Damaged UNRWA aid truck

A UNRWA aid truck was damaged by Israeli naval fire on February 5, 2024 while traveling north in Gaza.

(Photo: Thomas White)

In Likely Illegal Attack, Israeli Navy Fired on UN Food Convoy in Gaza

"Gaza has become very fast one of the most dangerous places to be an aid worker in," one UNRWA official said.

The Israeli navy fired on a United Nations convoy bringing much-needed aid to northern Gaza after Israel approved the route it would take.

The incident, which took place on February 5, was documented by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and confirmed by a CNN investigation published on Wednesday. The attack marked the last time that UNRWA attempted to deliver aid to northern Gaza, where 15.6% of children under two are acutely malnourished. The U.N.'s World Food Program (WFP) also announced on Monday that it was suspending aid to northern Gaza because it could not ensure the "safety and security" of workers or recipients.

"Gaza has become very fast one of the most dangerous places to be an aid worker in," Juliette Touma, UNRWA's global director of communications, told CNN.

The UNRWA convoy left southern Gaza for the north early on the morning of February 5. It consisted of 10 trucks filled with supplies and two armored vehicles marked with the U.N. logo.

UNRWA said it had confirmed the route, along the Al Rashid Road, with Israel's COGAT agency, as emails seen by CNN confirm.

"We share with the Israeli army the coordinates of the convoys, and the route of that convoy," Touma explained to CNN. "Only when the Israeli army gives us the okay, the green light, does UNRWA move. We don't move without that coordination."

"It's really difficult to see how this could be a legal attack."

The convoy reached an IDF holding point in central Gaza at 4:15 am local time; at 5:35 am, after waiting for more than an hour, aid workers heard gunfire and one of the trucks was hit. While no one was injured, much of the cargo was ruined, primarily wheat flour. When UNRWA later asked to continue through a checkpoint into northern Gaza, the Israeli military denied it access.

On the day of the attack, Thomas White, UNRWA's director of affairs in Gaza, posted images of the damaged truck on social media and said it had been hit by "Israeli naval gunfire."

UNRWA's head of legal in Gaza, Philippa Greer, reshared the images, saying she was on the convoy when it was struck and that "we were extremely lucky that no one was injured."

Using photo analysis and satellite images, CNN confirmed that the shot fired at the truck came from the direction of the sea and that three Israeli naval vessels carrying missiles were stationed offshore two hours after the attack.

The firing came after the International Court of Justice ruled that Israel was plausibly committing genocide in Gaza and ordered it to take steps to prevent acts of genocide, including delivering humanitarian aid to Gazans.

"It's really difficult to see how this could be a legal attack," Janina Dill, co-director at Oxford University's Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, told CNN. "At a minimum it would look like a very serious violation of international humanitarian law. Whether it's also criminal then depends on questions of intent, which is something that needs to be established in a court of law."

"There is also no safe route into Gaza for this aid, and for the humanitarian workers carrying it."

This is not the only time that Israel has interfered with the delivery of aid. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said on social media that half of the agency's requests to deliver aid to northern Gaza had been denied since the start of 2024. There have also been reports that Israeli soldiers have detained and abused relief workers, according to CNN. On Monday, the IDF shot at crowds waiting for aid in northern Gaza, killing at least one person and injuring at least 10, as Al Jazeera reported. The day before, Israeli forces also shot at people waiting for aid in Gaza City.

"They came here to find something, at least some flour. People put themselves and their lives in danger for little things for their families," one Palestinian man toldAl Jazeera. "We're below zero, there's nothing, I assure you that people will die of hunger. People now go to the garbage to find something to eat."

Israel's assault on Gaza has killed at least 29,313 people directly since October 7, with hunger and disease threatening more lives. Newcastle University lecturer Craig Jones told CNN that he thought the restriction of aid was a "deliberate strategy" on Israel's part. Human Rights Watch concluded in December that Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza, based in part on statements by Israeli ministers and politicians.

"Just like everyone is saying that there is no safe place," for civilians in Gaza, Jones told CNN, "there is also no safe route into Gaza for this aid, and for the humanitarian workers carrying it."

The attacks on aid convoys and workers come as Gaza as a whole faces the threat of famine, with those in northern Gaza particularly at risk.

"The U.N. has identified deep pockets of starvation and hunger in northern Gaza where people are believed to be on the verge of famine," Lazzarini said. "At least 300,000 people living in the area depend on our assistance for their survival."

At the same time, the desperation created by starvation conditions makes aid delivery more difficult. WFP made its decision to pause deliveries to the north after convoys Sunday and Monday were massed and looted on the way to Gaza City. Sunday's convoy was also met with gunfire in Gaza City, though WFP did not say who fired the shots.

To resume deliveries, WFP called for "significantly higher volumes" of food aid to Gaza, the reopening of northern border crossings to aid, an improved humanitarian communication system, and increased security for relief workers.

"Gaza is hanging by a thread, and WFP must be enabled to reverse the path towards famine for thousands of desperately hungry people," the agency said.

Lazzarini said that UNRWA had last been permitted to send food north of Wadi Gaza on January 23.

"Preventing access prevents lifesaving humanitarian aid," he said. "With the necessary political will, this can be easily reversed."

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