Middle East Crisis: First Aid Shipment to Arrive by Sea Is Set to Be Delivered Across Gaza

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Palestinians leaving northern Gaza on Thursday.Credit…Ahmed Zakot/Reuters

The first shipment of aid to reach Gaza by sea in almost two decades has been unloaded from a makeshift jetty and is to be distributed by truck throughout the enclave, in a step that Western officials hope will pave the way for a maritime corridor to deliver supplies to suffering Gazans.

The ship, the Open Arms, towed a barge loaded with about 200 tons of rice, flour, lentils and canned tuna, beef and chicken, supplied by the World Central Kitchen charity, across the Mediterranean from Cyprus.

“The Open Arms connected a barge filled with almost 200 tons of food to the W.C.K. built jetty on the coast of Gaza,” the charity said in a statement, referring to a jetty it constructed out of rubble at the Gaza coastline. “All cargo was offloaded and is being readied for distribution in Gaza.”

The supplies will be dispatched by truck, including in Gaza’s north, said José Andrés, the renowned Spanish American chef who founded the World Central Kitchen. It was not clear who was operating the trucks and who would provide security for them, and Mr. Andrés would not elaborate.

Safely distributing food where it is needed is a pressing challenge in Gaza, especially in the north, which is particularly troubled by insecurity, lawlessness and roads damaged by Israel airstrikes. Signs of desperate hunger are growing as people resort to consuming animal feed or ambushing aid trucks.

U.N. aid groups had to largely suspend deliveries in northern Gaza last month, and for at least the second time in just over two weeks, a convoy bringing aid there ended in bloodshed late Thursday when Palestinians were killed and wounded in an attack surrounding the trucks, according to Gazan health officials and the Israeli military.

The Open Arms is the first vessel authorized to deliver aid to Gaza by sea since 2005, according to Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, who has described the operation as a pilot project for a so-called maritime corridor for supplies to the territory.

With Gaza under a near-total blockade and having undergone more than five months of Israeli bombardment, much of the enclave is at risk of famine, the United Nations has warned. Aid officials have emphasized that delivering aid by sea is far less efficient than by truck and have called on Israel to open more land crossings into Gaza and to ease restrictions.

World Central Kitchen is preparing to send a second boat with food aid from the Cypriot port of Larnaca, the charity said, but it was not clear when it would set sail. The second ship is equipped with two forklifts and a crane to assist with future maritime deliveries, and has a cargo of 240 tons of food, including carrots, canned tuna, chickpeas, corn, rice, flour, oil and salt, as well as over 250 pounds of fresh dates donated by the United Arab Emirates.

Last week, President Biden announced a U.S.-led initiative to establish a temporary floating pier off Gaza’s coastline to facilitate the transit of goods. American officials hope to ultimately use the pier to enable the delivery of two million meals a day for Gaza’s 2.3 million people.

Since October, organizers and Palestinian cooks working with World Central Kitchen have served more than 37 million meals in Gaza, according to the group. The organization said it had established over 60 community kitchens, managed by Palestinians, in the territory.

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Palestinians who were wounded by Israeli gunfire while waiting for aid, according to health officials, rest on beds at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza this month.Credit…Kosay Al Nemer/Reuters

The United Nations human rights office has documented more than two dozen attacks on Gazans waiting for desperately needed aid since January, with hunger spreading as a result of Israel’s near complete siege, preventing most food and water from entering the tiny enclave.

The office has not blamed any side for the spate of attacks as people wait for aid. In a number of U.N. reports and statements, the office has documented at least 26 such attacks since mid-January.

They include Thursday night’s attack on hundreds of Palestinians who were waiting at the Kuwait traffic circle in Gaza City for an expected convoy of aid trucks. Gazan health officials accused Israeli forces of carrying out a “targeted” attack on the crowd that killed 20, and three witnesses described shelling at the scene.

The Israeli military blamed Palestinian gunmen for the bloodshed and said that it was continuing to review the episode. It said an “intensive preliminary review” had found that no “tank fire, airstrike or gunfire was carried out toward the Gazan civilians at the aid convoy,” though it did not say whether its forces had opened fire at all.

It was at least the 10th such incident in March in which people have been shot and killed or injured while waiting for aid at either the Kuwait or Nabulsi traffic circles, according to the United Nations. They are the two main southern entrances to Gaza City, where the few humanitarian aid trucks entering north Gaza arrive from the south.

