Humanitarian Notification in Gaza is Broken: How to Document and Respond When Things Go Wrong

(Originally published by Just Security on July 2, 2024)

Before delivering food aid in Gaza on April 1, staff members at the aid organization World Central Kitchen (WCK) did what many aid organizations do in conflict settings: they notified Israeli forces of their activities. Following notification, they also agreed with the Israeli military on a pre-planned travel route for their food aid convoy. However, despite notifying Israel and following the travel route, after leaving a food storage facility, three trucks in the WCK convoy were deliberately struck by Israel, killing seven aid workers.

Sadly, this was only one of several incidents in Gaza in which humanitarians, despite notifying Israeli forces of their locations or movements, were later struck by Israeli forces. These patterns have been repeated in other conflict zones like Syria and Yemen, according to anecdotal evidence, raising concerns that notification is failing to facilitate protection for humanitarian organizations and ultimately harming the beneficiaries that humanitarians serve. Despite these concerns, there are no official follow-up actions when such incidents occur. Nor are there even data tracking systems to collect comprehensive data about when notifying humanitarians are struck in the first place.

We propose two measures that can start to fill these gaps. The first is a centralized incident report portal, to be launched by an intergovernmental entity, for all humanitarians participating in notification systems to formally report when they are struck in any conflict. This can help humanitarians, warring parties, and external observers track incident rates and glean patterns about where things are going wrong. The second is a set of policies that establish what should happen when humanitarians are struck. These policies should primarily promote internal self-corrections within participating warring parties, but where warring parties demonstrate a record of noncompliance with their legal obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL), there should be an expectation that the international community will pursue external accountability.

Repeated Strikes and a Lack of Consistent Follow-Up Procedures in Gaza

While there is no comprehensive data that tracks incidents involving what we refer to as “notifying humanitarians” (i.e. humanitarians that have communicated their fixed locations and/or planned movements to participating warring parties via notification systems), new reports by Human Rights Watch and the New York Times show that the now infamous strike against WCK on April 1 was not the only time a humanitarian organization notified Israel only to later be struck in Gaza. Collectively, these reports identify eight other incidents of Israeli military action harming notifying humanitarians. On February 1, for example, a multi-story apartment building housing Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff and their families was hit by Israeli tank fire without warning, killing two people and injuring seven others. This happened despite MSF having notified Israel of the building’s location and the Israeli military confirming its coordinates. In another attack on March 8, an aid worker for the American Near East Refugee Association (ANERA) was killed in his home in an Israeli airstrike without warning, despite ANERA notifying the Israeli military of the building’s location.

Israel’s responses to incidents involving notifying humanitarians have been inconsistent and have left humanitarians wanting. In WCK’s case, following international outcry, Israel conducted a swift internal investigation and released its findings to the public, which concluded that its strikes targeting WCK’s aid convoy were in violation of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) protocol. In a public statement, the IDF detailed some of the failures that led to the strikes, announced internal accountability steps and, one week later, created a new Humanitarian Coordination and Deconfliction Cell to help coordinate aid. Yet this did little to assuage WCK’s concerns about staff safety, and accordingly, the organization suspended its Gaza operations for nearly a month. While it has since returned to Gaza, WCK says it still lacks assurances about clear, concrete steps taken by the IDF to improve humanitarian safety, and it continues to demand such steps along with an independent investigation into the April 1 strike.

In response to the February 1 attack that struck MSF staff housing, the Israeli Army said it would use its own internal fact-finding mechanism to assess the incident, but no results have been made public or, as far as we are aware, communicated to MSF. Over two months after the incident, MSF Secretary-General Christopher Lockyear called notification processes in Gaza a “failure.” ANERA has not received any information at all from the Israeli military about the March 8 airstrike that killed its staff member. The organization has, like WCK, demanded an independent investigation along with “reliable measures to ensure the safety of aid workers.”

