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Aid boat readied as Gaza fighting rages before Ramadan

Roughly 1.5 million Gazans have sought refuge in Rafah, where Hamas authorities say Israel struck a residential building
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

A boat laden with food for Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza was "ready" to set sail from Cyprus, an NGO said Saturday, as fighting raged between Israeli troops and Hamas militants ahead of Ramadan.

The sea route aims to counter aid access restrictions, which humanitarians and foreign governments have blamed on Israel, more than five months into the war which has left Gaza's 2.4 million people struggling to survive.

Hopes were fading fast for a pause in the fighting before Ramadan, which could begin as early as Sunday depending on the lunar calendar, as Israel accused Hamas of seeking to "inflame" the region during the Muslim fasting month.

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine, particularly in north Gaza where no overland border crossings are open.

In Rafah, in Gaza's far south, "we can barely get water," said displaced Palestinian woman Nasreen Abu Yussef.

Roughly 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge in the city, where Atallah al-Satel said he wanted an end to the war.

The World Food Programme has warned that the volume of aid that can be delivered by sea will do little if anything to stave off famine in Gaza

"We are just exhausted citizens," said Satel, who had fled to Rafah from Khan Yunis.

Spanish charity Open Arms said its boat, which docked three weeks ago in Cyprus's Larnaca port, was "ready" to embark but awaits final authorisation.

It would be the first shipment along a maritime corridor from Cyprus -- the closest European Union country to Gaza -- that the EU Commission hopes will open on Sunday.

Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza told AFP that Israeli authorities were inspecting the cargo of "200 tonnes of basic foodstuffs, rice and flour, cans of tuna".

US charity World Central Kitchen, which has partnered with Open Arms, has teams in the besieged Gaza Strip who were "constructing a dock" to unload the shipment, Lanuza said.

With ground access limited, countries have also turned to airdropping aid, although a parachute malfunction turned one delivery deadly on Friday.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said three more children had died from malnutrition and dehydration, with the total number of such deaths now 23.

- 'Only part of the solution' -

Another 82 people were killed in strikes over the previous day, the ministry said, bringing the number of deaths in Israel's bombardment and ground offensive of Gaza to 30,960, mostly women and children.

Israel's campaign to destroy Hamas began after the movement's October 7 attack on Israel resulted in about 1,160 deaths, mostly civilians, according to Israeli official figures.

Palestinian children sit in front of Ramadan-themed drawings in Gaza City, in the territory's north where food is particularly scarce

The Israeli army said another of its soldiers had died in Gaza, taking its overall losses to 248 since the start of ground operations.

The UN's World Food Programme has warned that the volume of aid that can be delivered by sea will do little if anything to stave off famine in Gaza.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, in Larnaca on Friday, said a "pilot operation" would be launched in partnership with World Central Kitchen, supported by aid from the United Arab Emirates.

A US effort for a "temporary pier" to receive aid off Gaza, which the Pentagon said would take up to 60 days to establish, builds upon the maritime corridor proposed by Cyprus, senior US officials said.

Humanitarian workers and UN officials say easing the entry of trucks to Gaza would be more effective than aid airdrops or maritime shipments.

The US military said it airdropped more than 41,000 meals into Gaza on Saturday, and Canada has said it too will join aerial aid delivery missions.

A Palestinian woman sits amid the rubble of her flat after an overnight strike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip

But a steady flow of relief into Gaza was "only part of the solution", said International Committee of the Red Cross chief Mirjana Spoljaric.

The warring sides must do more to "safeguard civilian life and human dignity", she said, decrying the "unacceptable" civilian death toll.

In their October attack, Gaza militants took about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages, some of whom were released during a week-long truce in November. Israel believes 99 hostages remain alive in Gaza and that 31 have died.

- 'Tough' truce talks -

After a week of talks with mediators in Cairo failed to produce a breakthrough, Hamas's armed wing said it would not agree to a hostage-prisoner exchange unless Israeli forces withdraw.

Israel has rejected such a demand.

The war's effects have been felt across the region, drawing in Hamas allies including Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels

On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Mossad spy agency chief David Barnea had met CIA director William Burns on Friday "as part of the ceaseless efforts to advance another hostage release deal".

US President Joe Biden acknowledged it would now be "tough" to secure a new truce deal in time for Ramadan.

Saturday's Israeli statement accused Hamas of "entrenching its positions like someone who is not interested in a deal and is striving to inflame the region during Ramadan".

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Israel was preparing for "all possible operational scenarios" during the Muslim holy month.

On the ground in southern Gaza, the Israeli army said fighting persisted in the area of Khan Yunis and Hamas authorities reported more than 30 air strikes overnight.

With the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan fast approaching, US President Joe Biden admits chances of a new truce deal are slim

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh called for the speedy distribution of aid to Gazans and for the full opening of border crossings "to end the siege of our people".

The war's effects have been felt across the region, including off Yemen where Iran-backed Huthi rebels, who say they are acting in solidarity with Gazans, have repeatedly targeted ships plying the vital Red Sea trade route.

US and allied forces shot down 28 one-way attack drones fired towards the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden on Saturday, the US military said, after one of the largest such rebel strikes.