President of the European Commission Ursula von Der Leyen talks to the media with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, during a press conference at the Joint Search and Rescue Coordination center in Larnaca, Cyprus, on Friday, March 8, 2024. Von der Leyen is in Cyprus to inspect facilities at the port of Larnaca from where it's hoped ships will soon start departing for Gaza to deliver aid amid growing international support for the Cypriot initiative to establish a maritime humanitarian corridor to the Palestinian enclave some 240 miles (386 kilometers) away.
President of the European Commission Ursula von Der Leyen talks to the media with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, during a press conference at the Joint Search and Rescue Coordination center in Larnaca, Cyprus, on Friday, March 8, 2024. Von der Leyen is in Cyprus to inspect facilities at the port of Larnaca from where it's hoped ships will soon start departing for Gaza to deliver aid amid growing international support for the Cypriot initiative to establish a maritime humanitarian corridor to the Palestinian enclave some 240 miles (386 kilometers) away. AP Photo

A ship with Gaza aid is preparing to inaugurate a sea route from Cyprus to the war-ravaged strip

LARNACA, Cyprus — A ship bearing humanitarian aid was making preparations to leave Cyprus and head for Gaza, the European Commission president said Friday as international donors launched a sea corridor to supply the besieged territory that is facing widespread hunger after five months of war.

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

The vessel belonging to Spain’s Open Arms aid group will make a pilot voyage to test the corridor in the coming days, Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Cyprus, where she's inspecting preparations for it. 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 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 involved countries were 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.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire, with innocent Palestinian families and children desperate for basic needs," she said.

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

The ship will pull a barge loaded with 200 tons of rice and flour close to the Gaza shore, he said. Pontoon boats will then be used for the complicated final leg to tow the barge up to the pier.

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

“I don’t know if nations plan to do something bigger, but we are doing everything we can" with the group's 3 million euros budget from private donations, Camps said.

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

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.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced a plan to build a temporary pier in Gaza 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.

Aid officials have said that deliveries by sea and by air are far more costly and inefficient than sending trucks by land in getting the massive amounts of aid needed to people. On Friday, five people in Gaza were killed and several others were injured when airdrops malfunctioned and hit people and landed on homes, Palestinian officials said.

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 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 Gaza. She said the bloc 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 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.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says at least 30,878 Palestinians have been killed. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tallies but says women and children make up two-thirds of those killed. The ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, maintains detailed records and its casualty figures from previous wars have largely matched those of the U.N. and independent experts.

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. (AP)

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