Aid ship leaves Cyprus bound for Gaza as Palestinians on brink of famine

Credit: REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

By Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi

LARNACA/JERUSALEM, March 12 (Reuters) - A ship carrying almost 200 tonnes of food for Gaza left Cyprus on Tuesday in a pilot project to open a new sea route to deliver aid to Palestinians on the brink of famine, as prospects faded for a ceasefire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The charity ship Open Arms was seen sailing out of Larnaca port in Cyprus, towing a barge containing flour, rice and protein.

The journey to Gaza takes about 15 hours but a heavy tow barge could make the trip considerably longer, possibly up to 2 days. Cyprus is just over 200 miles (320 km) north-west of Gaza.

The U.S. military said its vessel, the General Frank S. Besson, was also en route to provide humanitarian relief to Gaza by sea. The U.S. military also said it had parachuted more than 27,600 meals and 25,900 bottles of water into northern Gaza.

The U.N. estimates a quarter of the population in the pulverised enclave are at risk of starvation, and aid is barely scratching the surface of daily needs. The U.N. has previously accused Israel of blocking aid to Gaza.

Jordanian state media said there had been seven humanitarian air drops on Monday, with Jordan, the U.S., Egypt, France and Belgium participating. Morocco was also scheduled to join the effort, Israeli media reported.

The conflict has displaced most of Gaza's 2.3 million people, with many cramped into makeshift tents with little in the way of food or basic medical supplies in the southern city of Rafah.

Palestinian media reported that seven Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded in Israeli gunfire when crowds were awaiting aid trucks at the Kuwait Square in Gaza City early on Tuesday.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has appealed for a truce, the release of hostages and the removal of obstacles to life-saving aid. He said a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah could put the people of Gaza in "an even deeper circle of hell".

Fighters from Hamas, which administers Gaza, killed 1,200 people in an Oct. 7 attack on Israel and took 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies, an assault that sparked one of the bloodiest wars in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel's retaliatory military campaign has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza authorities, while infrastructure has been obliterated.

HAMAS 'SHADOW MAN'

Israel was checking on Monday whether it had killed Hamas's deputy military leader in an airstrike in Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said. If confirmed, Marwan Issa will be the highest-ranking official from the Islamist militant movement killed by Israel in five months of war.

Issa, known as the 'Shadow Man' for his ability to stay out of sight, was one of three top Hamas leaders who planned the Oct. 7 attack on Israel and is believed to have been directing Hamas's military operations since then.

Speaking at a briefing with reporters, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Israel had bombed the Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza on Saturday night following intelligence about the location of Issa, second-in-command of Hamas's military wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades.

Two Hamas leaders - Issa and another commander responsible for Hamas weapons in Gaza - used the underground compound that Israeli jets struck in a joint operation with Israel's Shin Bet security service, Hagari said.

"Beside them in the tunnel there were other terrorists," he said, but added that it was still not clear whether Issa had been killed. A Palestinian source said the Israelis had hit a place where they thought Issa was hiding, but could give no details.

CEASEFIRE HOPES FADING

Negotiations on a ceasefire in Israel's war against Hamas remain deadlocked in Cairo. Israel says any ceasefire must be temporary and that its goal remains the destruction of Hamas. Hamas says it will release hostages only as part of a deal that ends the war.

Hopes of a ceasefire for Ramadan were dashed on Monday when an Israeli airstrike on a house in Gaza City killed 16 people and wounded several others, Palestinian health officials said.

Israel also killed two Palestinians in an airstrike on a house in the southern city of Khan Younis as residents were breaking the first day of the Ramadan fast, Gaza health officials said.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on those incidents, but said its forces killed about 15 militants in central Gaza and that commandos targeted sites believed to be used by Hamas militants in Khan Younis.

Pro-Palestinian groups elsewhere continued to make their presence felt. Lebanon's Hezbollah said it had launched several drones at an outpost in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Monday.

The U.S. Central Command said early on Tuesday that Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Red Sea toward merchant vessel Pinocchio, adding that there was no injuries or damage reported.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Stamos Prousalis and Yiannis Kourtoglou in Cyprus and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

((michele.kambas@thomsonreuters.com))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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