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Aid is being shipped to Gaza by sea. But a new maritime corridor is unlikely to stop the looming famine

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Gaza has received its first batch of humanitarian aid by sea as international powers step up efforts to bring in much needed supplies to the besieged enclave.

The ship – run by Spanish charity Open Arms - left Cyprus around 3:00 a.m. ET on Tuesday and arrived at the shores of central Gaza on Friday.

It is meant to provide the equivalent of one meal each for a quarter of the enclave’s more than 2 million people, of whom hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

World Central Kitchen (WCK), the non-profit organization leading the initiative, said the maritime corridor will allow it to send “millions more” meals after the initial delivery.

The aid ship comes as the United States, the European Commission, the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus, and the United Kingdom join efforts to launch maritime routes that deliver assistance directly to Gaza.

WCK said it is working with international partners to open this aid corridor and that it has “another 500 tons of aid in Cyprus ready to be loaded on future boats.”

It also comes as land crossings into Gaza, through which the bulk of vital aid has traditionally entered the territory, remain heavily restricted by Israel. Aid agencies have accused Israel of imposing arbitrary and contradictory criteria that obstruct the entry of relief into the war-ravaged territory.

Israel insists there is “no limit” on the amount of relief that can enter.

With Palestinians in Gaza in dire need, any aid is welcome, but aid groups say maritime and air-dropped aid should be complementary to land deliveries, not a substitute. Many have warned it risks setting a “dangerous precedent” where land-based aid is undermined and hostilities continue.

“States cannot hide behind airdrops and efforts to open a maritime corridor to create the illusion that they are doing enough to support the needs in Gaza,” wrote 25 non-governmental organizations in a joint statement calling on governments to prioritize a ceasefire and land-based aid deliveries.

Here’s what we know about maritime shipments.

How do maritime aid deliveries compare to other methods?

Delivering aid by ship comes with complications.

There are no functioning ports left in Gaza. UN Special Rapporteur for food Michael Fakhr last week said Israeli forces had “decimated the Port of Gaza,” the enclave’s main, if small, port near the Rimal district in Gaza City.

A non-profit organization, World Central Kitchen, said it was working with partners in Gaza to construct a jetty that will be used to offload aid before loading it onto trucks, without specifying who those partners are.

“One of the problems and complications, I think, will be the logistics of offloading boats onto a beach, and then onloading onto trucks,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) Jamie McGoldrick said, adding that this will have to be done in an area which is “prone to insecurity.”

WCK said it plans to distribute the aid itself once it reaches Gaza.

US President Joe Biden has said the US military will begin establishing a separate port in Gaza that could receive large shipments of aid. But that floating pier could take up to two months and some 1,000 US military personnel to complete, the Pentagon said.

The US and other countries have meanwhile been air-dropping humanitarian aid into Gaza, a method aid agencies have criticized as ineffective given the scale of need in Gaza.

Airdropped aid killed five people and injured 10 others last week as it fell west of Gaza City.

Palestinians run along a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City on March 1. - AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians run along a street as humanitarian aid is airdropped in Gaza City on March 1. - AFP/Getty Images

Who is involved, and who isn’t?

WCK, the non-profit, is working with the UAE, Cyprus and the Spanish charity Open Arms to coordinate the dispatch of aid, and its teams on the ground will distribute the aid.

Other aid organizations that have been key to aid distribution in Gaza have not been involved in the process, including the Palestinian Red Crescent and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

Both have for decades handled almost all distribution of UN aid coming into Gaza. UNRWA alone has 11 food distribution centers for 1 million people in Gaza, with some 13,000 employees operating in the enclave.

Israel has for years called for UNRWA to be dismantled, but has increased its rhetoric against the agency after accusing some of its staff of being involved in Hamas’ October 7 attack, which killed 1,200 and saw more than 250 others taken hostage.

Israel has also been touting aid deliveries by independent actors as being more effective than those by the UN.

Smoke billows after a strike by Israel on the port of Gaza City on October 10. - Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Smoke billows after a strike by Israel on the port of Gaza City on October 10. - Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

How does Israel view the maritime shipments?

Israel, which controls Gaza’s airspace, land and maritime borders and inspects all shipments to the territory, has welcomed the maritime project and urged other countries to join the initiative.

“The Cypriot initiative will allow the increase of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, after security checks are carried out in accordance with Israeli standards,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat announced Friday on X, referring to the maritime corridor.

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the agency that runs Israeli operations in the Palestinian territories, told CNN Tuesday that Israel had “participated in the process of inspecting the ship,” without specifying when or where that was done.

COGAT inspects aid going into Gaza, and has been accused by aid agencies of denying access for arbitrary reasons, or no reason at all.

A truck carrying humanitarian aid provided by the Egyptian Red Crescent society moves past Israeli soldiers standing guard at the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the southern Gaza Strip on December 19. - Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
A truck carrying humanitarian aid provided by the Egyptian Red Crescent society moves past Israeli soldiers standing guard at the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the southern Gaza Strip on December 19. - Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Will the plan work?

Aid agencies and government officials have repeatedly warned that no method of humanitarian relief can be as effective as delivery by land.

The 25 NGOs have warned against “the potential devastating consequences of creating dangerous precedents” that risk the degradation of land-based humanitarian access, as well as prolonging hostilities.

While maritime and air-dropped aid into Gaza is “helpful,” the UN’s McGoldrick told CNN, “they can’t replace what is…fundamental,” referring to aid deliveries by trucks.

“Roads have been the traditional method we have used in the past, and we have three roads that enter Gaza, north to south,” he said, adding that with only one road currently operational, relief is slowed. Only one road is used for deliveries, the coastal road, and it is prone to attacks, looting and ransacking, he said.

Only two land crossings are currently allowing aid in Gaza – the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel. And volumes are insufficient compared to the scale of suffering. Israel has however begun trying out a pilot program to bring in aid through the “96th” gate on the security fence with the Gaza. Six trucks have crossed so far.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has echoed McGoldrick’s sentiment, saying that while air drops and maritime deliveries were helpful, they were  “not enough.”

“You cannot replace hundreds of trucks by sending parachutes. The most important thing is to open the borders by land,” he said on Wednesday.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) on Monday said that famine is imminent in northern Gaza if the size of aid entering the enclave does not increase “exponentially.”

“The ground aid arriving in the northern Gaza Strip is very, very small… not enough for anyone,” Gaza Ministry of Health spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra told CNN Tuesday.

A growing number of Gazans have died due to malnutrition and dehydration, according to the territory’s ministry of health. 

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The ship that arrived Friday is carrying 200 tons of aid. By comparison, each truck can carry about 20 tons of aid, and an average of about 94.5 truckswere getting into Gaza every day through both crossings as of last month. That’s far below the 500 trucks that entered through the Rafah crossing alone before the war started.

The UN has said that in nine days from February 24, fewer than 1,000 trucks entered Gaza. An estimated 500 trucks are needed daily in order to alleviate the suffering of Gazans.

“Any effort to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza is very welcome, because people are absolutely desperate,” Juliette Touma, Director of Communications at UNRWA, told CNN.

“However, what we are saying is that there is a cheaper, more efficient, faster, safer way to get aid into Gaza and that is through the road crossings that connect Gaza with Israel,” Touma said, adding that this can be done by increasing the number of trucks that can enter, extending the working hours of the crossings, as well as easing the process of clearance and inspection.

CNN’s Scott McLean, Ibrahim Dahman, Muhammad Darwish, Niamh Kennedy and Richard Allen Greene contributed reporting.

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