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First ship carrying aid arrives in Gaza as Israel faces backlash for blocking land routes

The Open Arms vessel set off from Cyprus with 200 tons of food for the people of Gaza on Tuesday amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis and fears of famine.
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TEL AVIV — A private aid ship docked off the coast of Gaza early Friday, carrying the first nautical delivery for hungry Palestinians while tons of food and supplies sit on idling trucks in Egypt, waiting for permission to enter the besieged enclave.

The Open Arms, named after the Spanish charity that transported the supplies, towed a barge containing flour, rice and protein to the enclave, where five months of war have left around a quarter of its 2.3 million residents “one step away” from famine, according to the United Nations, which has noted that children have already died from malnutrition and dehydration.

The food was collected by World Central Kitchen, the charity founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, which operates a network of around 60 kitchens across the Gaza Strip. “Our goal is to establish a maritime highway of boats and barges stocked with millions of meals continuously headed towards Gaza,” Andrés and the NGO’s CEO, Erin Gore, said in a statement Tuesday, when the ship set sail on the roughly 200-mile voyage from the Larnaca port in Cyprus.

The nongovernmental organization said in a separate statement Friday that preparations were underway to move the goods onto a jetty built from destroyed rubble, although it was not immediately clear when that would happen.

The new nautical route — as well as recent aid airdrops into northern Gaza — comes amid increasing international frustration about the growing humanitarian crisis in the enclave and the inability to get enough aid in by road.

The U.S. and many of its international partners have been pushing to speed up the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. But Israel has tightly controlled the entry of aid, which has been delivered by trucks through the country’s Kerem Shalom border crossing or the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Aid groups have said their efforts have been hampered because of the difficulty coordinating with the Israeli military, as well as ongoing fighting and the breakdown of public order, which have led to the looting of several convoys. As a result, only a small fraction of what is needed has entered the enclave, the agencies have said.

The ship set sail Tuesday from Cyprus to inaugurate a sea route to get desperately needed aid into the war-wracked enclave, which is suffering a humanitarian crisis five months into the Israel-Hamas war.
A ship belonging to the Open Arms aid group approaches the shores of Gaza towing a barge with 200 tons of humanitarian aid on Friday. Abdel Kareem Hana / AP

The Israel Defense Forces said the aid ship delivery was being carried out “in coordination with Israeli security and civilian authorities, in accordance with the directive of the government of Israel and at the request of the U.S. government.” It added that all the equipment on the ship underwent a comprehensive security check and was accompanied by Israeli officials.

Seperately, IDF spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari suggested to reporters Wednesday that more routes could open up and that Israel was “trying to flood the area” with aid.

His comments came hours after the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said in a statement Wednesday that at least one of its staff members was killed and 22 others were injured in an Israeli strike on one of its food distribution centers in southern Gaza. The IDF acknowledged the strike but said in a statement that it had killed Muhammad Abu Hasna, a Hamas commander who it said was taking aid and giving it to the militant group.

Aid ship sails from Cyprus to Gaza as residents of the Gaza Strip are on the brink of famine
Humanitarian aid is carried onto the Open Arms ship at the port of Larnaca, Cyprus.Santi Palacios / via Reuters

And on Thursday, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said a number of people were killed and dozens of others were injured while waiting for the expected arrival of aid.

NBC News could not independently verify this, but the IDF said it was assessing the incident. Reports that its forces attacked dozens of Gazans at an aid distribution point were “false,” it said in a statement.

These came after several incidents last month when people were killed as they tried to access aid.

Facing growing political pressure at home and abroad to do more to help Palestinians, even as the U.S. continues to supply Israel with military hardware, President Joe Biden announced last week that the U.S. military will construct a temporary port in Gaza to get more humanitarian aid into the territory by sea.

But that was criticized by aid groups, including Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, whose executive director, Avril Benoît, said last week that the U.S. “should insist on immediate humanitarian access using the roads and entry points that already exist.”

Ciaran Donnelly, the vice president of crisis response at the International Rescue Committee, said the port was a “distraction” and called on the Biden administration to find “alternative solutions in aid delivery.”

In Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah some residents, including Zohir Donna, questioned the wisdom of building a new port, when aid trucks were ready and waiting to cross the land border with Egypt nearby. Donna, who moved to the city from the Al-Shati refugee camp in northern Gaza after the start of the war, said the aid was “only five minutes from where we are.”

Rafah resident Mostafa Gamal Elian also said the “crossing should be open, and the aid should pass through it.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the port, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the maritime corridor was not meant to be a substitute for other ways of getting aid into Gaza. “Overland routes remain the most critical way to get assistance in and then to people who need it,” he said.

In the meantime, World Central Kitchen said it had 500 more tons of aid ready to depart from Cyprus to Gaza, where health officials say more than 31,000 people have been killed since Oct. 7.

Israeli military officials said at least 245 soldiers have been killed since the ground invasion of Gaza began. Officials in the country said around 1,200 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attacks and around 240 others were taken hostage. Officials say 134 remain in Gaza after dozens were freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in late November, although a number of them are dead.