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Catholic Relief Services increasing efforts in Gaza despite deaths of aid workers   

As several charitable groups are halting operations in the wake of the killing of seven humanitarian aid workers in Gaza, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is increasing its presence and efforts in the region. 

Jason Knapp, Holy Land representative for the U.S.-based Catholic group, told CNA that while it is “working hard to keep our team as safe as possible,” it remains “committed to doing everything we can to address the significant humanitarian needs of civilians in Gaza.”

Knapp said that CRS has set up warehouses, guesthouses, and offices in Rafah and Deir al Balah and is “in the process of setting up additional distribution points throughout Rafah, Khan Younis, and Middle Area.”

“In addition to expanding this operational capacity in the south half of Gaza,” Knapp said that CRS is “collaborating with local partners in Gaza City and North Gaza to prepare for safe and orderly distributions as soon as aid is able to reach these areas.”

This comes as several relief groups have halted their efforts after seven humanitarian aid workers with the World Central Kitchen (WCK) were killed by an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza on Monday.

With the Israel-Hamas war having now gone on for over 175 days, the seven WCK workers were not the first unintended casualties of the conflict.

According to United Nations spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, “at least 196 humanitarian workers have been killed since October” in Gaza, which he said “is one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult places to work as a humanitarian.”

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Because of the danger, some groups, such as WCK and American aid group Anera, have halted aid shipments for the time being out of concern for workers’ safety. 

Despite this, CRS, which is associated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and funded in large part by donations from the American faithful, confirmed to CNA that it is increasing its presence in the regions in which the seven workers were killed. 

Knapp said that CRS is “deeply concerned” about the humanitarian situation, which continues to worsen, with 1.7 million Gazan civilians believed to be displaced.

“CRS’ team in Gaza has been providing emergency assistance since the beginning of this crisis, with distributions of food, tarps and tents, bedding, hygiene supplies, and cash assistance reaching more than 750,000 people,” he explained. 

To protect its workers, CRS coordinates their efforts with the IDF and has a sophisticated security plan in place, Knapp said.

“We benefit greatly from local expertise, with experienced staff informing all the decisions that we make,” he said. “We also have a field security plan, with analysis of the risks in Gaza and the steps we can take to make sure we keep all staff as safe as possible. As a part of our approach, we share the locations of our operations with the IDF so they know that we’re humanitarians and should not be targeted.”

In the fog of war, however, security plans are not foolproof. According to a WCK statement, the workers killed on Monday had also coordinated their movement with the IDF, were traveling in a “deconflicted zone,” and were in vehicles marked as humanitarian aid. 

Though WCK founder Jose Andrés has accused the IDF of intentionally targeting the humanitarian workers, the IDF has said that “it was a mistake that followed a misidentification at night during a war in very complex conditions.” 

Nonetheless, Knapp told CNA that CRS is “advocating to ensure full respect of sites and movements” of official humanitarian workers. 

Meanwhile, Chloe Mata Crane, a representative for WCK, told CNA that in response to this week’s killings, all of the group’s ships carrying food and humanitarian aid have returned to the island of Cyprus, which is some 359 miles away from Gaza in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Crane said that “a determination has not yet been made about when to resume operations in Gaza.” 

Of the seven workers killed, one, Polish citizen Damian Soból, was a Catholic. Soból’s hometown Archdiocese of Przemyśl held a memorial Mass and procession in his honor on Thursday at the Cathedral of Przemyśl. 

In response to the killings, Pope Francis once again called for an end to hostilities in Gaza and said he was praying for the victims and their families. 

“I reiterate my firm call for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip,” the pontiff said. “I express my deep sorrow for the volunteers who were killed while distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza. I pray for them and their families.” 

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