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Cyprus vows more aid ships to Gaza as first vessel of food sets sail: ‘This journey of hope has just begun’

The ‘Open Arms’, a rescue vessel, departs with humanitarian aid for Gaza from Larnaca, Cyprus (Reuters)
The ‘Open Arms’, a rescue vessel, departs with humanitarian aid for Gaza from Larnaca, Cyprus (Reuters)

A ship carrying more than 200 tonnes of food for Gaza has set sail from Cyprus – with officials saying it is “step one” in a plan to significantly ramp up aid via a new sea route to help alleviate a “dire and catastrophic situation” for a population on the brink of famine.

Speaking to The Independent from the operational centre at the port of Larnaca, Theodoros Gotsis, from Cyprus’s foreign ministry, said that if the pilot mission worked, they aimed to significantly increase deliveries in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday morning, a boat provided by Spanish charity Open Arms and coordinated by US-based charity World Central Kitchen (WCK) sailed out, towing a barge containing flour, rice, protein and canned vegetables. The mission was partly funded by the UAE and WCK, with the charity currently running 60 community kitchens inside Gaza.

It is the culmination of months of planning by Cyprus, the EU member state which is closest to the conflict and which keeps a wary eye on the spread of violence across the Middle East. The Open Arms was originally due to leave port over the weekend but was delayed by technical difficulties.

Cyprus already managed the sea delivery of some aid earmarked for Gaza with the UK in January, a shipment which ended in Egypt’s Port Said.

Gotsis says that the journey of 200 nautical miles to Gaza is expected to take the Open Arms 40 hours, while inside the joint rescue coordination centre, Cypriot officers are monitoring its progress in real time: the vessel is required to check in every hour.

“The humanitarian needs are immense. As a country of the region, the least we can do is our fair share – we consider this as our basic obligation,” the foreign ministry spokesperson says, as a live feed shows the boat continuing its journey in the background. “This is an effort which will scale up steadily. We hope to supplement the already huge effort being done by other partners in the region.”

The sea route, he says, is only “supplemental”, adding that “we must strengthen all available routes”, including the land crossings into Gaza. “The journey is one of hope and humanity. And it has only just begun,” he says.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen first confirmed the initiative would go ahead last week and thanked the Cypriot president Nikos Christodoulides, saying Tuesday’s boat was  “a sign of hope”. She later said the Cypriot maritime route would allow similar smaller vessels – carrying aid checked by Israel in Cyprus – to reach Gaza, as well as larger ships coordinated by the US later on.

Separately, President Joe Biden has announced that the US is building a temporary floating pier in north Gaza, to receive large shipments of aid. The Pentagon has however admitted this pier could take as long as 60 days to complete.

Cypriot officers monitor the progress of the Open Arms/WCK aid ship going to Gaza (Bel Trew)
Cypriot officers monitor the progress of the Open Arms/WCK aid ship going to Gaza (Bel Trew)

Jose Andres, the Michelin-starred chef who founded WCK, says the goal “is to establish a maritime highway of boats and barges stocked with millions of meals continuously headed towards Gaza”.

WCK is constructing its own smaller jetty from destroyed buildings and rubble to receive the aid in the north of Gaza. Andres says this was “well under way” and hoped the pilot mission would be successful.

Israel has launched a ferocious bombardment of Gaza and imposed a total siege in retaliation for Hamas’s bloody attack on 7 October, during which around 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 were taken hostage.

In Gaza, health ministry officials say Israel’s bombardment has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children – with people now dying from hunger and disease. The United Nations said that a quarter of the 2.2-million population is one step from famine, as supply lines to the 42km-long enclave have been curtailed under intense Israeli restrictions.

People queue for food that is cooked in large pots and distributed for free in Rafah, southern Gaza (Getty)
People queue for food that is cooked in large pots and distributed for free in Rafah, southern Gaza (Getty)

Cogat, the unit in Israel’s defence ministry tasked with coordinating with the Palestinians, has denied accusations of strangling aid to Gaza in statements to The Independent – saying it has two functioning land crossings in the south. But aid groups say it is nearly impossible to deliver aid in much of Gaza because of Israeli impediments, ongoing fighting and the breakdown of law and order after the Hamas-run police force largely vanished from the streets. Aid agencies have called on Israel to open more land crossings; there are at least six in total.

In the interim, states and charities have taken to more extreme means to try to get more food and medical supplies into the besieged strip, including air drops over the north of Gaza, where 300,000 are living with little to no supplies, and the new sea route.

The UN’s humanitarian office welcomed efforts to provide aid by sea and air but warned they would not be enough.

“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.”

Pressure is on for a temporary or permanent ceasefire to allow the unhindered delivery of aid. The US, Qatar and Egypt had tried to broker a temporary ceasefire and release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on Sunday. But the talks stalled last week as Hamas demanded that any temporary pause in the fighting come with guarantees for ending the war.

Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between the NGO and World Central Kitchen in the port of Larnaca (via Reuters)
Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between the NGO and World Central Kitchen in the port of Larnaca (via Reuters)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to expand the offensive into the southern city of Rafah, the last refuge in Gaza where 1.5 million people are sheltering, many in tents. President Biden is coming under increasing pressure to ensure greater delivery of aid to Gaza and a truce, particularly as his administration has faced fierce criticism for providing crucial military aid for Israel while urging it to facilitate more humanitarian access.

Speaking to The Independent, Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat senator for Massachusetts, said that the temporary port was “one way the United States can step up” but the US should also be pressuring Israel as well “to open up more land access”.

“People are starving in Gaza. And we cannot stand by and let that happen,” she said.

Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat in Oregon – who has called for a ceasefire – said that “every step they take forward in providing direct aid is extremely important”, including the port initiative.

However, he believes that aid deliveries need to speed up. “There needs to be direct supplies delivered to the remaining hospitals,” he said. “No woman should undergo a C-section without anaesthesia. Children are going through amputations without anaesthesia. Just basic medical supplies like insulin and antibiotics are missing.”