Mother of Canadian aid worker rejects Israel’s explanation for his death

OTTAWA — The mother of a Canadian Army veteran killed during an attack on humanitarian workers in the Gaza Strip this week is rejecting Israel’s explanation for what happened.

But Sylvie Labrecque, her voice filled with exhaustion and grief, says she remains hopeful that the deaths of her son Jacob Flickinger and six of his colleagues will lead to positive change for all aid workers and the people of Gaza.

“I just feel good in a way that I feel that a lot of people are honouring Jacob in many different ways,” she said in an interview. 

“So I’m hoping that there will be positive impact in terms of possibilities of stopping some of that killing.”

Flickinger, 33, was one of seven World Central Kitchen workers killed on April 1 when their convoy was attacked after it delivered 100 tonnes of food to a warehouse in Deir al-Balah.

Flickinger, who served in Afghanistan in 2010 and retired from the Canadian military in 2019, joined World Central Kitchen last fall as a means to help him recover from PTSD. He had been in Gaza since early March.

He and his partner, Sandy Leclerc, lived in Costa Rica with their son, who is now 18 months old.

Also killed in the attack were Lalzawmi (Zomi) Frankcom, 43, from Australia; Polish national Damian Sobol, 35; Palestinian Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, 25; and John Chapman, 57, James Henderson, 33, and James Kirby, 47, all British citizens.

Their deaths sparked international outrage — and even Israel’s most ardent ally, the United States, has issued a stern rebuke and warning. 

President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Thursday that America’s continued support for Israel’s efforts to root out Hamas in Gaza was dependent on concrete steps to protect aid workers and open up more humanitarian aid channels. 

Netanyahu’s office said early Friday that his Security Cabinet has approved a series of “immediate steps” to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, including the reopening of a key crossing that was destroyed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Israel also published the findings of an investigation conducted by a retired Israeli general, which blamed the attack on a breach of policy and a mistaken observation.

Military spokespeople said that under the Israeli army’s rules of engagement, officers must have more than one reason for identifying someone as a target before they can be hit. 

But the investigation determined that a colonel had authorized the series of deadly drone strikes on the convoy based on one major’s observation — from grainy drone-camera footage — that someone in the convoy was armed. That observation turned out to be untrue, military officials said.

The army said the colonel and the major were dismissed, while three other officers were reprimanded, the most senior of whom was the head of the Southern Command. 

It said the results of its investigation were turned over to the military’s advocate general, who will decide whether the officers or anyone else involved in the killings should receive further punishment or be prosecuted.

“It’s a tragedy,” the military’s spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters. 

“It’s a serious event that we are responsible for and it shouldn’t have happened and we will make sure that it won’t happen again.”

Labrecque said that for her, the explanation rings hollow.

“They’re denying that it’s their fault,” she said. 

“But I think that people can decide on whatever they think, but it’s crap to me. For sure, it was absolutely meant in a way that that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted to eliminate these workers, these humanitarian workers, in a way that they just don’t want to feed the refugees. They want them to die, you know?”

The aid workers were travelling on a route approved by the Israel Defence Force to transfer food from a makeshift pier that World Central Kitchen built on the Gaza coast. 

In mid-March, the aid group’s efforts to build that jetty, using rubble from bombed-out buildings in Gaza, allowed it to get aid into Gaza by sea for the first time in more than two decades.

In a statement Friday, World Central Kitchen said the Israeli report makes clear that the Israel Defence Force “deployed deadly force without regard to its own protocols, chain of command and rules of engagement. The IDF has acknowledged that our teams followed all proper communications procedures. The IDF’s own video fails to show any cause to fire on our personnel convoy, which carried no weapons and posed no threat.”

The organization is demanding an independent commission be appointed to dig further into the situation. It has suspended its work in Gaza since the tragedy unfolded.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press