In the deadliest incident, more than 100 Palestinians were killed and many more injured when Israeli forces opened fire around a convoy in Gaza City in late February. Witnesses said Israeli forces opened fire toward Palestinians who surged forward toward aid trucks.

The Israeli military said that its forces had opened fire “when a mob moved in a manner which endangered them.” It has said that most people died in a stampede and that some were run over by trucks.

Aid agencies, including from the United Nations, have said that rather than help facilitate humanitarian assistance, Israel has blocked aid from either coming into the Gaza Strip or going to the north, where the hunger situation has become dire.

“Israel’s choices of methods and means of warfare have caused a humanitarian catastrophe,” the United Nations office said in a report this month. “Such choices included the imposition of a siege on Gaza, other restrictions on humanitarian assistance and the distribution of commercial goods, vast destruction of civilian infrastructure, including roads vital for accessing the population, and restrictions on the movement between the north and south of Gaza.”

Israel, which imposed a siege after the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack, has said throughout the war that it is committed to allowing as much aid into Gaza as possible. It has blamed delays on U.N. staffing and logistics.

In a statement on Friday, the United Nations human rights office called on Israel to ensure that food and medical care were provided to meet Gaza’s needs. Aid agencies have said that in addition to the Israeli restrictions on relief convoys, looting by hungry Palestinians and growing lawlessness have made it difficult if not impossible to distribute aid.

If Israel cannot provide aid, it “has the obligation to facilitate humanitarian relief activities, including by ensuring the conditions of safety required for such activities,” the human rights office said.

In February, a quarter of the U.N. aid missions planned were facilitated by Israeli authorities, the U.N.’s office of humanitarian coordination said.

U.N. officials and other relief groups have warned that Gaza is nearing famine as a result of inadequate food delivery. At least 27 people, including 23 children, have died of malnutrition, dehydration and lack of baby formula, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

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Palestinian children gathered to collect food donated by a charity group before breakfast, on the fourth day of Ramadan in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Thursday.Credit…Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

Children in the Gaza Strip are facing severe and rapidly worsening food deprivation, and an alarming number are suffering from the most life-threatening form of malnutrition, United Nations experts reported on Friday, in their most dire assessment yet of the unfolding crisis.

About one in every 20 children in shelters and health centers in northern Gaza is experiencing “severe wasting,” the most critical sign of malnutrition, defined as being dangerously thin for their height, according to UNICEF, the U.N. agency for children. The findings were based on screenings conducted by the agency and released on Friday.

Among children under 2 years old, acute malnutrition, meaning the body is deprived of essential nutrients, has become fairly common across Gaza, the screenings found, with the most severe prevalence in northern Gaza. In some areas, it found that rates of acute malnutrition had doubled since they were last recorded in January.

Even in Rafah, the densely populated area in southern Gaza with the greatest access to food, 10 percent of children under 2 are acutely malnourished, and 4 percent are severely wasting.

Before the war, UNICEF said, the rate of acute malnutrition among young children was less than 1 percent, and severe wasting was extremely rare.

Lucia Elmi, UNICEF’s special representative in the Palestinian territories, who returned from Gaza last week, said she was particularly alarmed by not only the number of children suffering from malnutrition, but how quickly their health was deteriorating. Young children cannot be adequately nourished from just water, flour and bread, she said.

“They need protein, they need vitamins, they need fresh products and they need micronutrients, and all of this has been completely missing,” Ms. Elmi said in an interview last week. “That’s why the deterioration has been so fast, so rapid and at this scale.”

Children are bearing extreme costs of the war in Gaza, both physically and mentally, children’s rights groups and experts have repeated. More than 12,000 children have been killed in the conflict, and at least 23 children in northern Gaza have died from malnutrition or dehydration, according to the Gazan Health Ministry.

Palestinian parents say that, in addition to the threat of bombardment, their daily struggle is to find enough food for their children. Many have said they choose to feed what little they have to their children rather than themselves.

Dominic Allen, the United Nations Population Fund representative for Palestine, who just returned from a trip to Gaza, said on Friday that conditions there were worse than he could “describe or than pictures can show or than you can imagine.” He said at a press briefing in Jerusalem that everyone he saw or spoke to was “gaunt, emaciated, hungry.”

“The situation is beyond catastrophic,” he said.

Israel has said that it does not limit the amount of aid allowed into Gaza through border crossings, and recently signaled its support for new initiatives to get aid into Gaza by land, air and sea. Humanitarian groups have criticized Israel, saying that its insistence on checking every truckload of aid — and rejecting some — is a major cause of the food shortage.

