Plan to deliver Gaza aid by sea gains momentum but groups say famine in Israel's hands

Experts and aid agencies warn that Israel allowing more aid via land crossing is only way to prevent disaster

A Palestinian man carries flour bags distributed by the UN during a temporary truce between Hamas and Israel in November in Gaza's Khan Younis. Reuters
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A plan to deliver aid to Gaza by sea was endorsed by the EU this week, but humanitarian groups warn that the only way to prevent widespread famine is for Israel to allow more lorries to bring food into the enclave by land.

Gaza is in need of vast quantities of aid, as five months of war have left many of its 2.3 million people at risk of starvation.

Israel controls the entry of relief supplies into the enclave through Gaza's Rafah border crossing with Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing, while maintaining a maritime blockade and keeping the Erez/Beit Hanoun land entry point into northern Gaza closed for aid.

Israel's staunchest ally, Washington, has grown increasingly vocal over the need for more aid to be allowed into Gaza in recent weeks as it pushes the Israeli government to agree to a ceasefire.

No maritime aid landings or air drops can compensate for destruction and relieve the famine
Hadi Fathallah, aid expert

“Our goal is clear – to establish a comprehensive aid strategy that includes air, land and sea routes to maximise the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and ensure that aid is distributed to everyone in Gaza who needs it,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Monday.

Planes from the US, France, Egypt and Jordan parachuted aid parcels into northern Gaza on Tuesday, dropping 36,800 meals, according to US Centcom, while the UAE and Egypt also delivered relief supplies by air.

Alongside carrying out air drops, US officials have also said they are considering plans to deliver aid by sea from the Mediterranean.

“We have been in touch with officials in Israel, in Cyprus, working with the UN, working with potential commercial entities, to see if we can set up a maritime route as well that would deliver assistance directly into Gaza by sea,” a senior official from the Biden administration said on Saturday.

US drops aid over Gaza

US drops aid over Gaza

President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday that the EU Commission supports the implementation of a Cypriot plan for a maritime corridor to deliver aid by sea to Gaza.

The Cypriot plan, known as the Amalthea Initiative, was first announced in November and envisages aid being collected and inspected in Cyprus before being sent to Gaza via ships checked by a committee that includes Israeli authorities.

However, the plan comes with significant obstacles.

Experts stress the most cost-effective way of getting aid into Gaza is by land.

“There is no alternative for both Egypt and Israel opening up their borders and letting aid and trade go in,” said Hadi Fathallah, an expert on regional food security who’s advised international aid organisations in the Middle East.

“No maritime aid landings or air drops can compensate for destruction and relieve the famine. This needs to be done immediately as the famine risk is snowballing each day,” said Mr Fathallah, now an analyst with the Namea consultancy.

According to the World Food Programme, almost 1,000 tonnes of aid would feed about half a million Palestinians for seven days, meaning Gaza needs more than 4,000 tonnes of food weekly.

So far, the aid provided by air has been far less than the required amount.

By air, volumes so far have been relatively small – with several Hercules or C-17 cargo planes dropping dozens of tonnes per mission at significant cost.

By sea, individual ships have not delivered aid directly into Gaza, and a large navy would be required to deliver the continuous aid required.

In November the British Royal Navy ship the Lyme Bay delivered about 200 tonnes of aid to the Gaza aid centre at Arish in Egypt during one journey.

The scale of ships needed would be difficult to supply. While the US has a fleet of amphibious ships that have previously delivered aid, they may not all be available due to other missions around the globe. One of those vessels is the USS Bataan, currently deployed in the Red Sea to intercept Houthi drones and missiles.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Japan earthquake, which devastated several cities and killed about 20,000 people, a US relief effort was able to deliver 235 tonnes of aid to the disaster zone. But it was unable to provide a sufficient response after the Turkey-Syria earthquake in 2023, when several of the necessary vessels were under maintenance in port.

France also has an amphibious assault ship deployed near Gaza, which has a 70-bed hospital on board, to assist with the crisis.

It can also carry aid and delivered 300 tonnes of food and 70,000 litres of water to the Beirut Port area following the disastrous fertiliser explosion in 2020, but these amounts also fall far short of the estimated 4,000 tonnes of food required weekly for Gaza.

The plan would also need to work out how to deliver aid into Gaza given that the enclave's major port has been damaged during the war.

Odai Al Jamal, a local aid worker who said he visited Gaza port two weeks ago, told The National that the port was “severely damaged” and the road to the port had also been churned up.

A representative from Gaza's municipality confirmed to The National that the port has been "massively destroyed."

The original plan in November envisioned a short-term solution of delivering aid directly onto the shore via landing crafts, with the construction of a floating platform in the medium-term, and building a large enclosed port in the long term.

All of these strategies would be difficult to deliver without a prolonged ceasefire, which is currently opposed by the Israeli government.

Hazem Ayyad, a Jordanian political researcher who is closely following the war, told The National the main impediment "remains Israel," which he accused of attacking aid operations.

Last week, more than 100 Palestinians were killed in disputed circumstances after Israeli forces opened fired on civilians waiting for aid in northern Gaza.

Even if a ceasefire were agreed and ships were able to distribute aid via the sea, the maritime mission would still face the issue of how to ensure aid reached Gazans equally.

"It strikes me that with Gaza no matter where it comes in you simply have the problem of distribution," said Keith Mines, a retired US diplomat and director for Latin America at the United States Institute for Peace, who said the plan faced similar issues to a US relief effort to Haiti, when aid fell into the hands of "gangs" on arrival.

Another potential issue is whether Israeli officials would facilitate the quick and efficient inspections of maritime aid needed to provide the quantities required.

Rafah bottleneck

NGOs say the process of delivering aid via the Rafah border crossing has been slowed by exhaustive inspections by Israeli authorities, who say they must ensure no items considered a security risk enter Gaza.

“As hard as it is to quantify how much aid is needed now, it is almost physically impossible to get it all in via Rafah, which isn't designed for commercial use,” said Jessica Moussan, spokeswoman for the Red Cross.

"Sustained and unhindered humanitarian flow is imperative to be able to try to respond to the huge needs in Gaza."

Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he wants the maritime plan proposed by Cyprus in November to deliver a "fast track" for aid to Gaza.

"We want to create a fast track for the humanitarian aid shipped to Gaza," Mr Cohen said after visiting Cyprus for talks on the plan in December.

However, under the plan, Israeli authorities would still be involved in checking all aid deliveries before they left the Cypriot port of Larnaca, and therefore the risk of similar delays to those at the Rafah border remains.

Other experts have said that ultimately the only way to ensure sufficient aid reaches Gaza is for Israel to enable the passage of aid via land.

They questioned whether the US is willing or able to pressure the Israeli government to do so.

"Just like airdrops, this is a very complicated and insufficient substitute for getting Israel to open the land crossings - the only effective way to bring in aid," said Martin Konecny, director of Brussels-based think tank, the European Middle East Project.

"It plays into the Israeli desire to seal off Gaza and renounce any civilian responsibility," he told The National.

"It's a symptom of US inability or unwillingness to pressure its ally into opening the crossings while it keeps supplying it with weapons and backing it at the UNSC and the ICJ."

Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Thomas Watkins and Nada AlTaher contributed to this report.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 10:20 AM