Israel’s Account of Attack on Aid Convoy Raises Wider Legal Questions, Experts Say

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

The Israeli military announced on Friday that its preliminary investigation had revealed a string of errors that led to the deaths of seven aid workers. It took responsibility for the failure, saying that there were “no excuses” and citing “a mistaken identification, errors in decision-making and an attack contrary to the standard operating procedures.”

But the description of events that has 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 has been complying with international law in its conduct of the war in Gaza more generally.

The first, most basic principle of international humanitarian law is that civilians cannot be targets of a military attack. Militaries must have procedures in place to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets.

“In the case of doubt as to a convoy or person’s status, one is to presume civilian status,” said Tom Dannenbaum, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University who is an expert on humanitarian law. “And so, attacking in the context of doubt is itself a violation of international humanitarian law.”

Humanitarian aid workers and aid facilities are entitled to heightened protections, because they deliver relief to endangered civilians, said Janina Dill, a co-director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict.

“These are civilian vehicles, first and foremost,” she said, referring to the World Central Kitchen convoy. “They’re also vehicles involved in humanitarian assistance missions, which are specifically protected. The people on these trucks should be presumed to be individuals involved in humanitarian assistance missions, which means they are protected persons.”

Israeli soldiers presumed that some of the World Central Kitchen vehicles were carrying militants, according to the Israeli military’s explanation, even though they had been observed joining an aid convoy, and later departing from a food warehouse.

Some officers did not review the military’s own documentation about the convoy to confirm that it included cars in addition to the trucks. If they had, they would have discovered that the cars had received approvals from the military.

The cars were each marked with the World Central Kitchen logo, but the military said that its preliminary inquiry found that drone footage had not captured the organization’s logo in the dark and that a drone operator had mistakenly identified an aid worker as a member of an armed Palestinian group with a gun. (The worker was most likely carrying a bag.)

Once the Israeli soldiers involved decided to strike one car, they then failed to give a presumption of civilian status to the other individuals riding in the cars, who were not believed to be armed.

Instead, the soldiers wrongly assumed that all three cars were carrying militants, officials said, and targeted the cars in turn, even as survivors from the preceding strikes sought safety in the remaining vehicles. This failed to meet the Israeli military’s rules of engagement, officials said.

Having an adequate deconfliction process can be an element of militaries’ compliance with international humanitarian law. Deconfliction, a process in which aid organizations inform the military of their planned movements and get approval to take a particular route, is used in conflicts worldwide to enable humanitarian aid workers to work in areas where combat is taking place.

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 strike, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said he had ordered the establishment of a “joint situation room” between the military’s southern command and aid groups.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Friday that the United States wanted to see “a much better system for deconfliction and coordination so that the humanitarian workers, the folks who are delivering the aid, can do it safely and securely.”

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

“The use of prearranged, deconflicted routes and a humanitarian organization’s insignia are intended to avoid mistaken targeting and to place even greater weight on the presumption of civilian status,” Dannenbaum said.

He noted that it is a war crime under international customary law to attack with reckless disregard for whether the targets are civilians. (To be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court, however, the attack would have to knowingly target civilians, rather than merely recklessly harm them.)

“Taken together, these rules and the description of what occurred in this case strongly indicate a violation of international humanitarian law and provide 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 that the military 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 had communicated its route to the I.D.F. and that was taking a route the I.D.F. allegedly designated as safe, and you still misidentify that vehicle as a military objective, it is a very safe inference that your precautions in attack are insufficient, that the I.D.F.’s procedures for target verification are insufficient.” (I.D.F. refers to the Israeli military.)

That could be shaping Israel’s conduct of hostilities in ways that go far beyond this particular attack, she said, raising concerns about whether the military is meeting basic threshold requirements under international law.

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

At least 196 aid workers were killed in Gaza from October 2023 to late March, according to a statement by McGoldrick, the senior U.N. relief official. The Aid Worker Security Database, a U.S.A.I.D.-supported 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, the secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization with operations in Gaza, said at a news conference on Thursday. “Our movements are shared, coordinated and identified already. This is about impunity, a total disregard for the laws of war. And now it must become about accountability.”

The Israeli military did not immediately comment about its reaction to the contention by some international law experts that the attack should be investigated as a war crime, and that it raised questions about whether military protocols were legally sufficient.

Tomer Herzig, a lawyer in the Israeli military’s international law department, said last week that when investigators concluded their initial inquiry, they would pass their findings along to the military’s top prosecutor. “She needs to look at the findings and she needs to decide whether there’s suspicion of criminal conduct,” Herzig told reporters.

“When you have a pattern of attacks, either against protected objects or against protected persons,” Dill said, “there’s always the suspicion that either 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 take it into their own hands to put their own judgment above international humanitarian law, or above the rules of engagement.”

Asked last week whether the military was concerned that more cases of indiscriminate fire had occurred over months of intensive Israeli fire across the Gaza Strip, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, its spokesman, did not provide a substantive answer.

He told reporters on Thursday that the Israeli military would change its procedures to ensure that aid group vehicles were clearly marked and easily identifiable by troops, without laying out further details.

The Israeli military announced that it had dismissed two officers from the brigade responsible for the attack. In addition, the military chief of staff will formally reprimand the commander of the Southern Command as well as two other senior officers, the military said in a statement.

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

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.





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