Other notifying humanitarians that have been struck are similarly disillusioned with the process. The International Refugee Committee (IRC)’s Senior Vice President for Crisis Response, Ciaran Donnelly, whose organization similarly notified Israel but was subsequently struckobserved that Israel has shown a “disregard for the [notification] system” and that notification is “effectively a fiction” in Gaza.

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The Need for Centralized Incident Data Collection and Standardized Follow-Up Procedures When Things Go Wrong

Humanitarian notification involves humanitarian organizations notifying warring parties of their “locations, activities, movements, and personnel.” Notification occurs through ad hoc systems set up during a particular armed conflict, typically though not exclusively operated by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Though participating in these systems is voluntary for both humanitarians and warring parties, they are commonly deployed in conflict zones such as Gaza. While using a notification system does not guarantee protection for participating humanitarians, notification systems help facilitate humanitarian protection by assisting warring parties like Israel in complying with their obligations under international humanitarian law. (Humanitarians are protected from attack under IHL, and it is a war crime to deliberately target humanitarian workers and identifiable humanitarian facilities in wartime.)

Though sometimes conflated with “no-strike lists,” humanitarian notification systems are distinct. Notification systems essentially provide input about the presence of protected humanitarian sites and actors. “No-strike lists,” in contrast, are lists compiled by warring factions of facilities protected from military operations; they may include not only humanitarian objects but also other objects that are immune from targeting such as cultural heritage sites, medical facilities, or religious sites. Notification may inform a no-strike list, but it is not the same thing.

Sadly, harm to notifying humanitarians is not limited to Gaza. In Syria, for instance, journalists found that out of 182 reportedly notified humanitarian sites, 27 of them had been struck by Russian or Syrian forces over an 8-month period in 2020. They also found that in total, 69 reportedly notified sites had been struck between 2015 and 2020. Many believe Russia and Syria were intentionally striking humanitarians, including those who had notified warring parties. In Yemen, where OCHA stood up a humanitarian notification system, at least 46 aid workers in total have been killed and dozens more wounded since the beginning of the war in 2014. Despite this high death toll, independent experts have found that field commanders in the Saudi-led coalition forces “routinely failed to consult” humanitarian notification data before approving attacks.

Such harm to notifying humanitarian entities in Gaza, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere has raised concerns that some notification systems are failing to facilitate protection. Despite these concerns, there is no system in place to collect comprehensive data about incidents in which notifying humanitarians are harmed. This means participating militaries, along with humanitarians and other stakeholders, are forced to rely on piecemeal reporting to understand when and where things go wrong.

In addition, no notification system formally directs states to adopt and report on transparent procedures that respond to and seek to prevent attacks against notifying humanitarians. Without such procedures, there is no way to ensure that states trying to comply with their obligations under IHL have used information about strikes against humanitarians to improve internal processes. Nor is there an expectation, much less a system, to ensure that independent investigations are pursued where warring parties demonstrate continued non-compliance with their IHL obligations.

Consequently, without clear avenues to report incidents or transparent follow-up procedures when incidents occur, humanitarians are left vulnerable and face limited options for maintaining staff security. Indeed, in Gaza, one notifying humanitarian told Human Rights Watch investigators that they will not send more staff into Gaza because they “cannot rely on [notification] as a way of keeping them safe.” At least four organizations reportedly stopped delivering aid for several weeks after the April 1 WCK incident citing danger to staff, including the two top food aid providers in Gaza. This is despite a looming famine in Gaza, with nearly half of all Palestinians trapped in Gaza experiencing “catastrophic” food insecurity.

More needs to be done to address these deficiencies that leave humanitarians vulnerable. A centralized incident report portal should be launched by an intergovernmental entity for all notifying humanitarians to formally report when they are struck in any conflict. This could help track incidents and elucidate where things are going wrong. In addition, humanitarian notification system (HNS) operators should institute policies that establish a shared understanding among all participants about what happens when things go wrong, something humanitarians in YemenSyria, and now Gaza have demanded.

