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Sweden and Canada resume funding the U.N. aid agency for Palestinians

The U.S. airdrops humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Saturday.
Mahmoud Essa
The U.S. airdrops humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on Saturday.

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Another top donor to the U.N. agency aiding Palestinians said Saturday that it would resume funding, weeks after more than a dozen countries halted hundreds of millions of dollars of support in response to Israeli allegations against the organization.

Sweden's reversal came as a ship bearing tons of humanitarian aid was preparing to leave Cyprus for Gaza after international donors launched a sea corridor to supply the besieged territory facing widespread hunger after five months of war.

Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides told reporters late Saturday that the ship would depart "within the next 24 hours." World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés told The Associated Press that all necessary permits, including from Israel, had been secured, and circumstances delaying departure were primarily weather-related.

Sweden's funding decision followed similar ones by the European Union and Canada as the U.N. agency known as UNRWA warns that it could collapse and leave Gaza's already desperate population of more than 2 million people with even less medical and other assistance.

"The humanitarian situation in Gaza is devastating and the needs are acute," Swedish development minister Johan Forssell said, adding that UNRWA had agreed to increased transparency and stricter controls. Sweden will give UNRWA half of the $38 million funding it promised for this year, with more to come.

Israel had accused 12 of UNRWA's thousands of employees of participating in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed 1,200 people and took about 250 others hostage. Countries including the United States quickly suspended funding to UNRWA worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for the year. The U.N. has launched investigations, and UNRWA has been agreeing to outside audits to win back donor support.

The U.S. and Jordan are airdropping aid

On the eve of Ramadan, hungry Gaza residents scrambled for packages of food supplies dropped by U.S. and Jordanian military planes — a method of delivery that humanitarian groups call deeply inadequate compared to ground deliveries. But the daily number of aid trucks entering Gaza since the war has been far below the 500 that entered before Oct. 7 because of Israeli restrictions and security issues.

People dashed through devastated Gaza City neighborhoods as the parachuting aid descended. "I have orphans, I want to feed them!" one woman cried.

"The issue of aid is brutal and no one accepts it," said another resident, Momen Mahra, claiming that most airdropped aid falls into the sea. "We want better methods."

The U.S. military said that its planes airdropped more than 41,000 "meal equivalents" and 23,000 bottles of water into northern Gaza, the hardest part of the enclave to access.

The Health Ministry in Gaza said that two more people, including a 2-month-old infant, had died as a result of malnutrition, raising the total dying from hunger in the war to 25. Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said the toll included only people brought to hospitals.

Overall, the ministry said at least 30,878 Palestinians have been killed since the war began. It doesn't differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tallies but says women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. The ministry is part of the Hamas-run government, and its figures from previous wars have largely matched those of the U.N. and independent experts.

The opening of the sea delivery corridor, along with the airdrops, showed increasing frustration with Gaza's humanitarian crisis and a new willingness to work around Israeli restrictions. The sea corridor is backed by the EU together with the United States, the United Arab Emirates and other involved countries. The European Commission has said that U.N. agencies and the Red Cross will also play a role.

President Joe Biden said Saturday that he believes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "hurting Israel more than helping Israel" in how he is approaching its war against Hamas in Gaza. Speaking to MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart, the U.S. leader expressed support for Israel's right to pursue Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack, but said of Netanyahu "he must pay more attention to the innocent lives being lost as a consequence of the actions taken."

The ship belonging to Spain's Open Arms aid group was expected to make a pilot voyage to test the corridor as early as this weekend. The ship has been waiting at Cyprus's port of Larnaca. Israel has said it welcomed the maritime corridor but cautioned that it would need security checks.

Open Arms founder Oscar Camps has said the ship pulling a barge with 200 tons of rice and flour would take two to three days to arrive at an undisclosed location where World Central Kitchen was constructing a pier to receive it.

Biden announced a plan to build a pier in Gaza to deliver aid

Biden separately has announced a plan to build a temporary pier in Gaza to help deliver aid, underscoring how the U.S. has to go around Israel, its main Middle East ally and the top recipient of U.S. military aid. Israel accuses Hamas of commandeering some aid deliveries.

United States officials said it will likely be weeks before the pier is operational. The executive director of the U.S. arm of medical charity Doctors Without Borders, Avril Benoit, in a statement criticized the U.S. plan as a "glaring distraction from the real problem: Israel's indiscriminate and disproportionate military campaign and punishing siege."

Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, has said air and sea deliveries can't make up for a shortage of supply routes on land.

Meanwhile, efforts to reach a cease-fire before Ramadan appeared stalled. Hamas said Thursday that its delegation had left Cairo until next week.

International mediators had hoped to alleviate some of the immediate crisis with a six-week cease-fire, which would have seen Hamas release some of the Israeli hostages it's holding, Israel release some Palestinian prisoners and aid groups be given access for a major influx of assistance into Gaza.

Palestinian militants are believed to be holding around 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others captured during the Oct. 7 attack. Several dozen hostages were freed in a weeklong November truce.

In Lebanon, state media said five people were killed and at least nine injured by an Israeli airstrike on a house in the town of Khirbet Selm in the country's south.

Near-daily clashes have been happening in the Lebanon-Israel border area between the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Israeli forces in the past five months.

Israeli strikes have killed abound 300 people there, most of them fighters with Hezbollah and allied groups, but also including about 40 civilians. On the Israeli side, at least nine soldiers and 10 civilians have been killed.

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The Associated Press
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