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Gaza’s invisible massacre: aid workers killed in record numbers

The vast majority of humanitarians killed are national staff, but as in most conflicts, little is heard about them.

On April 1, 2024, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen. Six of the seven were foreigners — Australian, British, Polish and Canadian-US citizens. One was Palestinian. Their deaths sparked a media barrage and diplomatic outrage around the world. The victims were named and profiled in news stories. World leaders made statements condemning the attack and demanding better protection of humanitarian workers. 

Three months earlier, two observers — and nobody else the authors could find — posted on X that the Israeli military had killed seven Palestinians who were distributing flour:

Today at the Nabulsi roundabout on the sea, the occupation killed 7 police officers who were on the mission of securing flour trucks distributed to shelter schools in Gaza.

Israeli military gunned down 7 civil servants at Nabulsi junction on the coastal road who were on the mission of securing flour trucks designed to be distributed to schools where IDP [internally displaced people] are sheltering in the city.

Monitoring group Insecurity Insight entered this event into its Aid in Danger database, which tracks violent incidents affecting aid workers. Yet it seems that no media outlet set out to verify and elaborate on this story — not a trace of it could be found on either Google or the Nexis Uni database.  Which raises a simple and important question: Who were these seven anonymous people who were killed? 

These two examples reveal the sharp disparity in the treatment of national versus international aid workers. Although both groups were working to provide aid under similar circumstances in the same conflict, the response to these killings could not be more different.

The rules of war require fighting forces to respect and protect humanitarian aid workers. Despite the long-standing conventions of international humanitarian law, aid workers continue to be killed and injured in conflict zones, either by misfortune or because they are directly targeted by fighting forces.

Those who bear the brunt of protection failures are national aid workers — people providing emergency relief to their own communities and compatriots. National aid staff are killed at 10 times the rate of their international counterparts, wounded nine times more often and kidnapped five times more frequently. 

Media reports of aid workers killed in a conflict can send a clear signal to the world that observance of the laws of war is crumbling. Yet such reports are rare — especially when those killed are exclusively national workers.  The war in Gaza has no 21st-century precedent that can approach the sheer carnage it has brought on humanitarians. More than 200 aid workers have been killed in seven months — exceeding the total number killed in the entire world in any year in the past two decades.

But in two other crucial respects, it fits the patterns that have been established across recent conflict settings, from Afghanistan to South Sudan. 

First, according to the two leading datasets in the field — compiled by the Aid Worker Security Database and Insecurity Insight — the numbers of national aid workers killed and injured are more than 10 times the corresponding numbers for international aid workers.

Second, media attention focuses overwhelmingly on the killings of international aid workers. 

Aid worker killings generally receive little media attention. The Aid Worker Security Database has recorded 23 precisely dated events since 1996 in which belligerents killed seven or more aid workers. Nexis Uni yielded just zero to four media mentions for 14 of them — a miniscule level of attention. 

Six incidents were found with somewhat higher media coverage of 9-13 reports. The targets and scale of these attacks suggest why they received greater coverage: six French citizens killed (Niger); a UN facility attacked (Nigeria); 17 nationals massacred while working for a French NGO (Sri Lanka); a death toll of 10, plus 16 injuries, for a charity closely associated with Princess Diana (Afghanistan); and an attack on a Czech NGO. Attacks on hospitals run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan (14 deaths) and Syria (9 deaths) drew more than 20 and 50 media reports, respectively. 

The 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, killing 22 people — including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and many Iraqi and international UN staff — generated dozens of media reports. And the date, August 19, came to be commemorated as World Humanitarian Day. But nothing can compare to the several thousand media reports around the World Central Kitchen incident.

It seems that most media coverage of attacks on aid workers is only likely to extend beyond the trivial if those targeted work either for the UN — which means the attack violates diplomatic protocols — or for a Western NGO that loudly condemns the incident. The killing of international staff amplifies a story. 

On occasion, determined NGOs and the UN have been able to break through the media barrier, at least to some extent, following attacks in NigeriaSri LankaSyria and Afghanistan (three separate attacks) without any deaths of international workers.

But the question remains: Why did the attack that killed the World Central Kitchen workers generate such enormous coverage? 

After all, internationals have died in equal or greater numbers on other occasions, with far less attention. 

Perhaps the relentless tally of civilian deaths in Gaza, including humanitarians, pushed Western publics to a tipping point. But what of the Palestinians distributing flour? And what of the many other humanitarian workers who die anonymously?

News is a competitive business. For most media houses, profit models demand that journalists report on what they believe the public will read or watch.  But lest we forget, national aid workers bear great — if rarely newsworthy — risks in the line of fire, and maybe it’s time to demand more news of their fates.

[Data underlying this article can be accessed here.]

Dr Sophia Dawkins is Associate Fellow with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, and Fellow at the Centre on Armed Groups. With a PhD in Political Science from Yale University, she has worked for 14 years in humanitarian practice.

Dr Michael Spagat is a professor of economics at Royal Holloway University of London, the Chair of Every Casualty Counts and former Chair of Action on Armed Violence. He has written widely on the quantitative analysis of war. Dr Spagat is the chair of Every Casualty Counts and Insecurity Insight, which provided data that we used in the article, is a member of ECC’s Casualty Recorders Network.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.