Biden to announce plan for aid port off Gaza as Europe pushes for maritime deliveries

Talks on proposed shipments from a port in Cyprus due to take place on Friday as famine fears grow

Aid packages are dropped into northern Gaza from a military aircraft. Reuters
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President Joe Biden is set to announce a plan on Thursday for the US military to help establish a temporary port off Gaza to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the besieged territory, officials said.

The development comes a day before Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, flies to Cyprus to support a maritime aid corridor between the island and Gaza.

Mr Biden was expected to provide details on the Mediterranean mission in his State of the Union speech on Thursday night.

A senior administration official said the operation will not require US troops on land to build the "pier or causeway facility".

It would allow more shipments of food, medicine and other essential items into Gaza, where health authorities say about 30,700 people have been killed since October 7 and most of the population is facing starvation.

A senior US defence official told reporters the US military had "unique" capabilities that would allow them to build the structure from vessels offshore.

The official said the US had worked "very closely" with the Israelis to develop the initiative and that they, in turn, have also worked closely with Cyprus.

All parties will continue to engage on security issues on the project.

One of the officials said the US was working with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure the aid was delivered to those who needed it.

Central Command chief Gen Michael Kurilla, meanwhile, told US senators that sending a hospital ship to treat wounded Palestinians “would be an option” and that he could use such a vessel currently on the East Coast of the US if given the order.

“I mean, there are obviously many wounded, if that is the direction," Gen Kurilla said. "I know that there was hospital ship on the East Coast. If I was given that, I would figure out the best way to utilise that."

Two US senators last week sent a letter to Mr Biden urging him to send a hospital ship.

The announcement comes as Mr Biden, who is standing for re-election in November, faces continued domestic backlash for his support to Israel and the slow pace of aid deliveries to Gaza.

In Brussels, European powers are working to support the maritime aid corridor to Gaza from Cyprus, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock revealed on Thursday, as Ms von der Leyen flies to the island on Friday to discuss the project.

She will hold talks with Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides on the sea route plan, as fears grow of a famine in Gaza.

"Because every single aid package counts, we are working with the EU and our partners in the region," Ms Baerbock said.

"The fact we are now loading up ships and planes as well as lorries, although it's far more complicated, shows above all that far too little aid is getting into Gaza. That has to change."

Speaking alongside her, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said diplomats "must look at the options on the sea" as they pile pressure on Israel to let more aid enter by land.

Mr Christodoulides first put forward the idea of seaborne shipments to blockaded Gaza in November, less than a month after Israel launched its retaliatory military operation after the October 7 Hamas-led attacks in southern Israel.

It is understood that the project would remain under the supervision of Cyprus with the EU Commission playing a role in co-ordination support.

“We are stage now where Cypriot authorities have invited us to come to Cyprus in order to launch the project,” commission spokesman Eric Mamer said on Thursday.

The Cypriot initiative has recently gained traction as about 300,000 people that remain in the north of the Gaza Strip face starvation due to Israel blocking the entry of humanitarian aid, according to NGOs.

The UN says that one in six children aged under two in the north has acute malnutrition, which has killed at least 15 children.

"The wholesale collapse of public order in Gaza makes clear that it cannot and must not go on like this," Ms Baerbock said in Berlin.

After visiting Cyprus to discuss the plan in December, Israel's then foreign minister Eli Cohen said he wanted it to deliver “fast-track” aid to Gaza.

During the same month, Mr Christodoulides also discussed his idea with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders.

Latest from the Israel-Gaza war - in pictures

The US sent its first air drop into Gaza in co-operation with Jordan last week and has since sent at least two more, including one on Thursday.

European and Arab countries have done the same but aid organisations have warned that this method is less efficient than sending relief on lorries.

These announcements followed the so-called “flour massacre” on February 29, in which at least 112 people were killed in northern Gaza as they tried to collect aid from lorries under the supervision of the Israeli army.

Local doctors said victims sustained gunshot wounds from Israeli soldiers but the military said most people died as a result of a stampede.

“Israel must end its campaign of starvation and targeting of civilians,” UN experts said on Tuesday.

'A lot of hurdles'

Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week reported that a shipment of aid would arrive by sea to Gaza on Sunday.

It is linked to chef Jose Andres, who has the backing of several Arab governments. The aid will be delivered by ships loaded in Cyprus and inspected by Israeli authorities, according to the newspaper.

The Cypriot proposal involves the inspection of aid by a joint committee involving Israel, Mr Christodoulides said on November 9 when he presented the plan to Ms von der Leyen, as well as European and Arab leaders at a conference on Gaza in Paris.

He identified the south-west coast of Gaza as a possible landing area where the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Palestinian Authority would control the inspection, transport, storage and distribution of aid.

EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said air drops were “good but insufficient” and “sea corridors [are] needed but take time".

“Time is of the essence,” warned Mr Borrell. “All those concerned about the situation in Gaza should put pressure on [the] Israeli government to grant unimpeded humanitarian land access and not blocking convoys,” he said.

Ms von der Leyen is heading to Cyprus after she was confirmed on Thursday as the candidate of the broad European centre-right for a second term as commission president.

The Commission has so far sent 1,800 tonnes of aid on 41 flights to Al Arish airport in Egypt, where the aid is then transferred by the Egyptian Red Crescent to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The Commission has said it was looking into air drops, which would be a first for the institution.

It also funds partner organisations, such as the UN, that distribute humanitarian aid in Gaza.

On Thursday the Commission announced its approval for the disbursement of €81 million in humanitarian aid out of an overall €125 million unveiled last week.

The funds will be transferred to six organisations: the UN organisation for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA); the ICRC; the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC); the UN Children's Fund (Unicef); the World Food Programme; and the World Health Organisation.

It is understood that a first tranche of €16 million unlocked last week also went to the UNRWA.

The disbursements come after the EU Commission said it would unlock €50 million in development funds for UNRWA, which represents 60 per cent of the funds it had planned for the agency before it publicised in late January Israeli accusations that 12 of its staff were involved in the October 7 attacks.

Unlike many other large donors, the Commission did not suspend its transfers but made requests for extra transparency.

It has said it would proceed with further transfers if it deems that the UNRWA has fulfilled its requirements.

The agency has warned it is on the brink of collapse due to funding cuts.

Tim Stickings contributed reporting

Updated: March 08, 2024, 10:59 AM