First aid boat unloads in Gaza as Hamas proposes new truce

A first aid ship plying a new maritime corridor from Cyprus began unloading its cargo of desperately needed food in Gaza Friday as Hamas proposed a new six-week truce in the war.

AFP footage showed the Open Arms, which set sail from Cyprus on Tuesday, towing a barge that the Spanish charity operating it says is loaded with 200 tonnes of food for Gazans threatened with famine after more than five months of war.

“World Central Kitchen is unloading the barge connected now to the jetty,” said Linda Roth, a spokesperson for the US charity that is working with Open Arms.

The Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry said Israeli fire had earlier killed 20 people waiting to receive aid. Israel blamed “armed Palestinians” it said had opened fire on civilians.

The ministry said at least 149 people had been killed in the past 24 hours.

Witnesses reported air strikes and fighting in the southern Gaza Strip’s main city Khan Yunis as well as areas of the north where humanitarian conditions have been particularly dire.

As Muslim worshippers marked the first Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan, AFP photographers saw Palestinians from the occupied West Bank queueing to pass through Israeli checkpoints to reach the revered Al-Aqsa mosque compound in annexed east Jerusalem.

With tensions soaring over the Gaza war, Israel deployed thousands of police across Jerusalem’s Old City.

In southern Gaza’s Rafah, the last major population centre yet to be subjected to a ground assault but still pounded by Israeli strikes, AFPTV footage showed worshippers praying by the rubble of a destroyed mosque.

In negotiations aimed at securing a new truce and hostage deal, Hamas has put forward a new proposal for a six-week ceasefire and the exchange of several dozen Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, an official from the militant group told AFP.

Hamas would want this to lead to “a complete (Israeli) withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a permanent ceasefire”, the official added.

The proposal would involve the release of some 42 hostages, who would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners at a ratio of between 20 and 50 prisoners per hostage, the official said, down from a previous proposal of a roughly 100-to-one ratio.

Palestinian militants seized about 250 Israeli and foreign hostages during the Hamas attack of October 7, dozens of whom were released during a week-long truce in November. Israel believes about 130 captives remain in Gaza including 32 presumed dead.

Israel said it was sending a delegation to Qatar for a new round of negotiations, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of “clinging to unacceptable demands”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was working “intensively” with its fellow mediators Egypt and Qatar “to bridge the remaining gaps”.

The United States, which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military assistance, has grown increasingly critical of Netanyahu over his handling of the war.

US Senate leader Chuck Schumer called for a snap Israeli election, describing Netanyahu as one of several “major obstacles” to peace in a speech praised by President Joe Biden.

“I think he expressed serious concern shared not only by him, but by many Americans,” the president said.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party retorted that Israel was “not a banana republic but an independent and proud democracy”.

– ‘There is no bread’ –

The United Nations has repeatedly warned of looming famine, with only a fraction of the supplies needed to sustain Gaza’s 2.4 million people being let in.

With fewer aid trucks entering by road, efforts have multiplied to get relief in by air and sea.

Cyprus, the nearest European Union member country to Gaza, has said a second, bigger vessel is being readied for the fledgling maritime air corridor after the Open Arms completes its mission.

“God willing, they will bring food for the children, that’s all we ask for”, Abu Issa Ibrahim Filfil, a displaced Palestinian told AFPTV after spotting the ship from the beach.

Sea missions and airdrops are “no alternative” to the more effective land deliveries, 25 organisations including Amnesty International and Oxfam said in a statement this week.

Israel has accused some staff of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA — the main aid organisation in Gaza — of involvement in the October 7 attack. This led several donor governments to suspend support.

Australia on Friday became the latest to resume funding after investigating the claims, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong saying: “UNRWA is not a terrorist organisation”.

Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory campaign against Hamas, has killed at least 31,490 people in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the health ministry.

– ‘Dying slowly’ –

Gaza’s health ministry said Israeli troops opened fire from “tanks and helicopters” as Palestinians gathered at a roundabout in Gaza City in the north, killing 20 people and wounding dozens on Thursday.

Mohammed Ghurab, director of emergency services at a local hospital, told AFP there were “direct shots by the occupation forces” on people waiting for a food truck.

An AFP journalist saw people who had been shot.

The Israeli military denied it had fired on the crowd. “Armed Palestinians opened fire while Gazan civilians were awaiting the arrival of the aid convoy,” and then “continued to shoot as the crowd of Gazans began looting the trucks”, an army statement said.

Similar claims were made after a chaotic melee in the same area on February 29 in which more than 100 Gazans were killed, according to the health ministry.

Israeli forces opened fire in that incident, but the military said most civilians died in a stampede.

Samar Zari, a resident of Khan Yunis displaced with her family to Rafah, said the “Gaza Strip is dying slowly. If not from the missiles, then from hunger. If not from hunger, then from dehydration.”


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