Gaza-aided ship prepares to inaugurate sea route from Cyprus to war-torn strip

LARNACA, Cyprus –

A ship carrying humanitarian aid was making preparations to leave Cyprus and head to Gaza, the president of the European Commission said on Friday, as international donors launched a sea corridor to supply the besieged territory facing widespread famine after five months. of war.

The opening of the corridor, along with the recent inauguration of aid airdrops, showed growing frustration with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and a new international willingness to avoid Israeli restrictions.

The ship belonging to the Spanish aid group Open Arms will go on a pilot voyage to test the corridor in the coming days, Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Cyprus, where she is inspecting preparations for it. The ship has been waiting in the Cypriot port of Larnaca for permission to deliver food aid from World Central Kitchen, an American charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés.

Israel said on Friday it welcomed the maritime corridor. But he warned it would also need security checks.

“The Cypriot initiative will allow increased humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, after a security check according to Israeli standards,” Lior Haiat, spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said on X, formerly Twitter.

The European Union, together with the United States, the United Arab Emirates and other countries involved were launching the sea route in response to the “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in Gaza, Von der Leyen said at a press conference with the Cypriot president, Nikos Christodoulides.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire, with innocent Palestinian families and children desperate to meet their basic needs,” he said.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps told The Associated Press that the ship will depart Saturday and take two to three days to arrive at an undisclosed location where the World Central Kitchen group is building a dock to receive it. The group has 60 soup kitchens throughout Gaza to distribute aid, he said.

The ship will haul a barge loaded with 200 tons of rice and flour near the Gaza coast, he said. Pontoons will then be used for the complicated final leg to tow the barge to the dock.

Camps said his group has been planning the delivery for two months, long before the head of the EU Commission declared the launch of the safe corridor. He said he is not as concerned about the safety of the ship as “about the safety and lives of the people who are in Gaza.”

“I don’t know if the countries plan to do something bigger, but we are doing everything we can” with the group’s three million euro budget coming from private donations, Camps said.

In Brussels, commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari said the direct route of the Open Arms ship to Gaza raises a number of “logistical problems” that are still being resolved. He said UN agencies and the Red Cross will also play a role.

Efforts to establish a sea route for aid delivery come amid growing alarm over the spread of hunger among Gaza’s 2.3 million people. Hunger is most acute in northern Gaza, which has been isolated by Israeli forces for months and has suffered long cuts in food supplies.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a plan to build a temporary dock in Gaza to help deliver aid, underscoring how the United States has to circumvent Israel, its main ally in the Middle East and the main recipient of American military aid, to deliver help Gaza. including through airdrops that began last week. Israel accuses Hamas of seizing some aid deliveries.

Aid officials have said deliveries by sea and air are far more expensive and inefficient than sending trucks over land to deliver the huge amounts of aid people need. On Friday, five people in Gaza were killed and several more wounded when airdrops missed and hit people and landed on homes, Palestinian officials said.

After months of warnings about the risk of famine in Gaza due to Israel’s bombings, offensives and siege, doctors have reported 20 malnutrition-related deaths in two hospitals in northern Gaza.

While reiterating his support for Israel, Biden used his State of the Union address to reiterate demands for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow more aid into Gaza.

“To Israel’s leaders I say this: humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” Biden told Congress. He also reiterated calls for Israel to do more to protect civilians in the fighting and to work toward a Palestinian state as the only long-term solution to Israeli-Palestinian violence.

U.S. officials said it will likely be weeks before the Gaza pier is operational.

Aid groups have said their efforts to deliver desperately needed supplies to Gaza have been hampered by the difficulty of coordinating with the Israeli military, ongoing hostilities and a breakdown in law and order. It is even more difficult to bring aid to the isolated north.

Sigrid Kaag, the UN’s senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, told reporters Thursday night that air and sea deliveries cannot make up for the shortage of ground supply routes.

Von der Leyen said the EU would continue to explore different ways to bring aid to Gaza. He said the bloc would consider “all other options, including airdrops, if deemed effective by our humanitarian partners on the ground.”

Meanwhile, efforts to reach a ceasefire before Ramadan appeared stalled. Hamas said Thursday that his delegation had left Cairo, where talks were being held, until next week.

International mediators had hoped to ease some of the immediate crisis with a six-week ceasefire, in which Hamas would have freed some of the Israeli hostages it is holding, Israel would have freed some Palestinian prisoners and groups of militants would have been given access. help to receive a greater influx. assistance to Gaza.

Palestinian militants are believed to be holding about 100 hostages and the remains of another 30 captured during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, in which militants killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took about 250 hostages. Several dozen hostages were freed in a week-long truce in November, and about 30 are believed to be dead.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says at least 30,878 Palestinians have died. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its counts, but says women and children account for two-thirds of the dead. The ministry, which is part of the Hamas-led government, maintains detailed records and casualty figures from previous wars largely match those of the UN and independent experts.

Egyptian officials said Hamas accepted the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage, but wants commitments that lead to an eventual more permanent ceasefire, while Israel wants to limit negotiations to the more limited agreement.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media. Both officials said mediators are still pressing the two sides to soften their positions.

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