1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Palestine

Gaza aid: Why sea and air routes risk being a distraction

‘Israel’s allies aren't willing to, or able to, exert the pressure that’s needed to provide for more efficient means of delivering humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza.’

A view of various parachutes that are carrying aid packages over the skyline in Northern Gaza. Amir Cohen/Reuters
Aid packages fall towards northern Gaza after being dropped from a military aircraft amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, on 10 March 2024.

With Israeli restrictions continuing to choke aid delivery into Gaza, some countries and relief agencies are looking to sea and air routes as a solution. But aid workers say these are insufficient and possibly a distraction that could prolong the needs of starving Palestinians.

In the first test of a possible sea route, a ship loaded with about 200 tons of food aid provided by the UAE left Cyprus for Gaza on 12 March, in a joint mission by World Central Kitchen and Mediterranean search-and-rescue NGO Open Arms. They hope to deliver the aid to northern Gaza via a jetty, which is under construction.

After the WCK/Open Arms mission, a European initiative aims to send additional aid via Cyprus – although it remains unclear when full-scale deliveries will start. Separately, the US military plans to build a temporary pier to deliver aid by ship, which may take as long as two months to start operating.

“The population is so desperate that anything is better than nothing, but we also know that it will be complex and costly to get this port up and running, and it could take weeks, which is just simply time that people in Gaza don't have,” Shaina Low, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told The New Humanitarian.

The UN has cautioned that sea delivery cannot replace trucking. Aid agencies say delivering aid by truck remains the fastest, most efficient method, and is blocked largely because of Israeli obstruction. An increase in airdropped aid, meanwhile, won’t be nearly enough to meet the soaring needs. 

WCK founder José Andrés, a Michelin-Star-chef-turned-humanitarian, has argued that, as long as land routes remain slow, aid needs to get into Gaza “any way we can”.

Low said these last-ditch efforts are a sign that Israel’s allies “aren't willing to, or able to, exert the pressure that’s needed to provide for more efficient means of delivering humanitarian assistance throughout Gaza”. 

“We continue to stress the fact that there are much easier and cost-efficient means to deliver aid, which are the crossings, which aren't operating at full capacity,” she added. “We know that there are hundreds of trucks just waiting outside of Gaza on the Egyptian side of the border, waiting to get in.”

In January, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s top court, ordered Israel to allow more aid to be delivered to starving civilians in Gaza – a decision aid agencies, governments, and Israeli human rights groups say Israel is ignoring. The EU’s foreign affairs chief has accused Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war.

Nearly 2 million people – three quarters of Gaza’s population – have been displaced during the conflict. More than 1.2 million have crowded into Rafah, a southern Gaza town previously home to just 300,000. At least 31,300 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 12,000 children, according to health officials in the enclave.

Aid delivery is still falling far short of the desperate need in Gaza, with the UN warning that famine is “imminent”. In northern Gaza, where aid delivery has been almost non-existent and starvation has become widespread, people are eating grass to survive.

At the same time, UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees and the largest aid provider in Gaza and the region, faces a possible shutdown after Israeli accusations that some UNRWA employees were involved in the 7 October Hamas attacks.

While any increase in aid is welcome, aid workers say, the new sea and air routes distract from the broader issue of Israeli obstruction – and will come too late for many in Gaza, where at least 27 people, mostly children, have already died of starvation or thirst.

Israeli forces have directly targeted aid workers and humanitarian convoys; meanwhile, throughout Gaza, desperate conditions are causing a breakdown in order and an increase in looting, which has made aid delivery even more difficult and unsafe, the UN says.

These challenges have been particularly acute in northern Gaza, where Israeli authorities have almost completely blocked aid deliveries since January. With aid workers largely barred from the area, Israeli authorities have tried to coordinate a handful of convoys delivered by private contractors; at the end of February, more than 100 people were killed and hundreds wounded after Israeli troops opened fire near one such convoy, with UN staff and healthcare workers reporting many gunshot victims.

Here’s a breakdown of the Gaza aid situation by land, sea, and air:

Two maps side by side: On the left we see a line joining the southern coast of Cyprus to Gaza, showing an aid route a ship called Open Arms is taking. On the right is another map zoomed in to Gaza with dots marking the open entries of Rafah, and Kerem Shalom and the closed entry of Erez. There is a parachute over Northern Gaza showing where aid drops have happened. The cities of Gaza, Khan Younis and Rafah are also pointed out.


The initial WCK/Open Arms shipment is carrying around the same amount of aid as a 14-truck World Food Programme (WFP) convoy which was bound for northern Gaza on 5 March, and was looted after being held for three hours by Israeli forces at a checkpoint and then denied entry.

About 500 trucks entered Gaza per day before 7 October 2023, when Israel imposed a complete siege on Gaza and began blocking the entry of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other goods. Israeli authorities allowed some aid into Gaza in late October, which gradually increased to about 100 trucks per day until the end of the year – doubling during a week-long ceasefire in November. After a significant slowdown in February, an average of 166 trucks entered Gaza daily in March.

Since 7 October, Israel has opened just two crossings into Gaza, both near the southern border with Egypt. Three crossings were in regular use before 7 October; before 2007, when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, there were seven.

On 13 March, Israeli authorities allowed six WFP trucks directly into northern Gaza – the first convoy to access the north since 20 February. The convoy took a previously closed route through the border fence south of Gaza City, after being inspected by Israeli authorities at a crossing in southern Gaza. The convoy carried enough food for 25,000 people – but WFP stressed that the north needs daily aid deliveries.

