World Central Kitchen aid worker killings were not an isolated incident, but a systemic failure.

The killing of seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen may mark a turning point in support for Israel and for long frustrated efforts to bring relief to Palestinians on the brink of starvation.

But while the Israel Defense Forces investigation suggests this was an isolated “grave mistake,” the mounting toll faced by aid agencies throughout the war points instead to what they say are systemic failings in the IDF’s approach to protecting humanitarian workers in the Gaza Strip. According to the United Nations, a total of 224 humanitarian aid workers have been killed since the start of the war.

Monday’s strike has inflamed global outrage that has coalesced into international pressure, forcing Israel to open new points of entry for humanitarian aid.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have issued rare expressions of contrition about the killings, and the IDF said Friday that it had removed two senior officers from their posts after a probe found the targeting of the aid convoy with three successive missile strikes to be in violation of IDF protocol.

A man displays blood-stained British, Polish, and Australian passports after an Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, on April 1, 2024, killed seven World Central Kitchen workers.
The bloodstained British, Polish and Australian passports of the World Central Kitchen aid workers killed on Monday.Abdel Kareem Hana / AP

In a briefing on Friday, the IDF said WCK had coordinated its movements with Israeli authorities correctly, but the officers committed three errors. First, they either didn’t see or did not read a message identifying the convoy. They then decided to fire at the vehicle with insufficient cause, saying that one of the soldiers had identified someone entering one of the vehicles carrying what he thought was a gun but was instead likely a bag.

The third mistake, the IDF said, was that it continued to strike not just the first car, but the second and the third.

“The essential problem is not who made the mistakes,” António Guterres, the United Nations’ secretary-general, said on Friday in response to the IDF’s investigation. “It is the military strategy and procedures in place that allow for those mistakes to multiply time and time again.”

Unlike the killing of the WCK staff members, who were citizens of the U.S., Canada, Australia, Poland and the U.K., other fatal incidents that have involved mostly Palestinian aid workers have raised little outrage or notice from the Israeli or international governments.

In a review of documents, public statements and interviews, NBC News found a pattern of attacks on aid workers and humanitarian infrastructure in the months leading up to Monday’s attack. Those include two previous incidents involving WCK, the dropping of a 1,000-pound bomb near a building housing aid workers from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the bombing of the home of an aid worker for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, has sustained more attacks than any other agency, resulting in the deaths of 179 of its staff since Oct. 7.

The attacks have resulted in the direct curtailment of aid deliveries to Gaza’s starving population. Following Monday’s killing, at least four organizations stopped the delivery of aid into Gaza, citing danger to its staff, including WCK, which turned around three cargo ships en route to Gaza, returning 240 metric tons of much-needed food aid to port in Cyprus.

Palestinians walking in front of the closed headquarters of the World Central Kitchen on April 3, 2024,  west of Nuseirat, central Gaza.
Two women walk past the closed headquarters of the World Central Kitchen in central Gaza.Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via AP

But even prior to that, destruction and ongoing hostilities as well as the ensuing lawlessness had been choking off aid deliveries to much of Gaza, particularly in the north, where the threat of starvation is most acute.

To work in a war zone, aid agencies rely on a process called deconfliction, which allows the military to take measures to prevent unintentional attacks against aid workers, who are protected by international humanitarian law. In Gaza, agencies notify the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT — the official Israeli government body that liaises between aid agencies and the military and also controls access for staff and aid shipments into Gaza — often daily of the movements of their convoys, and provide the coordinates of their guesthouses and warehouses.

Still, they were repeatedly attacked.

“The deconfliction system is effectively a fiction,” said Ciarán Donnelly, senior vice president for crisis response recovery and development at the IRC.

In a news conference on Thursday, Christopher Lockyear, secretary general for MSF, said, “This pattern of attacks is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence. It not only shows the failure of deconfliction measures, it shows the futility of these measures in a war fought with no rules.”

That “these attacks on humanitarian workers are allowed to happen is a political choice,” Lockyear said. “Israel faces no political cost.”

A trail of attacks

NBC News has learned of at least two other occasions in which World Central Kitchen workers had come under fire. On March 30, just two days before the deadly convoy strikes that killed seven WCK workers, the aid organization said it believes an Israeli sniper fired at one of their vehicles, damaging a side-view mirror. WCK said no one was injured and that it reported the incident to the IDF.

A week earlier, on March 23, a convoy carrying WCK food that was part of the first shipment received by sea in a maritime humanitarian operation inaugurated by the group, was at the center of a chaotic scene at Kuwaiti Roundabout in Gaza City. Witnesses told an NBC News crew on the ground that Israeli forces fired on Palestinian civilians who were gathered waiting to receive the aid.

