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An aid ship is en route to Gaza, in a test of a sea corridor for the war-torn enclave

Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between NGOs Open Arms and World Central Kitchen at a port of Larnaca, Cyprus, March 9.
Santi Palacios
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Open Arms-World Central Kitchen/Handout via Reuters
Open Arms members carry humanitarian aid for Gaza in a joint mission between NGOs Open Arms and World Central Kitchen at a port of Larnaca, Cyprus, March 9.

AMMAN, Jordan A barge loaded with food is on its way to Gaza from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in a test of a possible maritime aid corridor meant to help avert what United Nations officials say is imminent famine after five months of war and Israeli restrictions on aid.

Since the start of the war in October, Israeli attacks in Gaza have destroyed most of its infrastructure, while Israel's restrictions on food and medicine entering by truck have left most of the enclave at risk of famine and vulnerable to disease, according to the U.N.

Israel says it needs to ensure that weapons are not being smuggled into Gaza. But the European Union's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that starvation is being used as a weapon of war.

Enter World Central Kitchen, a U.S.-based aid organization founded by celebrity humanitarian-chef José Andrés. The organization has partnered with Open Arms, a Spanish nongovernmental aid group that is using its ship of the same name. The United Arab Emirates provided funding for the food while Cyprus provided logistical help.

While WCK and other aid groups are scrambling to find alternative ways to deliver aid to Gaza because of Israeli restrictions, they have also had to rely on Israeli cooperation to pursue the alternate routes and devise a way to offload pallets of aid.

"The most difficult part, the diplomatic technicalities, already is kind of behind us," Andrés says. "The most difficult part ahead is as we speak, we are finalizing the construction of a temporary jetty."

Five months of intense Israeli bombing added to previous destruction and an Israeli blockade of Gaza since Hamas took control there in 2007 have devastated Gaza's infrastructure, including hospitals, water treatment plants, schools and universities.

Israel destroyed Gaza's airport during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2001 and since October has further damaged what remained of Gaza's fishing port.

Jordan has taken the lead in airdropping aid into Gaza, along with the United States and other partner countries. But the airdrops are extremely expensive, and with ongoing fighting, they are difficult to target and almost impossible to distribute on the ground.

WCK has been providing meals in Gaza since the start of the war, and once it builds the jetty, will unload the cargo onto smaller boats to take the aid ashore to be distributed to its network of 64 kitchens.

Israel approved and inspected the goods that will be going into Gaza. Andrés says they were not allowed to bring in machinery, equipment or the concrete blocks requested for the operation, but the aid organizations are improvising with what they have. Israel bars a large range of goods to Gaza, saying they could be used by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza.

"We have crews working 24-7 and we are really trying to build this 60-meter [yard]-long jetty that will allow us then successfully, if things go well, to start bringing in humanitarian aid in bigger quantities," Andrés says.

Laura Lanuza, communications director for Open Arms, says it has taken three weeks to deal with regulations, restrictions and logistics after the boat arrived in Cyprus.

The Open Arms vessel, carrying almost 200 tons of food aid to Gaza, is seen docked in the Cypriot port of Larnaca on March 9.
Iakovos Hatzistavrou / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
The Open Arms vessel, carrying almost 200 tons of food aid to Gaza, is seen docked in the Cypriot port of Larnaca on March 9.

"We had a huge challenge in front of us trying to make this happen," she says.

Lanuza says each box of food was individually scanned under supervision of Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories at Larnaca port in Cyprus to ensure it did not have contraband before it was loaded onto the barge and then the entire shipment sealed.

"We have to be cautious and we have to follow all the protocols that we have in order to have a good end to this," she says, adding there is food waiting at the port in Cyprus for an immediate second trip if the first goes well.

The mission, which began Tuesday, is expected to take several days because of the slow speed necessitated by the heavily laden barge, and the logistics of building the floating jetty.

The organizers said they were not disclosing where on the coast the vessel was planning to land for security reasons.

The barge's cargo — roughly 200 tons of food, including lentils, rice and canned meat — is the equivalent of only about 10 trucks of aid.

The main land entry for aid to Gaza through Egypt has 30,000 trucks backed up waiting for entry, says Ahmed Naimat, a spokesman for Jordan's National Center for Security and Crisis Management.

He says some trucks of Jordanian aid have been waiting in a line for two months for approval to enter.

"Israel's military operations are intended to cut off life to Palestinians — especially for medical and food services," Naimat says.

Israel has blamed delays on U.N. agencies. The U.N. has said Israeli forces have not just delayed approval for truck convoys, butturned away key aid to northern Gaza and attacked its staff and facilities.

Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, has accused the Israeli military of deliberately targeting its field hospitals in Gaza. Israel has said it was aiming at Hamas militants.

Humanitarian aid for Palestinians on the Gaza Strip is loaded onto a Jordanian Air Force aircraft in Amman on March 10, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
Ahmad Shouraa / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Humanitarian aid for Palestinians on the Gaza Strip is loaded onto a Jordanian Air Force aircraft in Amman on March 10, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

Jordan and other countries have continued airdrops into Gaza in a desperate effort to save at least some people from starvation despite the considerable risks. Last week, Gaza health authorities said five people were killed when a parachute on one of the pallets dropped by a Jordanian partner failed to open.

The United States insists it is pressing Israel to allow in more aid by land but has announced itplans to set up a floating dock to deliver aid by sea in bigger ships. The project is likely to take several weeks and still faces severe obstacles in widely distributing the aid.

The war has left most of Gaza's 2.3 million people homeless and the U.N. says a quarter of the population is malnourished. The U.N., quoting Gaza health officials, says at least 23 children have already starved to death.

Malnutrition is particularly acute in northern Gaza, which has been largely cut off by Israeli forces over the last five months and where UNICEF says 1 in 6 children under the age of 2 is acutely malnourished.

Last week, the United Kingdom's foreign secretary, David Cameron, told the House of Lordsthat the amount of aid allowed into Gaza last month was half of that received in January, adding that the patience of Israel's allies with the humanitarian crisis was "wearing thin."

World Central Kitchen plans to use its existing distribution network and to increase to about 100 the number of kitchens it is operating in Gaza to prepare and distribute meals. Andrés says so far the aid organization has provided more than 35 million meals there.

"It will be very easy to solve if we will be able to open other entry points around Israel that can double or triple the amount of trucks reaching Gaza every single day," Andrés says. "But for various reasons this is not happening and this is out of our control."

"The necessity and the urgency are so great that the worst thing we can do is not try new ways," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.