Israel is prepared to let ships deliver aid to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip “immediately” as part of a proposed sea corridor from Cyprus, the Israeli foreign minister said on Sunday, naming four European countries as potential participants.
Under the arrangement first suggested by Nicosia in November, cargo would undergo security inspection in the Cypriot port of Larnaca before being ferried to the Gaza coast, 370 km (230 miles) away, rather than through neighbouring Egypt or Israel.
If the plan goes ahead, it would mark the first easing of an Israeli naval blockade imposed on Gaza in 2007 after militant Hamas Islamists seized control of the Palestinian enclave.
Israel has described the corridor as a means of ending its civilian ties to Gaza, where it has been waging an 12-week-old offensive in retaliation for a cross-border killing and kidnapping spree by Hamas gunmen.
With hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians displaced and facing severe shortages of basic essentials, the idea may also go some way toward meeting a U.N. Security Council resolution of Dec. 22 calling for expanded humanitarian relief mechanisms.
“It can start immediately,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM when asked about the Mediterranean corridor.
He said Britain, France, Greece and the Netherlands were among countries with vessels able to land directly on the shores of Gaza, which lacks a deep-water port. He appeared to suggest he expected them to do that rather than offload aid in Israel.
“They requested of us that the equipment come via (the Israeli port of) Ashdod. The answer is no. It won’t come via Ashdod. It won’t come via Israel. We want disengagement, with security control. That’s the goal of this process,” Cohen said.
The Dutch Defence Ministry said it had received no request regarding the plan yet.
“One of our ships is in the region and we are ready to start at short notice,” ministry spokesman Laurens Bos said. “But for now, this is not the case.”
There was no immediate response from London, Paris or Athens.
Britain and Greece have previously expressed support for the Cypriot initiative, with Britain offering shallow-bottomed vessels to approach the Gaza coast, a senior Cypriot official told Reuters.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also backed the Cypriot plan, which would involve Israeli security agents taking part in the Larnaca inspections.
“As of now there is a maritime blockade, and if such an (aid) ship comes from Larnaca, it will be with our approval,” Cohen said. “It will of course be a secured corridor, as we have no intention of endangering a British or French ship coming in coordination with us.”
Several European and Arab donor countries have been sending aid to Gaza through the nearby Egyptian coastal town of Al Arish. Israel has been involved in monitoring those shipments, in what some humanitarian relief agencies say creates lags.
Cairo tracks traffic across its Gaza border and has ruled out any influx of Palestinian refugees. On Saturday, Israel signalled it would seize control of the Gaza-Egypt border zone as part of its efforts to demilitarise the enclave.