Nineteen people were killed in the incident, Gaza’s government media office said, placing the blame on Israeli forces who it said had opened fire with tanks and machine guns.

In footage filmed by NBC News, bloodied bodies are seen lying among scattered cardboard boxes labeled World Central Kitchen. An injured man was laid across a plastic tarp printed with a yellow and green paella pan, the WCK logo.

WCK says that in both incidents the group had communicated its movements to COGAT, as part of standard deconfliction procedure.

NBC News contacted the IDF on Friday for comment on the incidents mentioned by the WCK, along with six other incidents involving aid workers detailed in this story, and has not received a response for any of them. In previous attacks on aid convoys, including at the Kuwaiti and Al-Nabulsi roundabouts, the IDF had cited self-defense or the need to disperse crowds as the reasons for opening fire.

Donnelly of the IRC said in an interview with NBC News that the organization informs the Israeli military of its fixed locations as well as its planned movements through COGAT. Nevertheless, on Jan. 18, several IRC staff were injured when a bomb exploded just yards from an IRC compound in Al-Mawasi, a town outside Khan Younis in southern Gaza, he said.

An assessment by the U.N., which has been reviewed by NBC News, concluded the explosive used was likely an MK83 1,000-pound guided bomb, a munition produced in the United States.

The IRC says it has received six different explanations from the IDF about what happened, from initially denying involvement to acknowledging it was trying to strike a nearby target to blaming a faulty tail fin on the bomb.

Donnelly said the IRC chose the compound specifically to avoid risk. It was in an area hundreds of yards from the nearest building, constructed on sandy soil that would have made it a poor location for digging tunnels, making it a less likely target for IDF strikes seeking to bomb Hamas tunnel infrastructure.

Donnelly said there are really only two plausible explanations for why the IDF hasn’t been able to effectively deconflict in Gaza.

“One is a complete breakdown of command and control,” he said. “And the other is a disregard for the deconfliction system, an intentionality behind the attacks.”

Palestinians look a vehicle in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, on April 2, 2024, the day after it was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike that killed World Central Kitchen workers.
Palestinians look at a vehicle Monday in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza, the day after it was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike that killed World Central Kitchen workers.Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Another aid group, American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera), is among those that suspended operations in Gaza on Tuesday, citing the risk to the safety of its staff.

On March 8, one of its staff workers, Mousa Shawwa, was killed in an airstrike while sheltering with his family at a known location in Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza.

In a statement, Anera said Shawwa, a logistics coordinator, had just returned to the shelter after delivering aid when he was killed, “despite the fact the coordinates of his shelter had been provided for the purpose of protecting him on several occasions, including just days before the attack.”

Anera President and CEO Sean Carroll told NBC News he’d like to believe the strike on Shawwa wasn’t intentional.

“There’s nothing that indicates he was targeted, but they had the coordinates of the shelter and the bomb killed him and went straight into his living room.”

Shawwa’s 6-year-old son, Karim, was also wounded and later died of his injuries.

Anera said it had also coordinated through COGAT, calling this death “an undeniable case of deconfliction not working” and demanding an independent investigation. The group tells NBC it has received no explanation from the Israeli military for the strike.

MSF, the medical relief organization, which has had several of its staff killed in military strikes, reported several incidents where its positions were targeted despite having notified the IDF.

On Feb. 20, the group says an Israeli tank fired on a house in Al-Mawasi sheltering MSF colleagues and their families, killing two people.

A month earlier, on Jan. 9, MSF said a suspected tank shell was fired at another shelter in Khan Younis, killing the 5-year-old daughter of an MSF staff member.

And on Nov. 18, the group says a convoy of its vehicles was targeted by Israeli sniper fire after being turned away from a checkpoint on an IDF-approved route while trying to evacuate staff from their offices in Gaza City. Two people were killed in that incident.

In all cases, MSF said it had communicated its movements and locations with the IDF and reported the incidents through COGAT. It has received no response or explanation for the attacks.

Project HOPE, Save the Children and Humanity and Inclusion have also had staff members killed in the war. UNRWA, which employs mostly Palestinian staff, has had the majority of the 224 aid worker deaths.

In a statement issued after the release of the IDF’s report, WCK said the Israeli military could not be trusted to impose accountability for its own actions. “The IDF cannot credibly investigate its own failure in Gaza,” it said.

“However it is also clear from their preliminary investigation that the IDF has deployed deadly force without regard to its own protocols, chain of command and rules of engagement. The IDF has acknowledged that our teams followed all proper communications procedures. The IDF’s own video fails to show any cause to fire on our personnel convoy, which carried no weapons and posed no threat.”

“Without systemic change, there will be more military failures, more apologies and more grieving families,” the statement said.