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EU says Gaza to get aid by sea as airdrop ends in deaths

Palestinians leave the southern Gaza City of Khan Yunis, which saw heavy fighting, after returning briefly to check on what remains of their homes
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

An international effort gathered pace on Friday to get desperately needed humanitarian relief into Gaza by sea, in the latest bid to counter overland access restrictions blamed on Israel as it battles Hamas militants.

The dire conditions more than five months into the war have led some countries to airdrop food and other assistance over the besieged Gaza Strip, but a parachute malfunction turned the latest operation lethal.

Five Palestinians were killed and 10 wounded north of the coastal Al-Shati refugee camp, said Mohammed al-Sheikh, emergency room head nurse at Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital.

A witness told AFP he and his brother followed the parachuted aid in the hope of getting "a bag of flour".

"Then, all of a sudden, the parachute didn't open and fell down like a rocket," hitting a house, said Mohammed al-Ghoul.

Palestinian Samah al-Najar leaves a clinic set up by Doctors Without Border (MSF) inside the Rafah Indonesian Field Hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, after being treated for injuries sustained during Israeli bombardment, on March 7, 2024, on the eve of  the International Women's Day and amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Hamas movement.

In the Cypriot port of Larnaca, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen expressed hope a maritime corridor could open this Sunday, though crucial details of the planned operation remained unclear.

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".

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

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine in the long-blockaded Gaza Strip, which has been under Israeli siege since the Hamas attack of October 7 triggered the war.

UN agencies have urged increased overland access, insisting that air or sea delivery was ineffective.

As hopes dimmed for a new truce deal before Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which could begin Sunday depending on the lunar calendar, Biden warned Israeli leaders against using aid as "a bargaining chip".

- 'No compromise' -

Hamas's unprecedented October attack on southern Israel resulted in about 1,160 deaths, most of them civilians, according to Israeli official figures.

Israel has responded with a relentless offensive that the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said has killed at least 30,878 people, mostly women and children.

The Gaza port, seen in a photo from October 10, has been damaged during the five-month war and Israeli forces have taken control of it

Hamas militants took about 250 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.

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 without the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

"Our top priority to reach a prisoner exchange deal is the complete commitment for the halt of aggression and an enemy withdrawal, and there is no compromise on this," said Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Hamas negotiators left the Cairo talks to consult with the movement's leadership in Qatar, but US ambassador to Israel Jack Lew denied negotiations had "broken down".

Demonstrators rally in front of the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv in an anti-war protest

Israeli war cabinet member Gadi Eisenkot said Hamas was under "very serious pressure" from mediators to make a "counter-offer".

Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 but has maintained control over its airspace and territorial waters, said it "welcomes" the planned maritime corridor.

With no functioning ports in Gaza, officials did not say where initial shipments would go, whether they would be subject to inspection by Israel or who would be tasked with distributing aid.

A US administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief reporters ahead of Biden's speech, said a "number of weeks" would be required before aid deliveries to the planned pier could begin.

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

- Aid 'directly' to north Gaza -

But Michael Fakhri, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, said Washington's "absurd" pier proposal would not "prevent starvation and famine by any definition".

Palestinians inpect the rubble of a building in Deir al-Balah following Israeli bombardment on the central Gaza Strip

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides said the maritime corridor "aims at scaling up aid by complementing other routes".

The Biden administration official said Israel has agreed to open a new land crossing that would "allow for aid to flow directly to the population in northern Gaza", starting "over the coming week".

British foreign minister David Cameron said "we need 500 trucks a day or more going into Gaza", but the past five days have averaged just 123.

"That needs to be fixed now," he told BBC radio, also calling on Israel to ensure the "full resumption" of water and electricity supplies.

Trucks entering the Gaza Strip

The situation is particularly acute in Gaza's north, where desperate residents have swarmed the aid trucks which do make it in to the territory.

On February 29, more than 100 Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces opened fire on crowds scrambling for food aid from a convoy in north Gaza, according to the health ministry.

The Israeli army said Friday that its initial investigation found troops "fired precisely" at suspects who posed a threat to them.

Roughly 1.5 million Palestinians have sought refuge in Rafah, in Gaza's far south, but there, too, they are not safe.

At the city's Al-Najjar hospital, a man held the body of a child killed in a bombardment, shrouded in a white cloth soaked through with blood.

This year "we do not feel the joy of Ramadan approaching," said Palestinian woman Nevin al-Siksek, displaced to Rafah from Jabalia refugee camp in the north.

"Our hearts are broken," she told AFP.

"We have lost many martyrs and many of our family members. How can we be happy?"