As first ship sails, Israel to inspect all aid from Cyprus; aid groups will distribute

Official says increasing humanitarian aid to Gazans is crucial for international legitimacy during war; IDF to ensure no attacks or looting at new jetty built to accept goods

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A ship, left, belonging to the Open Arms aid group departs from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Gaza with some 200 tons of rice and flour, March 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A ship, left, belonging to the Open Arms aid group departs from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Gaza with some 200 tons of rice and flour, March 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Israel has been working for three months on bringing aid to Gaza from Cyprus by ship, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday night, hours before a vessel inaugurating the sea route set sail from Larnaca.

The official said that Israel understood early on that it needs international legitimacy to prosecute the campaign against Hamas, and that “international legitimacy is mainly the humanitarian issue.”

Gaza has been facing a mounting humanitarian crisis since the war erupted with Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, which saw thousands of Hamas terrorists burst into Israel, killing 1,200 people and kidnapping another 253, mostly civilians, amid horrific acts of brutality and sexual assault.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza has been the focus of international criticism of Israel’s war effort, including from the White House. According to anonymous US officials speaking to Politico, US President Joe Biden has considered placing conditions on military aid to Israel if it launches a widespread ground offensive in the southern Gaza city Rafah, where over a million internally displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

Sea routes were an attractive option for Israel because they allow aid to be delivered to Gaza without requiring land crossings from Israel, helping to sever links to the Strip, said the official.

“There was one condition – that everything is inspected, supervised, that we control it,” said the official. “That we can say from a security perspective, all sorts of things that we don’t want are not coming in.”

A Palestinian man transports sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3, 2024. (Photo by AFP)

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides offered the use of his country’s port in Larnaca months ago for a sea route for aid deliveries to Gaza, a 230-mile (370-kilometer) journey.

Cyprus invited authorities from Israel, the US and other European countries to join Cypriot agents in vetting all shipments so nothing could be used by Hamas against Israel. The offer received strong interest from the Americans, Europeans and others, and extended planning followed.

Representatives from the Foreign Ministry and COGAT flew to Larnaca to examine the port and work out with Cyprus how exactly the shipments would be secured.

“We were in touch with several countries that wanted to do this, in our neighborhood, the US, also Gulf states,” said the official.

This handout photo shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (C) and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi meeting at the ‘Bahad 1’ military base in southern Israel, March 7, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The cargo will be examined by the Shin Bet and Israeli customs officials in Larnaca, then will sail for Gaza. For now, ships will dock at a temporary pier being built south of Gaza City by the World Central Kitchen.

The WCK will unload the cargo, place it in temporary storage facilities it is building, and then send it to Gazan civilians.

The IDF will have troops at a remove from the WKC facility to ensure there are no attacks on the aid workers or looting of the goods.

The aid convoys will initially go to northern Gaza to make sure the mechanism works, then will also head south as the operation begins running more smoothly.

“Our goal is to establish a maritime highway of boats and barges stocked with millions of meals continuously headed towards Gaza,” WCK founder and celebrity chef José Andrés and chief executive officer Erin Gore said in a statement.

Most aid currently gets into the south of Gaza via land crossings at Kerem Shalom and the Rafah gateway into Egypt, but the official said use of those crossings will be constricted once fighting begins in Rafah. That means Israel will need to open crossings directly into the northern Gaza Strip, said the official.

With the lack of port infrastructure, WCK is building a small landing jetty in Gaza with material from destroyed buildings and rubble. It has said it had another 500 tons of aid amassed in Cyprus which would also be dispatched.

Spanish celebrity chef Jose Andres, founder of WCK, posted on X after the Open Arms had set sail that the jetty was still under construction.

“We may fail, but the biggest failure will be not trying!” he wrote, alongside a nighttime photo of Gazans building the jetty with construction vehicles.

WCK, a global organization created by Andrés after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, has also partnered with Israeli restaurants and catering companies to deliver thousands of meals to Israeli civilians and soldiers in destinations including Sderot, Beersheba and the Golan Heights.

The IDF is not organizing its own convoys, the official stressed, because it needs to use troops for combat missions.

Troops operate in Gaza, in a handout image published by the IDF on March 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We want to do the maximum possible, with minimum manpower, to allow maximum humanitarian aid,” the official explained.

The official added that there will be no limits imposed by Israel on the amount of food, medicine, and water that comes in.

Israel is confident that once the sea lane begins working properly, the chances of a melee around shipments like a deadly incident last month will decline dramatically.

“The more the population sees that there is a system, a mechanism, they will understand — then people won’t loot and fight over the aid,” said the official.

As for the US-built pier announced by Biden during his State of the Union address last week, the details are still being worked out, said the official.

“There is an IDF/Centcom group examining how exactly it will work,” the official said.

The US military said a vessel had been dispatched to the region with construction equipment. US officials said that it would likely be weeks before the pier is operational. Construction is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars and take up to 60 days, The New York Times reported.

In this image obtained from the US Central Command (CENTCOM), military personnel prepare to load humanitarian aid into US Air Force C-130 planes at an undisclosed location on March 5, 2024, in a joint US-Jordan operation. (Handout/US Central Command/AFP)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant voiced support for the plan on Sunday, saying the initiative would help speed along Israel’s goal of toppling the Hamas terror group.

“The process is designed to bring aid directly to the residents and thus continue the collapse of Hamas’s rule in Gaza,” Gallant said while touring the Gaza coast from a Dvora-class navy patrol boat.

Officials from the UN and various relief organizations say food and other humanitarian aid have been slow to get into the Strip and be distributed, especially to northern Gaza, hampered by Israeli inspections, the location of crossings in the south of the Strip, and desperate Gazans, as well as looters, who pick trucks clean before they can reach the north part of the enclave.

Amid warnings of famine, the US, Jordan and others have stepped up efforts to get in aid by air and now sea, though UN officials insist ground deliveries remain the most efficient way to deliver relief.

Agencies contributed to this report. 

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