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First ship to use new humanitarian corridor delivers aid to Gaza



 A ship belonging to the Open Arms aid group approaches the shores of Gaza towing a barge with 200 tons of humanitarian aid, on March 15, 2024. [AP Photo]

The Israeli military says a ship carrying 200 tons of humanitarian supplies for Gaza reached the enclave Friday and unloaded its cargo, inaugurating a sea route from Cyprus meant to help ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The ship, Open Arms, was the first to sail the new maritime corridor from Cyprus, departing three days ago.

It carried food provided by World Central Kitchen, the charity founded by chef and philanthropist Jose Andres. Spanish aid group Open Arms, for whom the vessel is named, transported the aid. The vessel docked Friday at a temporary jetty.

Israel’s military said Friday evening that the ship’s cargo had been unloaded onto 12 trucks.

The new maritime corridor was created in order to bring more aid to Gaza, where the United Nations warns that 576,000 people are on the brink of conflict-related famine and virtually all of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are experiencing food insecurity.

The corridor is being coordinated by the United States, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, the European Union and the United Nations.

While humanitarians say any additional aid is welcome, they emphasize that ships and air drops are no substitute for the volume of aid that trucks can carry, and they have repeatedly called for Israel to open more border crossings and roads into Gaza.

The U.S. military has dispatched a ship to the Mediterranean to build a temporary pier on the Gaza shoreline to provide passage for more aid but says it may take up to two months to complete.

Cease-fire efforts

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States was working intensively with Israel, Qatar and Egypt to reach an agreement for a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas and for an extended cease-fire in the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

“We have conversations that are happening now as we speak here. I am convinced that they will go on into the coming days,” Blinken told reporters at a joint news conference with Austria’s foreign minister in Vienna.

He said that Hamas had put forward a counterproposal and that Israel had sent a negotiating team to Qatar to pursue further talks, after they stalled recently, dashing hopes of a pause in fighting ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday in much of the world.

“I think it reflects the sense both of possibility and of urgency to get an agreement — to get a cease-fire, to get the hostages back, to get even more humanitarian assistance in,” Blinken said of Israel’s return to the negotiating table. “This is something that we are committed to, and we will work as long and as hard as it takes to get it done.”

A statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that Hamas' proposal was “unrealistic” but that Israel would send negotiators to Qatar for more talks.

Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had approved plans for a military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than 1.3 million Palestinians are sheltering. He said the army was preparing operational issues and the evacuation of the civilian population.

The Biden administration has said it needs to see a clear and achievable plan for such a ground operation and that it must protect civilians. Blinken said the administration has not yet seen such a plan.

More dead in new aid incidents

The Israeli military denied Friday that its soldiers had opened fire on Palestinians waiting for an aid convoy late Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip, where severe hunger is pervasive.

In conflicting accounts of what happened, Palestinian health officials in Gaza said at least 21 people were killed and more than 150 were injured by Israeli fire on a crowd awaiting aid trucks in northern Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces denied their troops opened fire in Kuwait Square. The military said that about an hour before the convoy arrived, “armed Palestinians” opened fire on the civilians waiting for aid.

“As aid trucks were entering, the Palestinian gunmen continued to shoot as the crowd of Gazans began looting the trucks,” the IDF said in a statement. “Additionally, a number of Gazan civilians were run over by the trucks.”

The military said a preliminary review found “no tank fire, air-strike or gunfire” from their troops, but they are continuing to review the incident.

The United Nations says people are starving in northern Gaza. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, said Friday that 31% of children under age 2 are suffering from acute malnutrition — double the percentage in January. Some 4.5% of children UNICEF has screened are suffering from wasting — the most life-threatening form of malnutrition. At least 23 children have reportedly died from malnutrition and dehydration in recent weeks, as famine concerns grow.

“We have repeatedly attempted to deliver additional aid, and we have repeatedly called for the access challenges we have faced for months to be addressed,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF executive director. “Instead, the situation for children is getting worse with each passing day. Our efforts in providing life-saving aid are being hampered by unnecessary restrictions, and those are costing children their lives.”

The United Nations says Israel has facilitated only about a quarter of planned humanitarian missions to the north since the war started.

In a separate incident in central Gaza, the health ministry said an Israeli airstrike hit an aid distribution center in al-Nuseirat camp, killing and injuring several civilians.

Israel began its military campaign to wipe out Hamas after the group’s fighters carried out a terror attack in southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 250 people as hostages. About 130 remain in captivity, but Israeli officials say they believe about 30 were either taken as corpses in the attacks or died in captivity.

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says nearly 31,500 Palestinians have been killed and more than 73,000 others wounded. More remains are believed to be under the rubble. The United Nations said Thursday that it would take years to clear the nearly 23 million metric tons of destroyed homes and buildings across Gaza and to remove unexploded ordnances.

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