How is the Open Arms ship delivering aid to Gaza by sea?

Multinational plan for shipments of humanitarian delivery, first discussed in November, is scaling up rapidly

The Open Arms vessel with the humanitarian food aid at the Cypriot port of Larnaca. AFP
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A maritime effort to deliver aid to Gaza began on Thursday, with Cyprus serving as an aid hub for the mission.

The UAE and the EU heavily back the delivery of the relief with two aid organisations, Open Arms and World Central Kitchen, providing a ship and 200 tonnes of food, with UAE funding. The vessel was hours away from Gaza's coastline on Thursday afternoon.

The plan involved lengthy negotiations with Israel, which has been accused of deliberately holding up aid deliveries at the Rafah-Egypt border.

Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is facing food insecurity, while at least 500,000 face famine, according to UN assessments.

Separately, there is another maritime aid effort en route from the US, which will involve the construction of a floating pier in Gaza. The White House has stressed there will be no need to deploy US forces in Gaza as part of the operation.

Experts say the US effort could take months but both plans would deliver tens of thousands of tonnes of much-needed aid.

Here’s everything you need to know about the first aid to Gaza by sea, known as the Amalthea Initiative.

What is the Open Arms and World Central Kitchen Gaza plan?

Before President Joe Biden announced the US plan this month, talks had begun in November in Cyprus to send aid by sea, with cargo being checked and inspected by Israel in Larnaca.

The UAE was an early backer of the plan, with the Minister of State and UAE ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba saying “a maritime corridor with ongoing shipments is the only way to deliver large quantities of aid into Gaza. All parties must support this humanitarian mission”.

The idea was approved by Israel in December. However, on Wednesday, Open Arms told The National that technical plans still had to be drawn up. The charity's ship, of the same name, was previously involved in rescuing migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Last week, the European Commission announced the mission was set to expand. On Wednesday, Cyprus said a second, larger shipment of aid was ready to leave port as soon as the first delivery went ahead.

World Central Kitchen said it was loading a vessel at Larnaca port with 300 tonnes of food aid, including legumes, canned tuna, vegetables, rice and flour.

"Our pallets should be screened and loaded by the end of the day Cyprus time," the charity said in a statement. It did not say when the vessel would set sail.

“Cyprus' leadership in establishing the Amalthea Initiative – which outlines a mechanism for securely shipping aid from Cyprus to Gaza via sea – was integral to enabling this joint effort to launch a maritime corridor,” the European Commission said.

“Together, our nations intend to build on this model to deliver significant additional aid by sea, working in co-ordination with UN senior humanitarian and reconstruction co-ordinator for Gaza Sigrid Kaag – who is charged with facilitating, co-ordinating, monitoring, and verifying the flow of aid into Gaza.”

The EC praised “the dedicated efforts of the UAE to mobilise support for the Initiative will result in the initial shipment of food by sea to the people of Gaza”.

How will the Gaza aid plan move forward?

As Gaza’s small port is damaged and cannot handle large amounts of cargo, World Central Kitchen, which has a network of 60 kitchens throughout Gaza, has worked with locals to build a 60-metre-long jetty to deliver aid from the barge, a plan announced by its founder Jose Andres.

Towing an aid barge, the Open Arms – originally a search-and-rescue vessel – has been in service for 50 years. The charity says the ship has sailed the equivalent of twice round the world on humanitarian missions and has rescued a total of "8,159 migrants in danger of death" in the Mediterranean, Angelo Attanasio, spokesman for the charity, told The National.

Open Arms has a five-metre draft, limiting how close it can approach the Gazan shore. Currently, shallow draft military landing craft – which can land on the beach – are unavailable. One diplomatic source told The National this idea was being considered.

The plans could expand rapidly, according to Cypriot Foreign Minister Constantinos Kombos, and experts from the EU have been assessing how to widen the project. Larnaca reportedly has a capacity for 200,000 tonnes of aid.

On Wednesday, Mr Kombos held a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior ministers and officials from the UK, the UAE, Qatar, the EU and the UN to discuss the maritime corridor.

“The ministers agreed that there is no meaningful substitute to land routes via Egypt and Jordan and entry points from Israel into Gaza for aid delivery at scale,” they said.

They also called on Israel to open the port of Ashdod, north of Gaza, for aid deliveries.

Senior officials will gather in Cyprus on Monday for “in-depth” briefings on the corridor.

Updated: March 14, 2024, 11:49 AM