Aid corridor from Cyprus to Gaza to open Sunday

A displaced Palestinian child carries a plate of rice near a food distribution point in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 8 March, 2024AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed hope Friday that a humanitarian aid corridor from Cyprus to Gaza will open this weekend, amid fears of famine in the war-torn Palestinian territory.

"We are very close to opening this corridor, hopefully this Sunday," von der Leyen said following a visit to the Cypriot port of Larnaca with Cyprus's President Nikos Christodoulides.

Her announcement came after US President Joe Biden, in his State of the Union address on Thursday, said the US military would establish a "temporary pier" off Gaza's coast to bring in aid.

Senior US administration officials said the effort announced by Biden builds upon the maritime aid corridor proposed by Cyprus -- the closest European Union member to Gaza.

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine in Gaza, and von der Leyen described the situation as "dire... a humanitarian catastrophe".

She said "an initial pilot operation" would be launched on Friday, and the United Arab Emirates had helped activate the corridor "by securing the first of many shipments of goods to the people of Gaza".

Von der Leyen said the initial operation would be in partnership with the World Central Kitchen, a US-based non-government organisation that provides meals in the wake of humanitarian crises and national disasters.

Officials did not say where in Gaza initial shipments would go, prior to construction of the temporary pier announced by Biden.

The European Commission issued a joint statement with Cyprus, the UAE, United States and United Kingdom "endorsing the activation" of the maritime aid corridor to Gaza.

"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," the statement said.

"This maritime corridor can -- and must -- be part of a sustained effort to increase the flow of humanitarian aid and commercial commodities into Gaza through all possible routes."

Israel welcomes opening

The statement added that Cyprus "will soon convene senior officials to discuss how we can accelerate this maritime channel".

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Cameron, in a post on social media platform X, said his country, the United States and partners "will open a maritime corridor to deliver aid directly to Gaza".

But he added: "We continue to urge Israel to allow more trucks into Gaza as the fastest way to get aid to those who need it."

Christodoulides said the sea corridor aims at "scaling up" aid by complementing other routes and airdrops.

A senior US administration official said the Cyprus initiative "provides a platform at the port of Larnaca for the transloading of assistance and screening by Israeli officials of Gaza-bound goods".

The official added that initial shipments to the port and temporary pier built by US military personnel "will come via Cyprus".

A ship could take roughly 10 hours to reach Gaza from Larnaca, about 370 kilometres (230 miles) away.

Israel welcomed the planned opening of the maritime corridor.

"The Cypriot initiative will allow the increase of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, after a security check according to Israeli standards," foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat said on X.

Once the seaborne aid reaches Gaza, it will still have to be distributed in a war zone where humanitarians say they have been fired on, their movements have been impeded, and desperate Gazans have stormed aid trucks.

"We're going to be, again, working with the UN, working with other humanitarian partners to devise a mechanism for distributing the assistance," said a senior US administration official.

"It certainly will be complex to work out, but I think the more avenues we have to get assistance in, the more we will be able to reliably move it around within Gaza as well."