Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on Tuesday that his country’s military had killed seven humanitarian workers in Gaza, as the US and other western nations stepped up calls for explanations.

Netanyahu confirmed that Israel was investigating the air strike that killed seven workers for World Central Kitchen, a major provider of food aid to the besieged enclave.

“Unfortunately there was a tragic incident in the last 24 hours in which our forces unintentionally hit innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli prime minister said. “It happens in wartime . . . We will do everything we can to ensure this isn’t repeated.”

Locator map showing positions of three damaged vehicles in Gaza

WCK said the seven people killed on Monday night included Australian, Polish, UK and Palestinian staff members, as well as a dual US-Canadian citizen. It added that it was “immediately” pausing its operations in the region, where aid groups have warned of the risk of imminent famine.

Israel’s allies have also voiced concerns that the war with Hamas could escalate into a broader regional conflict. A suspected Israeli attack earlier on Monday hit the consular section of Iran’s embassy in Damascus, killing three senior Iranian officers and drawing a threat of retaliation from Tehran.

Israel’s announcement of its probe into the humanitarian workers’ deaths came after the US, where WCK is based, had called for an investigation and as other countries stepped up demands for a ceasefire.

“Humanitarian aid workers must be protected as they deliver aid that is desperately needed, and we urge Israel to swiftly investigate what happened,” Adrienne Watson, US National Security Council spokesperson, wrote on X. She added that the US was “heartbroken and deeply troubled” by the strike.

WCK said on Tuesday that the seven aid workers had died even though they were travelling in a “deconflicted zone in two armoured cars branded with the WCK logo” and another vehicle.

“Despite co-ordinating movements with the IDF, the convoy was hit as it was leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse,” the group added.

It said the team had just unloaded more than 100 tonnes of humanitarian food aid for Gaza.

A Financial Times analysis using satellite and social media imagery indicated that the three WCK vehicles were hit separately over a 2km stretch of Sharia Al-Rashid street on the Gaza coast.

The vehicles’ locations were first identified by open source researcher Chris Osieck and subsequently verified by the FT.

One armoured vehicle appeared to have caught fire after being hit; another was left with a hole in the roof about half the width of the vehicle. The third, an unarmoured SUV, had its windows blown out and a wheel missing.

WCK logos were visible in the debris of all three vehicles.

The UN added that between the beginning of the war in October and March 20 at least 196 humanitarian workers had been killed in the occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

“This is nearly three times the death toll recorded in any single conflict in a year, said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for the occupied territories. “There is no safe place left in Gaza.”

The Associated Press reported that ships carrying more than 200 tonnes of undelivered aid were returning from Gaza after Monday’s strike, according to an official in Cyprus.

The island plays an important role in the newly established aid corridor to the enclave. But seaborne aid represents only a small fraction of the amount of food that arrived every day in the territory before the war.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said that this week’s “new innocent casualties” came despite international demands to protect civilians and humanitarian workers.

“I condemn the attack and urge an investigation,” he added. “This shows that the [UN Security Council] resolution asking for an immediate ceasefire, full humanitarian access and a reinforced protection of civilians must be immediately implemented.”

The UNSC resolution was passed last month after the US abstained in the vote.

Poland condemned what it depicted as Israel’s “disregard for international humanitarian law”. Foreign minister Radosław Sikorski said he had asked the Israeli ambassador in Warsaw for “urgent explanations” about the strike on the aid workers’ vehicles.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also confirmed that one of his country’s nationals was among those killed.

“Australia expects full accountability for the deaths of aid workers,” Albanese said on Tuesday. “Aid workers, and those doing humanitarian work, and indeed all innocent civilians, need to be provided with protection.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described himself as “shocked and saddened” at the news.

“We’re asking Israel to investigate what happened urgently because clearly there are questions that need to be answered,” he said on Tuesday, calling on the country to allow aid organisations to do their work “unhindered”.

WCK chief executive Erin Gore said the incident, which she described as “a targeted attack by the IDF”, was “an attack on humanitarian organisations” and “unforgivable”.

WCK was founded by celebrity chef José Andrés and was heavily involved in the first delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza via sea last month. Last week it oversaw the delivery of a second maritime consignment to the enclave.

The charity said last month that it had provided 42mn meals to Gaza’s 2.3mn people since the start of the war, which has taken a devastating toll on the enclave.

Israel’s offensive has killed more than 32,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials, as well as displacing 1.7mn of its inhabitants and reducing huge swaths of the territory to rubble.

The UN warned last month that 1.1mn people in Gaza faced “catastrophic levels of food insecurity” and warned of a “staggering escalation” in the number of children suffering from acute malnutrition. The World Health Organization said last week that the health system in the strip was “barely surviving”.

Israel launched its assault in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, during which militants killed 1,200 people and took another 250 hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy and Jim Pickard

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