The chief executive of Save the Children, an aid group, in the United States, Janti Soeripto, said that the crisis was currently, by far, the worst in the world for children.

“Every time I speak about Gaza, I sort of think to myself that it couldn’t get any worse,” she said in an interview. “And then every week, I’m proven wrong.”

Without a cease-fire, it has been difficult for teams to safely and comprehensively assist Palestinians.

Speaking from Rafah, Rachael Cummings, Save the Children’s director of humanitarian public health in the United Kingdom, said that the lack of sanitation — including dirty or salty water and sewage on the streets — was worsening the hunger crisis there.

“If a child isn’t eating adequate food or the right composition of food — they have poor water, poor sanitation — they will get very sick, very quickly,” she said.

A correction was made on 

March 16, 2024

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of children who have died in northern Gaza of malnutrition or dehydration. Gaza health officials say the total number of deaths is 27, of which 23 are children, not 27 children.

How we handle corrections

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Pictures of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since Oct. 7 on display in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Credit…Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Hamas is no longer demanding that Israel immediately agree to a permanent cease-fire in return for beginning a hostage and prisoner exchange, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Hamas’s new proposal would allow the release of hostages in exchange for a phased pullback of Israeli troops from parts of the Gaza Strip as well as prisoner releases. By modifying demands for an outright end of hostilities, the new proposal could possibly restart negotiations.

The White House welcomed the new Hamas proposal and confirmed that talks would resume soon in Doha, Qatar, although without an American delegation present. “We’re cautiously optimistic that things are moving in a good direction but that doesn’t mean it’s done and we’re going to have to stick with it until the very end,” said John F. Kirby, a national security communications adviser for the White House.

The United States has been applying pressure on Hamas to resume talks and ease its demands. Various negotiating parties have been offering Gaza more promises of humanitarian aid and issuing vague threats to close down Hamas’s political office in Doha.

While publicly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was dismissive of the new proposal, other Israeli officials have reacted more positively, given that last week Hamas refused to offer terms for a hostage swap.

Negotiators, including senior Israeli intelligence officials, could arrive in Doha as early as Sunday, according to an official in the region.

While saying he did not want to negotiate from the White House podium, Mr. Kirby suggested that the Hamas proposal fit the framework that Israel, Qatar, Egypt and the United States agreed to in talks in Paris last month.

“I would say the proposal that was put forward is certainly within the bounds of — in broad brush strokes — within the bounds of the deal that we’ve been working on for several months,” he said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Another U.S. official and the official in the region said that while gaps between the warring parties need to be closed, the new proposal was the first positive step in some time, and it was significant that Hamas was no longer demanding a permanent cease-fire.

In the first phase of an agreement, under the Hamas proposal, Israeli troops would pull back toward central Gaza, allowing some civilians to return to their homes, according to an Israeli official briefed on the proposal.

Under the Hamas proposal, Israel would have to agree to the release of more Palestinians from prison than the U.S.-backed proposal had offered.

The initial exchange of hostages would include the remaining five female hostages, in addition to 35 men who are old, sick or injured. Hamas is demanding the release of 350 Palestinian prisoners for the men. It wants 50 prisoners, including 30 sentenced to life in prison, for each of the women. The earlier American-backed proposal had said 15 prisoners convicted of serious acts of terrorism would be released for the female prisoners.

The first phase would last a few weeks. During the second phase, male prisoners would be released in return for a further cessation of hostilities. In the final stage, Hamas would return the bodies of hostages who have died and Israel would ease the blockade of Gaza, according to the Hamas proposal.

Israel has resisted any agreement to end its military campaign. American officials have been pushing to begin exchanges in return for a temporary halt in fighting as the only formula that can work.

Details of the Hamas proposal were earlier reported by Al Jazeera.

The various parties had been discussing for weeks a broader three-phase approach to the release of all hostages held by Hamas and its allies, including the bodies of deceased hostages. Israel and the United States wanted to focus negotiations on the first phase, involving releases of certain hostages for a number of Palestinian prisoners. But as part of those focused talks, Hamas had insisted that Israel commit to a permanent cease-fire after all three phases, which became a major point of contention, since Israel refuses to accede to that.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington.

Ronen BergmanJulian E. Barnes and Aaron Boxerman Reporting from Tel Aviv, Washington and Jerusalem

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