First aid ship to land in Gaza after tense deal with Israel

Charity behind migrant rescues to land 200 tonnes of aid on pop-up port

Volunteers from Open Arms and World Central Kitchen load food and medicine on to a ship at Larnaca harbour in Cyprus. EPA
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The first vessel carrying aid by sea to Gaza is set to arrive in the besieged strip, where it will offload 200 tonnes of desperately needed aid for Palestinian families.

Open Arms, a non-governmental organisation, told The National that it struck a deal with Israeli authorities after tense negotiations.

The vessel, carrying a floating raft packed with food and medicine donated by the UAE government and a US charity, will land on a small pontoon built by the aid group.

This is the first of several vessels being used by the UAE and World Central Kitchen to bring in aid through the maritime corridor.

"We have just one mission. We do everything in our hands to do things to comply with our mission," said Laura Lanuza, projects and communications director for Open Arms, told The National on Wednesday night.

We have just one mission. We do everything in our hands to do things to comply with our mission
Laura Lanuza, Open Arms

Donor nations and aid groups hope it will be the first of many missions.

The mission comes at a time when the UN's main agency in Gaza, the UNRWA, faces a bitter dispute with the Israeli government over unproven claims of support for Hamas and a defunding crisis.

Israel has blocked land convoys from entering Gaza, leading to a humanitarian crisis. The strip, home to more than two million people, is on the brink of starvation.

The sea corridor could be a lifeline for many of those destitute families.

Where the Open Arms will dock has been kept a secret. The NGO will organise its own landing. A port built by the US Army is in the works but would take two months to build and millions of dollars.

World Central Kitchen, a US charity run by the famous Spanish-American chef Jose Andres, has prepared the cargo of food being towed by the ship on a barge with funding from the UAE.

Talks on technical and political hurdles were arduous as the crisis dragged on, Ms Lanuza said.

First aid ship leaves Cyprus for Gaza

First aid ship leaves Cyprus for Gaza

Starting in November, plans inched forward as Jordan began air dropping small amounts of aid to specific sites amid warnings that supplies in the enclave were running low.

Experts feared that aid drops could carry a fraction of overland goods, at vastly more cost.

The sea presented a middle ground that could work around the issue of delayed trucked aid, but was cheaper than aid drops and could deliver larger volumes, when temporary port structures had been built.

This is where Open Arms has presented itself as a nimble aid group, not willing to wait for geopolitical shifts, Ms Lanuza said.

“Our team and World Central Kitchen started to work on a technical project that we had to present to Israel," she said.

"Because even if the corridor was approved by Israel, no one was available to build it, so we had to cover the technical part.

“So we created this technical project, we presented it to Israel, they approved it. The most complex part is the last mile because there are no ports in Gaza.

"The disembarkation has to be done on the shore at the beach. And that made it really, really difficult because food cannot be put into the water."

The charity has been working round the clock with partners in Gaza, including specialists from the EU, to build a jetty from rubble.

“That was a big challenge," Ms Lanuza said.

"But finally we could overcome it, finally we had all these conversations in Cyprus, with the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, with the government of Cyprus, from the embassy of Palestine, and also with Israel.”

Full details about the plan have been kept secret due to concerns about safe and organised aid distribution. They include exactly where the makeshift pier is, and how aid from the barge will reach the shore.

A second vessel, "with bigger capacity" than the Open Arms, will be able to leave Larnaca "after the off-load" of the first one, Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos told reporters on Wednesday.

"If there is no problem, we have lined up the next departure,” he said.

Previously, Open Arms was operating in the Mediterranean, saving migrants from drowning in overcrowded boats as they tried to reach Europe, operations that saw the ship being detained by Italian authorities for allegedly “facilitating illegal immigration".

While credited with saving 5,000 lives in the Mediterranean, delivering aid to Odesa in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, and assembling specialist teams after the Turkey-Syria earthquake last year, Ms Lanuza said that doing more does not necessarily depend on resources.

Instead, it is about moving quickly and having the “will” to help.

“One, in my opinion, the funding is not so important in these matters, it is the will to do things.

"World Central Kitchen and us, we are non-governmental organisations, we are funded by civil society. We are a little one with a very scarce budget."

Updated: March 14, 2024, 2:47 PM