Spanish aid ship sails for Gaza as Israel-Hamas war grinds on

A Spanish charity ship taking food aid to Gaza left the Mediterranean island of Cyprus on Tuesday in an attempt to open a maritime corridor to the war-ravaged and besieged Palestinian territory.

The vessel Open Arms set sail towing a barge loaded with 200 tonnes of relief goods and was expected to arrive off Gaza, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) away, some time overnight or Wednesday.

“The departure of the first ship is a sign of hope,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen wrote on social media platform X. “We will work hard together for many more ships to follow.”

Heavy Israeli bombardment again rained down on Gaza, killing at least 80 people overnight, and dozens more were missing under the rubble, said the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

“At least 80 martyrs arrived at hospitals, the majority of whom were children, women and the elderly, as a result of the occupation (Israel) committing massacres against civilians,” it said in a statement.

The army said its forces were raiding targets across Gaza and had located a military compound in the main southern city of Khan Yunis where they found “AK-47 rifles, vests and explosive devices”.

The war and siege since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel have levelled vast parts of the coastal strip and sparked dire food shortages that have led the UN World Food Programme to warn that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

As the flow of aid trucks from Egypt has slowed — a trend variously blamed on the war, the growing insecurity on the ground and cumbersome Israeli inspections of cargo  — Western and Arab governments have stepped up airdrops.

However UN and other relief agencies warn that parachuting in aid parcels is less effective and falls far short of the hundreds of truck loads needed every day to sustain the population of 2.4 million people.

The humanitarian crisis has gripped Gaza at a time Muslims have since Monday observed the holy month of Ramadan, where daytime fasts are traditionally broken with lavish evening iftar meals with family and friends.

In Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, where 1.5 million people have sought refuge in crowded shelters and makeshift tents, one displaced man, Mohammad al-Masry, said this year the family had just “canned food and beans”.

Another displaced man, Om Muhammad Abu Matar from Khan Yunis, told AFP that this year, Ramadan has “the taste of blood and misery, separation and oppression”.

– ‘Silence the guns’ –

The war started with the October 7 Hamas attack that resulted in about 1,160 deaths in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on Israeli official figures.

The militants also took around 250 hostages, dozens of whom were released during a week-long truce in November. Israel believes 99 hostages remain alive in Gaza, along with the bodies of 31.

Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground offensive have killed 31,112 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Weeks of talks involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators failed to bring about a truce and hostage exchange deal ahead of Ramadan.

UN chief Antonio Guterres called Monday for “silencing the guns” during the Muslim holy month and said he was “appalled and outraged that conflict is continuing”.

Hamas has demanded a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a demand labelled “delusional” by Israel, which accuses the group of seeking to stoke unrest during Ramadan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed, despite growing domestic and international opposition, to push on with the war to destroy Hamas and free the hostages.

In an interview with Fox News, he doubled down on his plan to send troops into Rafah near the Egyptian border, the last area so far spared ground operations.

“We can’t leave a quarter of the Hamas terror army in place, they’re there in Rafah,” the right-wing premier said, adding that “it’s either Israel or Hamas, there’s no middle way”.

He said Israel agreed with the United States on the need to “first enable the safe departure of the civilian population from Rafah before we go in”.

Asked about apparent growing friction between him and US President Joe Biden, the premier said that “we have our agreements on the basic goals, but we also have disagreements on how to achieve them”.

“Ultimately, it’s Israel that has to decide. Our neck is on the line… I’m telling you that we’re not getting off the gas.”

– Lebanon, Yemen violence –

The worst ever Gaza war, now in its sixth month, has stoked anger and protests worldwide, most of them against Israel.

It has also sparked clashes involving Israel’s regional enemies, a coalition of Iran-backed armed groups dubbed the Axis of Resistance including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Huthi rebels.

Hezbollah said Tuesday it had launched more than 100 rockets at Israeli military positions in retaliation for a strike the previous day that killed one person near the eastern Lebanon city of Baalbek.

Israel’s military said its “fighter jets struck three launchers used to fire rockets” towards the annexed Golan Heights earlier in the morning.

The Israel-Hezbollah clashes have killed at least 317 people in Lebanon, mainly Hezbollah fighters, and at least 17 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Yemen’s Huthis have been attacking ships on the key Red Sea trade route leading towards the Suez Canal, in professed solidarity with the Palestinians, forcing many vessels to make the costlier journey around Africa.

US forces said Tuesday they had destroyed nearly 20 ballistic missiles and an underwater drone after the Huthis had fired two missiles, without causing casualties or damage, towards a Singaporean-owned, Liberian-flagged merchant ship called the Pinocchio.

The Huthis said the attacks were “in support of the oppressed Palestinian people” and vowed that “military operations will be escalated… during the month of Ramadan”.

AFP

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