These policies should promote internal self-corrections within participating warring parties, encouraging them to implement their own transparent procedures for responding when notifying humanitarians are harmed. Yet where warring parties demonstrate a record of noncompliance with their IHL obligations, the policies should reflect the expectation that the international community will pursue external accountability. Such accountability could, for example, take the form of an investigatory body with a mandate to review incidents attributable to offenders whose actions reflect an unwillingness to address systemic issues.

The Need for a Centralized Incident Report Portal

Currently, though some militaries (such as the U.S. military) have their own reporting mechanisms to track and investigate incidents of civilian harm, there is no centralized reporting mechanism for notifying humanitarians to report incidents that harm their staff or damage their facilities. This matters for several reasons. First, without a centralized incident reporting mechanism, humanitarians have no clear outlet through which they can submit complaints about perceived failures of protection even when they have notified. Instead, they are forced to undertake their own advocacy campaigns. While this may create international pressure on warring parties, it does not necessarily help address failures within notification processes or warring parties’ use of notification data.

Second, piecemeal announcements about attacks against humanitarians will not elucidate trends that might identify particular geographic regions or certain humanitarian entities affected by relatively higher numbers of incidents. Nor will they be comprehensive. Instead, such anecdotal reporting likely only captures the loudest, better resourced, and more international humanitarian organizations, leaving out the smaller, more local organizations lacking the resources and connections to operate their own international advocacy campaigns.

Third, even for warring parties that have their own civilian harm tracking systems, such systems are not clearly tied to notification processes or focused specifically on humanitarians. This leaves gaps in which incidents are reported, how they are assessed, and what remedial steps are taken.

Thus, a first step should be the creation of a centralized incident report portal for notifying humanitarians to detail incidents that occur despite notifications to the relevant warring parties. The incident reports could include when and how the reporting humanitarian submitted their notification data and to whom; any response they received from the participating warring parties; the date, time, and location of the attack; and a narrative of what happened, including any damage to property or staff injuries or deaths. These reports could then be shared by the portal operator with warring parties participating in a notification system, provided the reporting humanitarian consents. Warring parties that receive such data could, in turn, use the incident report details to inform their own internal learnings, as detailed below.

Additionally, the portal could publish aggregated, anonymized data about incidents in particular conflict zones, like the World Health Organization (WHO)’s own incident tracker has done. The public disclosure of such aggregated data could help humanitarian organizations take note of general safety trends and develop their safety protocols accordingly. Published aggregated data could also support advocacy campaigns that encourage warring parties to comply with their obligations under IHL where patterns reveal repeated attacks against notifying humanitarians in certain conflicts.

Ideally, this portal would be operated by an intergovernmental entity, as such entities are independent from states but have the necessary relationships with states to effectively communicate incident reports. U.N. OCHA, which operates many humanitarian notification systems already, is probably the best placed intergovernmental entity to do so. Not only would an incident report portal fall within OCHA’s mission of “coordinating effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors,” it also aligns nicely with existing OCHA initiatives, including its humanitarian data exchange platform and its monthly reports on humanitarian access. Though operating such a portal might be beyond OCHA’s current staff time and financial abilities, these could easily be addressed with the proper resources.

Instituting a Two-Step Response Process

Collecting comprehensive data is an important component of understanding where issues are occurring in notification systems, but the data itself will not produce follow-up action. As such, the HNS operator ought to establish follow-up policies where incidents occur.

Though notification systems are ad hoc, and are established on a conflict-by-conflict basis, we recommend a two-step process for each system. First, participating warring parties should be encouraged to conduct their own internal assessments about failures and then to communicate to participating humanitarians the remedial steps taken to prevent recurrence. Second, where there are numerous incident reports and a warring party has shown an unwillingness to make internal improvements, the international community should pursue external accountability.

Step One: Warring Parties Pursue Internal Self-Corrections

Warring parties should first be encouraged to conduct their own internal assessments of attacks against humanitarians, using incident report data where useful. This could allow for real-time improvements to humanitarian protection while a conflict is still going on. Once complete, descriptions of internal improvements taken to prevent the recurrence of attacks on humanitarians ought to be shared with participating humanitarians, as doing so would help rebuild trust and encourage humanitarians to continue or resume operations. Finally, warring parties might also consider reparative efforts like paying compensation to humanitarians for injuries or damaged property, in an effort to repair the injury.

