What we know about the new Cyprus-Gaza aid corridor

UAE is pushing for the delivery of aid shipments by sea to start before Ramadan

President of Cyprus Nikos Christodoulides, left, and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen visiting the joint search and rescue co-ordination centre in Larnaca, Cyprus, on Friday.  AFP
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The UAE, US, EU and UK said they will open a sea corridor to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza from Cyprus because a negligible amount has been entering by land, and air drops can provide only a fraction of what can be carried aboard lorries.

The announcement came a day after US President Joe Biden said the US military would build a temporary port on Gaza's Mediterranean coast to receive humanitarian aid by sea, amid UN warnings of widespread famine among the enclave's 2.3 million Palestinians after nearly five months of fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas.

The National understands that aid sent from Larnaca will eventually be destined for the temporary port announced by Mr Biden. A pilot operation was launched on Friday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides before the mission's officially starts this weekend.

Here is what we know so far.

Why deliver aid by sea?

Aid organisations accuse Israel of blocking the entry of aid into the Gaza Strip, claims that have been echoed by Mr Biden, who warned Israel against using aid as a "bargaining chip".

The number of lorries that enter the strip every day is about 150 and needs to double to at least 300 to avert famine, the World Food Programme said this week. Before the war, Gaza relied on 500 lorries entering daily.

It is not clear, however, whether Israel will allow aid arriving by sea to enter the strip more easily than aid sent by land through the Rafah border crossing from Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel. Some countries have sent air drops to Gaza but the amounts delivered are insufficient.

The National understands that Israel's foreign minister at the time, Eli Cohen, approved Cypriot inspection procedures during a visit in December. At the time, Mr Cohen said he wanted to “fast-track” aid to Gaza. During the same month, Mr Christodoulides also discussed his idea with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders.

What are the details of the operation?

Speaking to reporters in Cyprus, Ms von der Leyen said that a ship belonging to Spain’s Open Arms will make a pilot voyage to test the sea corridor. The ship has been waiting at Cyprus’s port of Larnaca for permission to deliver food aid from World Central Kitchen, a US charity founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres. The operation will officially start on Sunday, according to Ms von der Leyen.

Sources with knowledge of the details of the arrangement told The National that "the push, mainly by the UAE, is for the aid shipments to start before Ramadan. The main concern was averting the famine", they said.

"The shipments will consist of 315,000 ready-to-eat meals, once fully operational, prepared in collaboration with the World Central Kitchen. The last details and logistics are being finalised," they added.

"A vehicle will transport the meals form the vessels to the closest possible point to the shore. The focus is to have a consistent supply of food that arrives and is distributed safely."

Witnesses have told The National that Gaza's port has been severely damaged in the war. Reports in Israel suggested the aid would be delivered by hovercraft to a shipping dock controlled by the Israeli army and is scheduled to arrive on Sunday.

Israel has confirmed it will conduct "security checks" on the incoming cargo to ensure it is "according to Israeli standards", in a statement published by the Foreign Ministry on Friday after the announcement.

The National understands that the maritime corridor would continue to operate in the medium to long term with the possibility of it contributing to a post-war reconstruction of Gaza.

Why Cyprus?

Cyprus is the EU country closest to Gaza, with only 200 nautical miles separating the island from Gaza. "What happens in the Middle East concerns us directly as Europeans," Mr Christodoulides said on Friday, speaking alongside Ms von der Leyen in Larnaca.

"The war across the sea from Cyprus is not a regional crisis of limited concern or impact. A spillover of the crisis would be even more catastrophic, with profound consequences in the region and beyond, and we have a responsibility to act," he said.

"The Cyprus maritime corridor aims at scaling up aid by complementing other routes that include the Rafah crossing point from Egypt and air drops from Jordan," he added. "It is also clear that we are at a point where we simply have to unlock all possible routes."

Speaking on November 9 at a Paris conference on Gaza, Mr Christodoulides said that Larnaca port could store up to 200,000 tonnes of humanitarian aid in secure deposits and transport up to 2,000 tonnes per vessel. At the time, he said that UN agencies, the ICRC and the Palestinian Authority were foreseen as controlling inspection, storage and distribution of aid.

Updated: March 08, 2024, 3:51 PM