Monday, April 15, 2024

First aid ship leaves Cyprus as Gazans on brink of famine

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A ship carrying 200 tonnes of aid for Gaza left Cyprus on Tuesday in a pilot project to open a sea route to deliver supplies to a population which aid agencies say is on the brink of famine.

The charity ship Open Arms was seen sailing out of Larnaca port in Cyprus, towing a barge containing flour, rice and protein. The mission was funded mostly by the UAE and organised by US-based charity World Central Kitchen (WCK).

The journey to Gaza takes about 15 hours but a heavy tow barge could make the trip take considerably longer, possibly up to two days. Cyprus is just over 200 miles (320 km) north-west of Gaza.

The US military said its vessel, the General Frank S. Besson, was also en route to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza by sea.

With aid agencies saying deliveries into Gaza have been held up by bureaucratic obstacles and insecurity since the start of the war on Oct. 7, and even Israel’s allies demanding easier aid access to the enclave, attention has shifted towards alternative routes including sea and air drops.

The Open Arms, a rescue vessel owned by a Spanish NGO, departs with humanitarian aid for Gaza from Larnaca, Cyprus, March 12, 2024. PHOTO: REUTERS

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said on Tuesday that negotiators seeking a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, were not close to a deal.

Washington had said for weeks that it hoped for a truce deal in time for the Ramazan holy month that began this week, but it has so far failed to materialise with the sides unable to agree terms to halt fighting, free hostages and bring in aid.

Tuesday’s sea supply mission was the culmination of months of preparation by Cyprus, the EU member state closest to the conflict. It is keeping a wary eye on spillover effects from upheaval in the Middle East and is already seeing migratory inflows from Lebanon increasing. More than 400 people arrived in fishing boats on Monday.

With the lack of port infrastructure in Gaza, WCK said it was building a landing jetty with material from destroyed buildings and rubble, a separate initiative to a plan announced by US President Joe Biden last week to build a temporary pier.

Construction of the jetty was “well underway”, WCK founder Jose Andres said in a post on X, posting a picture of bulldozers apparently levelling out ground close to the sea.

Read also: Palestinians prepare for Ramazan in the shadow of Gaza war

WCK Activation Manager Juan Camilo Jimenez told Reuters a second vessel would depart within the next few days.

“Part of our calculation is the port will be ready when we arrive there and more importantly we have a team there to support the distribution of this aid,” he said, referring to a WCK team that has been on the ground in Gaza for several months.

The UN humanitarian office welcomed efforts to provide aid by sea and air, but said it would not be enough. Aid agencies say such efforts can provide only limited relief as long as most land crossings are completely sealed off by Israel.

“It’s not a substitute for the overland transport of food and other emergency aid into Gaza,” said spokesperson Jens Laerke. “It cannot make up for that.”

Israel says it is not to blame for Gaza’s hunger, as it is allowing aid through two crossings at the southern edge of the territory. Aid agencies say that is not enough to get sufficient supplies through, particularly to the northern part of the pulverised enclave that is effectively cut off.

‘Dire’ conditions

The UN estimates a quarter of the population in Gaza is now at risk of starvation.

“We are being starved in two ways: food is scarce, and the little that is available is so expensive as to be beyond imagination,” said Yamen, a father of four, whose family took shelter in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.

The conflict has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, more than half of whom are now crammed into the southern city of Rafah, mainly in makeshift tents.

There have been chaotic scenes and deadly incidents at aid distributions as desperately hungry people scramble for food.

On Tuesday, Palestinian health officials reported that nine Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded by Israeli gunfire when crowds were awaiting aid trucks at the Kuwait Square in Gaza City. There was no immediate comment from Israel on the incident.

Read: Gaza ceasefire talks at an impasse as humanitarian crisis deepens

In one incident last month, more than 100 Palestinians were killed while queuing for aid. Gaza health authorities blamed Israeli fire for the deaths; Israel denied blame and said victims had been trampled.

“Bombing gatherings of hungry people has become a daily routine practiced by the occupation and seen by the international community on screens,” Ashraf Al-Qidra, spokesperson for the Gaza health ministry said on Tuesday.

“Hunger will claim the lives of all residents in northern Gaza. Aid is very scarce. The price of a meal could mean certain death. Help the people of the north. Don’t leave them prey to hunger, bombing, and disease.”

Fighters from Hamas, which administers Gaza, killed 1,200 people in an Oct. 7 attack on Israel and took 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between NGOs Open Arms and World Central Kitchen at a port of Larnaca, Cyprus, March 9, 2024. PHOTO: REUTERS

Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between NGOs Open Arms and World Central Kitchen at a port of Larnaca, Cyprus, March 9, 2024. PHOTO: REUTERS

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed at least 31,184 Palestinians, according to Gaza authorities, and injured 72,889.

Ceasefire talks have so far failed to reach a breakthrough, with Israel saying it is interested only in a temporary truce to free hostages, and Hamas saying it will let them go only as part of a deal to permanently end the war.

Qatar, mediator alongside Egypt and the United States, said on Tuesday it was working to establish a permanent ceasefire, rather than a short-term truce.

“We are not near to a Gaza ceasefire deal but remain hopeful,” Al-Ansari added at a press conference in Doha.


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