Gaza aid ship Open Arms sets sail from Cyprus as Palestinians face famine

Charity vessel is carrying about 200 tonnes of food destined for the besieged enclave

Gaza-bound Open Arms aid vessel carrying humanitarian supplies departs Larnaca, Cyprus. Reuters
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A charity ship carrying about 200 tonnes of food destined for Gaza departed from a port in Cyprus early on Tuesday in a pilot project to open a new sea route for aid.

Open Arms, the aid charity that operates the ship of the same name, announced on the X social media platform that "the maritime humanitarian corridor to the Strip is opened, in a highly complex mission that we trust will be the first of many".

The vessel was seen sailing out of Larnaca port in Cyprus, towing a barge containing flour, rice and protein, to the besieged enclave on the brink of famine.

Open Arms is partnered by US charity World Central Kitchen, with the two sides operating the first shipment.

The shipment is a test for the opening of a sea corridor to supply aid to the territory. Planned in November last year, the sea route was arranged by the UAE, the US, the EU, the UK and Cyprus.

Once the ship approaches the Palestinian enclave, two smaller vessels will tow the barge to a jetty that World Central Kitchen is building at an undisclosed location, organisers said. It is a separate initiative from that announced by the US last week, which plans to build a temporary pier in the enclave to facilitate aid deliveries by sea.

The WCK then plans to distribute it through the 60 kitchens it operates across Gaza.

"Our goal is to establish a maritime highway of boats and barges stocked with millions of meals continuously headed towards Gaza," said World Central Kitchen founder Jose Andres and chief executive Erin Gore.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said the voyage is “one of hope and humanity” and would provide a “lifeline to civilians”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in a post on X, thanked Mr Christodoulides for setting up the maritime corridor.

"The departure of the first ship is a sign of hope. We will work hard together for many more ships to follow," she said.

"We will do everything in our power for aid to reach Palestinians."

Tuesday's mission, if successful, would effectively signal the first easing of an Israeli naval blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the Palestinian enclave.

The journey to Gaza is estimated to take up to two days due to the heavy tow barge. A regular vessel would reach the enclave in 15 hours. Cyprus is about 320km north-west of Gaza.

The US military said its vessel, the General Frank S Besson, was also en route to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza by sea.

The vessel was originally set to depart on Sunday, with aid workers saying they were "ready to go". Reports in Cyprus blamed unspecified "technical reasons" for the delay.

Cyprus had said its maritime corridor would offer a fast-track workaround to getting aid delivered where needed.

Israel says it welcomes the sea route to Gaza as long as the cargo goes through security checks. Cyprus indicated all necessary permits were already in place, possibly eliminating the need for offloading inspections to remove hold-ups in aid deliveries.

With the lack of port infrastructure in Gaza, WCK has said it was creating a landing jetty with material from destroyed buildings and rubble. It has said it had another 500 tonnes of aid in Cyprus, which would also be sent.

The UN estimates a quarter of the population in the strip is at risk of starvation, and aid is barely scratching the surface of daily needs.

Updated: March 13, 2024, 3:11 AM