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EU sees maritime aid corridor to Gaza opening this weekend amid famine fears

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The head of the European Commission said on Friday a maritime aid corridor could start operating between Cyprus and Gaza this weekend, part of accelerating Western efforts to relieve the humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged Palestinian enclave.

Ursula von der Leyen’s comments came a day after President Joe Biden announced plans for the U.S. military to build a “temporary pier” on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, amid U.N. warnings of famine among the territory’s 2.3 million people.

Negotiations on a possible ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas, now in its fifth month, remained deadlocked in Cairo, while the U.N. human rights office urged Israel not to extend its military offensive into the border town of Rafah, saying this would cause a further “massive loss of life”.

EU Commission President von der Leyen said a pilot test run of food aid collected by a charity group and supported by the United Arab Emirates could be leaving Cyprus as early as Friday.

“We are launching this Cyprus maritime corridor together, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States,” she said after visiting facilities in Larnaca, Cyprus.

“We are now very close to opening this corridor, hopefully this Saturday-Sunday and I’m very glad to see an initial pilot will be launched today.”

She gave no details on where the aid would be delivered in Gaza and made no reference to Biden’s announcement, in his State of the Union speech to Congress on Thursday, that the U.S. military would build a “temporary pier” on the Gaza coast to receive ships carrying food, water and medicines.

U.S. officials said building such a facility could take weeks, yet hospitals in northern Gaza are already reporting children dying of malnutrition. The U.N. says opening up more land routes should remain the priority.

“No U.S. boots will be on the ground,” said Biden, who did not indicate where the planned “pier” might be located. Most of Gaza’s coast is beach and larger ships would be unable to approach it without dredging.

“It’s going to take time to build,” British foreign minister David Cameron told reporters, adding that Israel should open its port at Ashdod north of Gaza for more aid deliveries in the meantime.

It was also unclear if Israel or other forces would provide security for the temporary facility. Desperate people have increasingly been seizing supplies being trucked into Gaza.

Reacting to Biden’s speech, a senior Israeli government official said on Friday: “Israel and the United States are coordinated on the maritime route supply of humanitarian aid. It will be enabled subject to security clearance.”

‘WE DON’T NEED AID FROM THEM’

The Palestinian Authority also welcomed Biden’s comments, but reaction among ordinary Palestinians was much less positive.

“Instead of telling us they will build a port to help us, stop (providing) the weapons they throw at us,” said Hassan Maslah, a displaced Palestinian from Khan Younis now sheltering in Rafah.

“All these American weapons are killing our kids, and killing us wherever we go. We don’t need aid from them, we need them to stop the killing, stop the death,” he said, as Gazans sifted through rubble nearby after another Israeli airstrike.

Hamas has not yet responded to requests for comment on the U.S. plan.

A joint communique issued on Friday by the EU, the U.S., Britain, the UAE and others said: “The delivery of humanitarian assistance directly to Gaza by sea will be complex, and our nations will continue to assess and adjust our efforts to ensure we deliver aid as effectively as possible.”

While welcoming the latest efforts to increase the flow of aid to Gaza, UNRWA, the United Nations’ relief agency for the Palestinians, added a strong dose of caution.

“… there’s an easier, more efficient way of bringing in assistance and that is via the road crossings that connect Israel with Gaza,” spokesperson Juliette Touma said.

The United States and other countries have also been airdropping supplies but the amounts involved are small.

Five Palestinians were killed and several were wounded when boxes of aid dropped by planes fell on them by mistake in northwest Gaza on Friday, said Mahmoud Basal, spokesman of the Civil Emergency Service in Gaza.

Some footage showed dozens of people running as the boxes were dropped, shouting to one another to avoid the boxes.

Separately, Palestinian health officials said eight people of the same family had been killed in an Israeli air strike on their house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

CEASEFIRE TALKS STALLED

Egyptian security sources have said the ceasefire talks, taking place in Cairo without an Israeli delegation, would resume on Sunday, the expected start of Ramadan, amid fears that violence could escalate across the region during the Muslim holy month.

Israel has said any ceasefire must be temporary and that its goal remains the destruction of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that Israel says killed 1,200 people and abducted 253 in a rampage into its territory on Oct. 7.

In response, Israel launched a ground offensive and aerial bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip which, as of Friday, had killed at least 30,878 Palestinians and wounded 72,402, the Hamas-run enclave’s health ministry said.

The United Nations human rights office appealed to Israel on Friday not to extend its military offensive into Rafah, on the border with Egypt where some 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering.

“… any ground assault on Rafah would incur massive loss of life and would heighten the risk of further atrocity crimes,” said Jeremy Laurence, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office. “This must not be allowed to happen.”

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