IN THE MEDIA

Australia’s maverick response to WCK tragedy looking increasingly irrational

Apr 10, 2024 | Greg Rose

Image: Twitter
Image: Twitter

An edited version of this article was published in the Daily Telegraph and the Courier-Mail

 

The tragic death of seven workers for the World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid agency, including Australian Zomi Frankcom, on the night of April 1 in Gaza was met with worldwide horror. The convoy of three vehicles was struck by three missiles fired by an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) drone.

Foreign Minister Senator Penny Wong described it as unacceptable and expressed outrage.  While her dismay is understandable, the Australian government’s reaction since has displayed double standards and failures to understand either the military realities behind this accident or the relevant international law.

Israel swiftly responded to this terrible incident by admitting responsibility, issuing abject apologies from both the political and military leadership and immediately launching an independent IDF investigation led by a retired major-general outside the chain-of-command.  The resulting report was communicated to the Australian Ambassador, other affected countries and the WCK on April 5.

The official report found that the strike “was a grave mistake stemming from a serious failure due to a mistaken identification, errors in decision-making, and an attack contrary to the Standard Operating Procedures.” As a result, the IDF dismissed two senior officers and censured three others.

Still not satisfied, Wong has now appointed Air Chief Marshal Binskin (rtd) as a “Special Advisor to the Australian Government … to ensure that the investigation is conducted in a manner consistent with the Government’s expectations.” No other country that lost citizens in the WCK convoy tragedy – such as the US, UK, Canada and Poland – has done anything remotely similar.

Australia’s extraordinary self-authorizing decision to appoint a Special Advisor to interfere in a foreign country’s domestic investigation is unprecedented in military review and discipline. The diplomatic insult, implying Israel is incapable of conducting a professional investigation without outside supervision, might well blow back against Australia. Binskin was commander of air operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where hundreds of innocents died.

Several other countries’ civilian nationals have been accidentally harmed by past Australian Defence Forces (ADF) operations – including those of Afghanistan and Indonesia. Can they now demand their own special advisors’ access to and oversight of ADF investigation and disciplinary processes? And would we let them?

In Afghanistan, it took years for us to fully investigate and accept responsibility for civilian casualties ADF caused. By contrast, Israel took responsibility almost immediately and then completed an independent investigation within five days.

Israeli reports make it clear this tragedy happened against a background of high IDF alertness to combat Hamas’ repeated practice of stealing aid shipments and of keeping the spoils for its fighters and selling the surplus. The IDF was monitoring gunmen who had waited several hours for the WCK aid trucks.

Toyota pickup trucks, commonly used by Hamas, arrived, from which people wearing bullet-proof vests emerged, whom the IDF believed to be Hamas, and appeared to enter a hangar, as did the WCK convoy. The IDF field unit erroneously presumed the WCK vehicles returning from the convoy leaving the hangar contained Hamas fighters. It was nighttime, and the drone unit observing these events via thermal imaging could not see WCK signage on the vehicles’ roofs.

After repeated attempts to contact the aid workers in the convoy, and calls to WCK, who also could not contact them, local commanders decided that a previous order – not to hit the unidentified group of vehicles for fear it might contain aid workers no longer applied – and launched aerial strikes. This was a violation of IDF rules of engagement – which is why the officers responsible were fired.

Efforts to do better are essential, but mistakes are inevitable. IDF soldiers are also paying a huge price in their own lives for similar errors. Friendly fire incidents are reportedly responsible for 20% of IDF casualties.

Moreover, Israel’s investigations have produced lessons to prevent similar tragedies, including the establishment of a joint situation room to coordinate between the regional command and the local Fire Control Centre, and a special humanitarian aid command centre where aid NGOs would liaise directly with Israel’s Southern Command.

The bottom line is the IDF has been operating in a uniquely complex, dense and tense urban combat environment, with Hamas tunnel entrances and weapons caches concealed everywhere – in homes, apartments, schools, mosques, clinics, and shops.

The subtext of our Foreign Minister’s chant that Israel must comply with international law, implying it is not,  is one of antagonism and a lack of trust in a fellow democracy.

If Israel wanted to stop aid deliveries by killing aid workers, why are Israeli authorities now begging the WCK to resume humanitarian operations? Why is more aid than ever flowing into Gaza? Why did the US State Department state last week that there is no evidence of any incidents where Israel has violated international humanitarian law?

Our Foreign Minister’s double standards diminish Australian credibility as a security partner that can be relied upon to uphold international legal norms.

Greg Rose is a Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong and is a Senior Fellow at The Hague Initiative for International Cooperation.

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