“We stress the importance of having those crossings operating at capacity, and note that Israel, the occupying power, has a legal duty to provide or facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief.”

Aid workers say efforts to bring food, medical supplies, and fuel to starving people are still being blocked by Israeli restrictions, including a complex and inefficient screening process for goods entering Gaza, which has not improved since the beginning of Israel’s invasion.

As a result, land crossings into Gaza are still running well below capacity, with hundreds of truckloads still waiting to be delivered.

“We stress the importance of having those crossings operating at capacity, and note that Israel, the occupying power, has a legal duty to provide or facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief,” Low said. “States should be focusing their efforts on pushing Israel to fulfil those international obligations.”

COGAT, the Israeli agency responsible for coordinating with humanitarian agencies, says the UN is responsible for the lack of aid to northern Gaza.

But aid agencies blame a pattern of Israeli access denials, and say that after five months, there is still no working deconfliction mechanism to keep humanitarian workers and convoys safe from Israeli military action.

Israeli attacks in March targeting Palestinian police securing aid convoys led police to pull back from this role. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, says this has made aid delivery even more difficult – and has often resulted in trucks bound for northern Gaza being stripped of aid before leaving the south.

The consequences of those delays have been devastating. UN staff who were able to reach hospitals in northern Gaza on 8 March described a desperate situation: drugs, oxygen, fuel, and food constantly in short supply, and staff at one maternity hospital forced to do C-sections with nothing but local anaesthetic.


Aid is already arriving by sea near Gaza, at the Egyptian port of Al-Arish, but it is inspected by Israeli forces before moving into the enclave via the Rafah or Kerem Shalom/Kerem Abu Salem overland crossings.

Two recently announced sea pipelines aim to skip the stop in Israel and deliver aid directly to Gaza.

A sea corridor to be established by the EU, the UK, the US, and the UAE aims to deliver aid via Cyprus. The plan has been in the works since November 2023, when Israel explored the possibility of setting up a section of the port in Larnaca, Cyprus to channel aid to Gaza and replace the currently used land crossings. Israeli officials are now reportedly also drawing up a proposal to buy a port in Cyprus to process aid before delivering it to Gaza via the US pier.

Details on the plan remain fuzzy. A European Commission spokesperson said aid deliveries in Gaza will be coordinated with the UN and other humanitarian organisations – but it’s unclear when shipments will begin in earnest, what kind of aid will be permitted, where it will land, or who will distribute it. A European Commission briefing on the plan was light on details, and a spokesperson said on 11 March that no new information was available.

Israeli officials plan to inspect aid before it leaves Cyprus. Israeli troops will also be stationed near the WCK dropoff point, reported the Times of Israel.

The WCK/Open Arms mission, which the EU has said is the first test of the Cyprus pipeline, plans to dock somewhere in northern Gaza (south of Gaza City) where the organisation is building a dock to transfer cargo. Delivering aid directly to northern Gaza could allow aid agencies to skirt the challenge of moving from the south to the north – although it does not address the ongoing access problems inland.

Separately, the US military plans to anchor 1,000 troops off the coast of Gaza aboard the military ship General Frank S. Besson, and to deliver aid via a temporary pier. Officials say they hope the ship will be able to deliver as many as 2 million meals per day. The Israeli military says it is coordinating with the US to build the pier, and plans to do a “full” inspection of aid before it lands in Gaza.

Given the level of control exercised by Israeli authorities, it’s unclear whether either sea corridor will avoid many of the problems aid agencies have encountered bringing aid in by land – with the exception of disruptions by Israeli protesters who have blocked one of the crossings into Gaza.

“Israel is not allowing Rafah and Kerem Abu Salem to function. Now, will it allow this to function?” asked a sceptical Ali al-Za’tari, a former UN humanitarian coordinator with experience in Syria, Libya, and Sudan.

A similar aid route hasn’t been tried in recent crises, and calls to mind World War II landings in Normandy or the Philippines, said al-Za’tari. But getting aid into Gaza is just the first step, he noted. It will take a significant logistical effort onshore to unload, sort, and distribute the aid – and that effort will run into all of the same problems that have made aid delivery in northern Gaza all but impossible since January.

Without a significant increase in aid deliveries by land while the beachhead is put in place, people will continue to starve, al-Za’tari said. There’s a simpler solution, he argues: “Why is the United States doing this, when it can tell Israel to cease hostilities?”


To get around the land blockade, countries including Jordan, the US, the UAE, and France have organised hundreds of airdrops – a last-resort method previously used to deliver aid to civilians in Syria and Yazidi refugees in Iraq encircled by the so-called Islamic State group.

“There’s a certain irony to the US having to enact airdrops when the people preventing the aid from getting in are one of its closest allies,” Low pointed out.

Airdrops have scaled up since late February, but they have proved to be “not efficient at all”, said al-Za’tari.

One truck can carry about 10 times the amount of food delivered in one airdrop, according to the WFP. While they can be an effective method of delivering relatively small amounts of aid, al-Za’tari noted the chaotic scenes around recent airdrops in northern Gaza, where starving people have struggled to grab whatever falls. 

In other crises where airdrops have been used, the UN typically aims to coordinate with groups on the ground who can distribute aid safely, al-Za’tari previously told The New Humanitarian. This lack of coordination can have deadly consequences: On 8 March, a malfunctioning aid package crash-landed and killed five people in northern Gaza. 

“It doesn’t make sense,” al-Za’tari said. “It seems that this is a way of saying, ‘We’re doing something.’”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.