July 18th, 2024

A top EU official says a ship is preparing to leave for Gaza as test of new humanitarian corridor

By Menelaos Hadjicostis, The Associated Press on March 8, 2024.

LARNACA, Cyprus (AP) – A ship was preparing Friday to leave Cyprus and head for Gaza with humanitarian aid, the European Commission president said, as international donors launch a sea corridor to supply the besieged territory facing widespread hunger and shortages of essential supplies after five months of war.

The vessel, belonging to Spain’s Open Arms, will make a pilot voyage to test the corridor, Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Cyprus, where she’s inspecting preparations for the sea corridor. The ship has been waiting at Cyprus’s port of Larnaca for permission to deliver food aid from World Central Kitchen, a U.S. charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés.

Israel said Friday it welcomed the opening of the maritime corridor but cautioned it would also need security checks.

“The Cypriot initiative will allow the increase of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, after a security check according to Israeli standards,” Lior Haiat, spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, said on X, formerly Twitter.

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

“We are now very close to the opening of the corridor, hopefully this Saturday, this Sunday, and I’m very glad to see that an initial pilot operation will be launched today,” she said. “The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire, with innocent Palestinian families and children desperate for basic needs.

The ship will depart for Gaza on Saturday, Christodoulides told The Associated Press.

In Brussels, commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari said the Open Arms ship’s direct route to Gaza raises a number of “logistical partners” which are still being worked out. He said U.N. agencies and the Red Cross will also play a role in how the corridor will work.

Von der Leyen praised Christodoulides for his leadership in promoting the sea corridor initiative, which he pitched back in November, and thanked UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed for rallying support to get it underway .

“I call on all the actors who have a role to play here to help this corridor deliver on its potential,” said Von der Leyen. “The maritime corridor can make a real difference in the plight of the Palestinian people.”

Christodoulides said Cyprus, as the EU’s eastern-most member state, had “the moral duty” to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” leveraging its role in excellent relations with all countries in the region.”

The latest efforts to dramatically ramp up aid deliveries signaled growing frustration with Israel’s conduct in the war in the United States and Europe.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a plan to open an offshore port to help deliver aid, underscoring how the U.S. has to go around Israel, its main Mideast ally and the top recipient of U.S. military aid, to deliver aid to Gaza, including through airdrops that started last week. Israel accuses Hamas of commandeering some aid deliveries.

Efforts to set up a sea route for aid deliveries come amid mounting 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 suffered long cutoffs of food supply deliveries.

After months of warnings over the risk of famine in Gaza under Israel’s bombardment, offensives and siege, hospital doctors have reported 20 malnutrition-related deaths at two northern Gaza hospitals.

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

“To the leadership of Israel, I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” Biden declared before Congress. He also repeated calls for Israel to do more to protect civilians in the fighting, and to work toward Palestinian statehood 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 because of the difficulty of coordinating with the Israeli military, the ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order. It is even more difficult to get aid to the isolated north.

Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, told reporters late Thursday that air and sea deliveries cannot make up for a shortage of supply routes on land.

Von der Leyen said the EU would continue exploring different ways of getting aid to Palestinians in Gaza. She said the bloc has so far launched 41 flights carrying over 1800 tons of aid and would consider “˜all other options, including airdrops, if our humanitarian partners on the ground consider this effective.”

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

International mediators had hoped to alleviate some of the immediate crisis with a six-week cease-fire, which would have seen Hamas release some of the Israeli hostages it is holding, Israel release some Palestinian prisoners and aid groups be given access to to get a major influx of assistance into Gaza.

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

Egyptian officials said Hamas has agreed to the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage but wants commitments that it will lead to an eventual more permanent cease-fire, while Israel wants to confine the negotiations to the more limited agreement.

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

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