Safe and secure: Inside the effort to ship aid from Cyprus to Gaza

International community already relies on island for evacuations from conflicts in the region

The UAE-backed pilot delivery of 200 tonnes of aid to Gaza by sea, in collaboration with charity World Central Kitchen. Photo: World Central Kitchen
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Cyprus says it hopes to expand its regional role in humanitarian operations to become a key player in the delivery of aid to Gaza by sea.

This has drawn broad support from the international community, as tension rises with Israel over accusations it is blocking land aid to Gaza.

Israel denies obstructing the delivery of supplies, but the issue has drawn criticism from even its closest allies, including UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron this week.

For now, few details have emerged as to how this maritime corridor would function, though a UAE-backed pilot sailing has taken place.

The Cypriot government concluded on Thursday a high-level meeting with representatives from 35 countries dedicated to scaling up the plan and confirmed the establishment of a fund to which parties can contribute.

The state-run crisis co-ordination centre in the coastal city of Larnaca has been witnessing a flurry of activity in the past weeks, signalling a strong international push in transforming Cyprus into a regional hub for humanitarian aid delivery.

Senior officials including UAE Minister of State for International Co-operation Reem Al Hashimy and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen want to rapidly scale-up operations.

The centre, known as Zenon, is situated near Larnaca International Airport in a white prefab building.

The National reports from the operations centre in Cyprus as an aid ship prepares to leave for Gaza

The National reports from the operations centre in Cyprus as an aid ship prepares to leave for Gaza

From the outside, it looks like a giant warehouse. Inside, more than 40 officials working under the Cypriot Defence Ministry run what some describe as the “brain” of crisis management in the country.

Employees are not allowed to speak on the record but The National was granted a visit on Friday.

In the operations room, four Cypriot army, navy and air force personnel are deployed to monitor distress calls from ships around the world.

From behind their multiple computer screens, these are the same officials who watched remotely as a first ship brought 200 tonnes of food to Gaza from Cyprus on Monday in what the local government has called the Amalthea initiative. This initiative was backed by the UAE.

The operation room feeds the information to the plan’s inter-agency co-ordination team that includes the Cypriot government. This team has the final say when it comes to deciding when a ship can depart for Gaza. Its exact structure is not public information.

A fraction of needs

The quantities of food delivered by sea represent a small fraction of what is needed to feed a starving population, leading to criticism of Israel from allies.

The UK's Mr Cameron said on Thursday that humanitarian aid was “routinely held up” by Israel, which he accused of “arbitrary denials”.

Such criticism follows warnings from humanitarian groups that famine will soon hit Gaza.

Overland aid deliveries are currently first scanned by Egypt, then by Israel, before entering Gaza by lorry. In one scanning centre, only two scanners are available, according to Oxfam International.

Lorries take on average 20 days to travel the 40km separating El Arish International Airport in northern Egypt from Gaza, in what Ruth James, Middle East co-ordinator for Oxfam International, described as a “completely manufactured system that does not need to exist”.

“We just need for Israel to open the border and let us bring food and medical supplies in to stop the unnecessary and preventable deaths that we are witnessing on a massive scale,” Ms James told The National.

On Thursday, the Cypriot government said it would welcome the opening of Ashdod port by Israel to complement the Amalthea initiative. The Israeli port is the closest to Gaza.

Second aid ship prepares to leave Cyprus for Gaza

Second aid ship prepares to leave Cyprus for Gaza

Cyprus, which helped evacuate close to 85,000 people from Lebanon and Israel during Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah, is a natural departure point to send aid to Gaza by sea.

It is also the EU country closest to the enclave.

“The critical infrastructure is present,” Foreign Affairs Minister Constantinos Kombos told reporters on Thursday.

“This is what we are utilising and leveraging in terms of our geographical position as well.”

The Zenon centre supported the evacuation of around 1,000 people after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks against Israel, which triggered the latest war.

From October to December, around 100 representatives from 32 countries including soldiers and consular staff worked together to get people out of Israel to Cyprus and then onwards to their home countries.

In May 2023, the Zenon centre was also used to evacuate around 2,000 people from Sudan, which is engulfed in a civil war.

Now, a second ship waits at Larnaca port to leave for Gaza. The Jennifer, which can operate in shallow waters, is loaded with 240 tonnes of aid, including chickpeas, corn and dates.

More than 32,000 people have been killed in the enclave since October and dozens of children have died of starvation in the north, local authorities have said.

About 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attacks on Israeli communities on October 7, with another 240 abducted.

The maritime deliveries are supported by the UAE, US charity World Central Kitchen and Spanish NGO Open Arms.

“The idea is to escalate the operation but [weather] conditions and other technical matters have to be taken into consideration,” Laura Lanuza, projects and communications director for Open Arms, told The National.

The first Open Arms ship, which is now back in Larnaca, towed its cargo on a floating platform.

Once it arrived near Gaza’s northern shore, the crates were unloaded by crane. Gaza’s port has been severely damaged by the war and cannot be used.

World Central Kitchen has said that the Jennifer will be accompanied by a crew to operate machinery to offload its cargo. There is no mention of a floating barge.

It remains unclear how the food will be unloaded.

“The great difficulty is always disembarking on the beach,” said Ms Lanuza. “There is not enough depth for any boat.”

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:52 PM