Far from unconventional, this sort of internal learning, public sharing, and subsequent reparation is precisely what some militaries already strive to do, and at times have done, in response to strikes against notifying humanitarians. For example, in response to an attack on an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed 42 people, U.S. Central Command launched an internal investigation. The investigation culminated in a public report that detailed a series of errors leading to the attack, outlined internal accountability steps taken and, crucially, specified operational improvements to avoid future harm. Those improvements included pre-loading a list of pre-verified “no-strike” sites onto aircraft, providing MSF with direct contact information to command leadership for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and requiring personnel to use the no-strike list when making targeting decisions. The investigation was followed by financial payouts for victims along with a $5.7 million payment to MSF to build a new hospital.

Step Two: Resorting to External Accountability When Warring Parties Fail to Self-Correct

Unfortunately, not all warring parties exercise diligence in complying with their IHL obligations, and there are times where they may be indifferent or even directly hostile towards humanitarian protection. Where there is a demonstrated record of noncompliance – either because a warring party attacks humanitarians intentionally or because it is derelict in safeguarding against such attacks – the second step in the process should reflect the expectation that the international community will pursue external accountability, used as a last resort for warring parties that fail to undertake internal investigations and make meaningful self-corrections.

Aggregated incident report data could inform judgments about when an external review is necessary and could be shared by the incident report portal custodian to support investigations (e.g., by providing a record, including contemporaneous descriptions, of incidents). This approach provides at least some consequence for non-compliance, possibly incentivizing improved attention to notification data while also assuring humanitarians that their concerns will be taken seriously in the event their safety is continually ignored.

Such an accountability mechanism could take several forms. It could be a U.N. investigatory body, mandated to investigate incidents and, where possible, identify responsible parties and recommend reparations for injured parties. This could be a Board of Inquiry set up by the U.N. Secretary-General to investigate a sub-set of incidents affecting U.N. facilities or staff, or else incidents involved in a U.N.-operated notification system. Indeed there is some precedent for boards of inquiry to investigate strikes against notifying humanitarians in Syria and past conflict in Gaza. In the Gaza case, a board of inquiry identified responsible parties and recommended that the U.N. seek reparations, which were eventually paid in part.

Where U.N. entities are not involved, a Commission of Inquiry could be established via a resolution passed by the Human Rights Council, the Security Council, or the General Assembly, or else stood up unilaterally by the Secretary-General. These commissions tend not to focus exclusively on U.N. facilities or notification systems, often have broader mandates, and may continue to investigate ongoing incidents (as in Syria), giving them some advantages over U.N. Boards of Inquiry. However, the applicable voting requirements for passing a resolution, and the geopolitics in certain U.N. bodies, may hinder their creation or the scope of their mandates. Moreover, because these boards’ findings are non-binding, they may not lead to concrete action where the investigated party is hostile to the inquiry (although an independent, fact-based account of incidents still serves important interests, like promoting truth and encouraging other forms of accountability).

A separate body that could be used to investigate patterns of alleged attacks against notifying humanitarians is the ICRC’s Permanent International Permanent Fact-Finding Commission. Upon consent from the warring parties involved, the Commission can review facts of reported incidents and propose recommendations for improving compliance. It can also invite warring parties to participate in the investigation, creating the possibility for internal improvements while a conflict is still going on. This body could be useful where the relevant U.N. bodies are unwilling to create boards or commissions of inquiry. However, this body has never been used and lacks ex ante consent from many of the world’s largest militaries, hindering its potential reach.

