Aid ship slowly heads for Gaza as calls for assistance grow

Last Updated on March 14, 2024 11:15 am

Donor nations, aid agencies and charities pushed on with efforts to rush food to the territory of 2.4 million people, where famine looms after more than five months of war.

A first boat loaded with 200 tonnes of food aid was making slow progress towards the Gaza Strip on Thursday as efforts grew to bring more humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian territory besieged by Israel.

The main UN aid agency in Gaza said an Israeli strike a day earlier hit one of its warehouses in the southern city of Rafah, killing an employee, although Israel later said a Hamas militant was killed in the rocket strike.

Donor nations, aid agencies and charities pushed on with efforts to rush food to the territory of 2.4 million people, where famine looms after more than five months of war.

Mediation efforts have so far failed to secure a new truce in the war triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant vowed again that Israeli forces “will reach every location” in their mission to destroy the Islamist group.

“There is no safe haven for terrorists in Gaza,” Gallant said on a tour of the Hamas-ruled territory, according to a video released by his office.

In response to the October 7 attack, Israeli forces have carried out a relentless campaign of air strikes and ground operations in Gaza, killing at least 31,272 people, most of them civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.

The Spanish charity vessel Open Arms was on its way to Gaza from Cyprus, towing a barge with 200 tonnes of aid in the first voyage along a planned maritime corridor to Gaza.

Once near Gaza, the aid will be delivered onto a pier built for the operation by US charity World Central Kitchen, which will then distribute it.

However, airdrops and efforts to open a maritime corridor were “no alternative” to land deliveries because they could only provide a fraction of the aid needed, 25 organisations, including Amnesty International and Oxfam, said in a statement Wednesday.

In Gaza City, desperate Palestinians were awaiting the arrival of the Open Arms aid boat, which the charity operating it said could take days.

Standing on the shore, resident Eid Ayub told AFP that “the aid coming by sea and dropped by air is not enough”.

“They send aid, but when this aid arrives, there’s no entity to distribute it,” he said, complaining of “merchants” who seize supplies and then resell them.

– Land routes needed –

Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos said on Wednesday a second aid ship “with bigger capacity” was being prepared in Larnaca.

Kombos also hosted a virtual meeting on Wednesday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior ministers and officials from Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the European Union and the United Nations to discuss the maritime corridor.

“The ministers agreed that there is no meaningful substitute to land routes via Egypt and Jordan and entry points from Israel into Gaza for aid delivery at scale,” they said in a joint statement.

They also agreed that opening the Israeli port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, to humanitarian assistance “would be a welcome and significant complement”.

Senior officials will gather in Cyprus on Monday for “in-depth” briefings on the corridor, the statement said.

The Israeli military said the UN’s World Food Programme had also sent an initial six aid trucks along an alternative land route from southern Israel through a gate in the security fence into northern Gaza on Tuesday.

– ‘Supplies running out’ –

The October 7 Hamas attack resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on official figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages, dozens of whom were released during a week-long truce in November. Israel believes about 130 captives remain in Gaza but that 32 of them are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive has reduced much of Gaza’s urban infrastructure to rubble.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said in a statement at least one staff member was killed and 22 wounded “when Israeli forces hit a food distribution centre in the eastern part of Rafah”.

The agency’s chief, Philippe Lazzarini, said the attack “comes as food supplies are running out, hunger is widespread and, in some areas, turning into famine”.

Israel said later a Hamas militant was killed in a strike on Rafah and identified him as Muhammad Abu Hasna, one of four people the health ministry in Gaza said were killed in the strike on the UNRWA facility.

Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, told reporters that “the Israeli army received the coordinates… of this facility”.

The Gaza health ministry also said later that four people were killed when Israeli troops opened fire on a group of people at Kuwait Junction, an aid distribution point just south of Gaza City.

– ‘Not enough’ –

Rafah, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, has so far been spared a ground invasion but the prospect of an Israeli operation there has sparked global alarm because it is crowded with almost 1.5 million Palestinians, most of them displaced.

Israeli officials have repeatedly threatened to send ground troops into the city, a warning reiterated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.

The dire food shortages in Gaza have killed 27 people through malnutrition and dehydration, most of them children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

President Joe Biden has ordered the US military to build a temporary pier off Gaza to unload aid, a project Blinken described as “a complement to, not a substitute for, other ways of getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza”.

Five Arab and European countries — as well as the United States — have also parachuted food into Gaza.

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, said air drops and sea shipments of aid “are a sign of powerlessness and weakness on the part of the international community”.

Weeks of talks involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators failed to bring about a deal for a new truce and hostage release before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan this week.

Fahd al-Ghoul, a resident of Jabalia Camp in the north, said: “We have been fasting against our will for two months or more.”

“Now with Ramadan, nothing changes in our reality,” he said.

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