EU official says a ship is leaving for Gaza from Cyprus as test of new humanitarian corridor

EU official says a ship is leaving for Gaza from Cyprus as test of new humanitarian corridor
The European Commission president said a ship is leaving for Gaza as part of a pilot operation to test a new humanitarian sea corridor.
5 min read
Ursula von der Leyen said a ship is leaving for Gaza from Cyprus to test a new humanitarian sea corridor [GETTY]

On Friday, The European Commission president said that a charity ship would leave for Gaza as part of a pilot operation to test a new humanitarian sea corridor delivering aid directly from Cyprus to the Palestinian enclave.

Ursula von der Leyen said the EU, together with the US, the United Arab Emirates and other involved partner countries, are launching the sea corridor to deliver large quantities of aid to Gaza, which faces a "humanitarian catastrophe".

In a joint news conference with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, she told reporters that the corridor will open as early as Sunday, preceded by the charity Open Arms's pilot voyage on Friday.

A top European Union official is in Cyprus on Friday to inspect preparations to send desperately needed aid to war-ravaged Gaza by sea. This comes just hours after President Joe Biden announced that the US military would set up a temporary port off Gaza's Mediterranean coast to support deliveries.

Efforts to dramatically ramp up aid deliveries signalled growing frustration with Israel's conduct in the war in the United States and Europe.

Biden's announcement of the seaport plan underscored how the United States has to go around Israel, its main Mideast ally and the top recipient of US military aid, to get aid into Gaza, including through airdrops that started last week. Israel accuses Hamas of abducting 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 allow 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.

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

Officials from the US, Europe, Israel and the Middle East were already deep in discussions and preparations for a maritime aid route.

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union's powerful executive arm, arrived in Cyprus late Thursday to inspect facilities at the port of Larnaca, where aid ships are expected to depart for Gaza.

In November, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides offered to use the port 230 miles (370 kilometres) from Gaza.

It's unclear when the first ship will set sail, but it's believed it could happen as early as Sunday, the expected start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A ship belonging to Spain's Open Arms NGO is moored at Larnaca, waiting for permission to deliver food aid from World Central Kitchen, a US charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés.

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 challenging to get aid to the isolated north.

Sigrid Kaag, the UN senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, told reporters late Thursday that air and sea deliveries cannot compensate for a shortage of land supply routes.

On Wednesday, EU Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari said that the bloc would consider airdrops, but this would be a last resort and could not replace ground access to the enclave.

Ujvari said the EU has carried out around 40 flights to deliver aid to Gaza, primarily through Egypt.

Meanwhile, efforts to reach a ceasefire 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 ceasefire, 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 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 7 October attacks, while Israel has over 4,000 Palestine prisoners.

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 ceasefire, while Israel wants to confine the negotiations to a 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 still press the two parties to soften their positions.