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World Central Kitchen is saving lives with food but paying a price in blood

WASHINGTON — (AP) — The deaths of seven World Central Kitchen workers in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza was a tragic turn for an American homegrown charity that, in less than 15 years, has mushroomed from the grassroots brainchild of a celebrity chef into one of the world's most recognized food relief organizations.

The killings also interrupted a crucial flow of desperately needed food into the besieged coastal strip, as international organizations and charities warn of a looming famine. World Central Kitchen, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, had just delivered a cargo ship with 400 tons of canned goods from Cyprus to Gaza. Around 100 tons were unloaded before the charity suspended operations, in the wake of the attack; the rest was being taken back to Cyprus, Cypriot Foreign Ministry spokesman Theodoros Gotsis said.

It's an unprecedented crisis for José Andrés, the restauranteur who founded the charity to provide immediate food relief to disaster-stricken areas and has grown it into a global operation working in multiple war zones. Founded in 2010, the organization achieved international prominence for its work in Puerto Rico in 2017 feeding victims of Hurricane Maria. It also operates in Ukraine, providing more than 100 million meals to refugees, according to the group's website, and earning Andrés a medal from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

World Central Kitchen has quickly become a mainstay of American philanthropy, with contributions on par with much older organizations. The charity in 2022 reported $518 million in total contributions and Andrés himself received $100 million from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2021.

Andrés rose to prominence with a string of successful restaurants in Washington, D.C., just as the celebrity chef phenomenon was taking off. He developed close ties with former President Barack Obama at a time when current President Joe Biden served as vice president. Andrés prepared meals at the White House, and Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were frequent guests at his restaurants. The Spanish-born Andrés became a naturalized citizen during the Obama administration in a ceremony at the White House.

He remains connected to the Biden administration, serving as co-chair of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition. In February, he spoke at a conference on hunger hosted by second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Andrés publicly feuded with former President Donald Trump over a planned restaurant in what was then the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The chef tried to pull out of a contract in protest over Trump's incendiary comments about Mexican and Latin American immigrants crossing the U.S. border. The pair sued each other and then settled out of court. When the hotel was sold and reopened as a Waldorf-Astoria; Andrés almost immediately announced new plans to launch a restaurant there.

In a statement Tuesday night, Biden said he had spoken with Andrés “to convey my deepest condolences for the deaths of these courageous aid workers and to express my continued support for his and his team’s relentless and heroic efforts to get food to hungry people around the globe.”

Biden said bluntly that Israel was not doing enough to protect aid workers. “This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” he said.

When fighters from Hamas — the militant group that controls Gaza — breached the border on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 Israelis and taking hundreds of hostages, Andrés quickly moved to organize support for Gazan civilians sure to be caught up in the Israeli military response. With funding from the Emirati government, his group organized an initial food shipment from Cyprus and set up more than 60 kitchens in Gaza producing thousands of meals a day. The latest food shipment was meant to expand upon that model.

In a March telephone interview with The Associated Press shortly before the most recent shipment launched from Cyprus, Andrés credited his campaign with sparking governments into action and helping inspire the U.S. government plan to build a temporary port in Gaza to receive aid shipments.

"We have awakened the international community to do more for the people of Gaza,” he told the AP. “Everybody should have food and water, it’s a universal right.”

The loss of World Central Kitchen's efforts will be a serious blow to overall humanitarian efforts in Gaza.

“WCK is a key player in efforts to address food insecurity in Gaza and has provided essential food aid to thousands of families, contributing significantly to combating the catastrophic hunger there,” said a statement from the U.N.'s World Food Program.

The killings may also represent a turning point in Andrés' public perspective on the Israeli government. The chef was a vocal critic of Hamas in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks. He spoke on the X social media platform of Israel's right to defend its citizens and called for the ouster of a Spanish government minister who accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza.

But on Tuesday, Andrés harshly criticized the Israeli military.

“The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing. It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon,” he wrote on X. “No more innocent lives lost.”

His organization laid the blame squarely on the Israel Defense Forces, saying the IDF had coordinated over the movement of the cars carrying the workers as they left northern Gaza late Monday.

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Israel’s military chief, said Tuesday that the strike was "a mistake that followed a misidentification — at night during a war in very complex conditions. It shouldn’t have happened.”

Footage of the aftermath showed a vehicle with the charity’s logo printed across its roof to make it identifiable from the air. A projectile had blasted a large hole through the roof. Two other vehicles in the convoy were incinerated and mangled, indicating multiple hits.

Other footage showed the bodies, several wearing protective gear with the charity’s logo, at a hospital in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah. Those killed included three British nationals, an Australian, a Polish national, an American-Canadian dual citizen and a Palestinian, according to hospital records.

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Associated Press reporters Thalia Beaty and Rhonda Shafner in New York City, Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, Hannah Arhirova in Kyiv, and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report.

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