers to go to places in Turkey that were deemed too dangerous after earthquakes.

Yet, Mr. Andres and his U.S.-based charity were nominated for the Nobel Prize by Democrats. He became a naturalised U.S. citizen during Barack Obama’s presidency and is currently a co-chair of President Biden’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.

Mr. Andres, who wears his immigrant badge with pride, also had a run-in with former President Donald Trump, pulling out of a restaurant project at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, when he derided Mexican migrants.

Speaking about the WCK’s future in Gaza after the strike, Mr. Andres had said “everything has its time” — something that is quickly running out for the people of Gaza.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.