Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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José Andrés’s first aid boat to Gaza nearing arrival, organizers say

A boat bearing nearly 200 tons of food — and organized by a celebrity chef — is headed to the Gaza coast and should arrive early Friday in the beleaguered enclave, aid workers said.

Many of the logistical details were still shrouded in uncertainty, including whether Israel would reject the cargo and how the meals would be safely distributed in a region on the brink of famine.

The boat was dispatched Tuesday from Cyprus by the U.S. nonprofit World Central Kitchen, founded by chef José Andrés, and the Spanish search-and-rescue group Open Arms. It set off amid dire warnings from U.N. officials about mass starvation in Gaza, particularly in the north, where Israeli bombardment has leveled residential neighborhoods and critical infrastructure in its brutal war to eliminate the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

As part of the campaign, Israel declared a full-scale siege of Gaza and severely restricted the amount of food, water and other aid entering the enclave. It launched the military operation in response to Hamas’s deadly attacks in Israel on Oct. 7.

The Gaza Health Ministry says at least 27 children have died of malnutrition and dehydration, with more than a quarter of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents facing “catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation,” according to the United Nations.

Andrés’s ship is the first attempt to deliver food by way of a maritime corridor announced earlier this month by the United States, the European Commission, the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus and Britain. It is also the latest costly effort, among a number of spaghetti-against-the-wall proposals, to get food past the security and logistical hurdles of Israel’s blockade.

Humanitarian officials say Israel has limited land entry points for supplies, enacted an onerous and confusing inspection process, and targeted civilian police tasked with protecting the convoys.

Israel says it is not restricting the delivery of aid. But in recent weeks, U.S. lawmakers who have visited the region have described seeing hundreds of trucks denied access to Gaza by Israeli forces. The United States and other nations have responded to the crisis by airdropping food and water into northern Gaza — operations that have proved insufficient and even deadly, after several Palestinians were killed by aid pallets whose parachutes malfunctioned.

And still, Andrés said in an interview Thursday, “we may fail.”

Israel could “tell us, ‘Go back,’” he said, or the weather could change overnight, rendering the transfer of heavy food pallets to shore via a hastily constructed jetty almost impossible.

“Believe me, I don’t want to be doing this mission,” Andrés said. “This is very complicated. This is highly challenging. … But at the same time, I’m tired of waiting. And that’s why I went to Cyprus, because I was tired of waiting.”

The goal is simply to increase “the flow” of food, he said. “Because I don’t see anything changing.”

Andrés on Thursday morning delivered a presentation on Gaza’s dire circumstances — and his organization’s humanitarian efforts — to a dozen Democratic senators gathered around a conference table in an underground room of the U.S. Capitol.

He showed them pictures of Palestinian children suffering from severe hunger. He showed them pictures of staff and volunteers from World Central Kitchen building a jetty out of the rubble of buildings they had hauled to the shoreline. He connected over video chat with a staffer at a port in Cyprus to show the lawmakers live video of workers there loading 300 more tons of food onto yet another, larger boat, which the organization says will also soon set out for Gaza.

President Biden last week in his State of the Union address announced plans for the U.S. military to construct a floating pier off Gaza’s coast, allowing for the eventual delivery of 2 million meals a day. But Biden’s plan, which will require the service of about a thousand U.S. troops, will also take up to 60 days to construct, along with a causeway connecting it to land, the Pentagon said last week.

World Central Kitchen, as a smaller and independent nonprofit, can move faster and is more “nimble” and adaptable, a spokeswoman said. But the current pace will not deliver enough food, and there is a lot that could still derail the first delivery to Gaza.

As Andrés addressed senators Thursday morning, the jetty’s construction was still underway. The mass of rubble had reached 60 meters into the sea, but World Central Kitchen workers had determined it still needed to extend five meters more.

Meanwhile, the organization was working on “getting the permissions for all the trucks and all the drivers of the trucks who have to access the jetty, and this takes time,” he said.

The Israeli navy was expected to intercept the boat at sea, conduct an inspection and then allow it to continue on to shore, said Linda Roth, World Central Kitchen’s chief communications officer.

Roth, who spoke by phone from Cyprus, said that after the Israeli navy inspects the boat at sea, the organization understood that naval forces would then be surveilling — probably by drone — the boat’s journey to shore. But, she said, contrary to Israeli media reports, no navy ship would escort the aid boat during the final miles of its journey.

World Central Kitchen, which runs 65 community kitchens in Gaza, is in close communication with local tribal leaders and community volunteers, Andrés said. Once the food arrives, his staff and the local leaders will coordinate the transport and distribution.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said at a briefing Wednesday that the IDF would provide “wide protection” to World Central Kitchen staff as their trucks move north to distribute the food.

The coastal delivery would happen in the “place that COGAT gave us,” Andrés said, referring to the Israeli government body responsible for administrating civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories.

“But again, it’s not like we are working with the IDF,” he said.

The organization was adhering to the rules and regulations of the Israeli military, but there would be no soldiers accompanying the aid, he said.

In Cyprus, Cypriot authorities, working alongside plainclothes Israeli officials, had already inspected the boat’s cargo, according to Roth, and they had not rejected anything.

“We are trying to bring in food by the port. Why? Because I cannot bring more trucks in,” said Andrés, who spoke to The Washington Post after the briefing, alongside Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and one of Biden’s confidants, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who together invited the chef to the Capitol to give his presentation.

Neither Andrés nor Welch nor Coons could explain why Israel appeared more willing to allow food deliveries by boat than by truck.

“It’s really on us to press Israel to open additional gates to allow humanitarian relief to get in,” Coons said. “And so this was not a briefing for him to tell us what is the political agenda to solve the Israel-Hamas-Gaza conflict, but for us to hear about what they are actually doing to deliver food on the ground.”

“As long as the question of humanitarian aid is caught up in the question of who’s right and who’s wrong in this conflict, we’re not going to feed people,” said Welch.

Hauslohner reported from Washington. Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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