Finally, though they are unlikely to have corrective impacts while conflicts are going on, international courts could address cases in which parties refuse to comply with their IHL obligations. Affected humanitarians could encourage states to bring cases before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), or else encourage authorized international organizations to seek advisory opinions from the ICJ. Additionally, humanitarians can urge states that have ratified the Rome Statute to refer a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or call for the ICC prosecutor to pursue their own investigation into criminal behavior in a conflict setting where it has jurisdiction (which could eventually support an application for an arrest warrant). In all instances, collections of incident reports could be used to indicate that a party knew about particular humanitarian locations and activities, which can suggest a failure to respect humanitarian protection under IHL. Limited jurisdiction and lengthy court processes will hinder these efforts, but they could be used in tandem with the other two options, or else where the other two options are unavailable.

Next Steps in Gaza

Israel’s internal investigation into and public sharing of the failures that led to the April 1 WCK incident, as well as its launch of a new Coordination and Deconfliction Cell, are a good start, and such actions should be supported. However, Israel has yet to communicate clear mitigation strategies for avoiding future harm to humanitarians, and it has not announced plans to pursue additional investigations into other incidents that harmed notifying humanitarians, such as the March 8 Israeli airstrike that killed an ANERA staff member. In addition, Israel’s pattern of attacks on humanitarians generally has raised concerns among observers including ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan, who recently filed an application with the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber for the issuance of arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Yoav Gallant (alongside requests for warrants for three Hamas leaders). The arrest warrants were for, among other alleged criminal behavior, a pattern of attacks against humanitarians.

Israel should do more to address such systemic issues. First, it ought to pursue a set of mitigation strategies that will effectively curb harm to humanitarians in Gaza, and it should communicate those strategies to humanitarians. Such strategies could include, for example, ensuring notification data is effectively incorporated into IDF targeting processes, and, as others have recommended, lifting its prohibition on two-way radios or satellite phones so that a humanitarian organization can communicate with the IDF in real-time should concerns about the humanitarian’s activities or location arise.

Second, Israel should establish transparent follow-up procedures for responding to incidents affecting notifying humanitarians. These procedures could include conducting a swift internal investigation into the failures that led to the incident (as Israel did with the April 1 WCK incident), pursuing internal accountability as necessary (again, as Israel did with the WCK incident), identifying clear steps to mitigate future harm, and, where appropriate, providing reparations for the damage caused. It should then communicate those actions to the harmed humanitarian – and where appropriate, broadly to the community of humanitarian organizations active in Gaza. Without these measures, it is unlikely that humanitarians will regain trust in the notification system in Gaza, and as a result, some may continue limiting their operations.

Beyond Israel, U.N. OCHA or a similarly placed intergovernmental entity ought to launch an incident report portal to provide notifying humanitarians a clear avenue through which to report incidents. Provided the reporting humanitarian consents, such incident data, when shared with warring parties like Israel, can provide a more comprehensive picture about repeat failures in current notification systems, thereby informing mitigation strategies.

If Israel demonstrates continuing noncompliance with its IHL obligations and fails to undertake meaningful mitigation strategies, notwithstanding its investigation into the April 1 WCK incident or the creation of a new Coordination Cell, the international community ought to call for independent investigations. Indeed, several reputable humanitarians are already seeking such investigations, saying that Israel has a demonstrated record of noncompliance. One avenue is for members of the Human Rights Council or the U.N. General Assembly to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate strikes against humanitarians that appear to be in violation of IHL, including strikes against notifying humanitarians. A second (and not mutually exclusive) is for the U.N. Secretary-General to create a board of inquiry into incidents affecting U.N. sites such as UNRWA facilities, which have borne the brunt of attacks. (Since Israel is not a party to the ICRC’s Permanent Fact-Finding Commission, that investigative option is unavailable).

Addressing humanitarian safety is paramount to civilian survival. Indeed, targeting humanitarians is unlawful precisely because the “safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel is an indispensable condition for the delivery of humanitarian relief to civilian populations in need threatened with starvation” – exactly the problem facing Gaza today.

The IDF should act swiftly to put in place measures that prevent wrongful attacks, and it should communicate those measures to humanitarians. If it fails to do so, and reputable observers determine it has a continuing record of noncompliance with IHL, the international community should act to seek accountability.