By Michele Kambas, John Irish and Gabriela Baczynska
NICOSIA/PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – World powers meet in Paris on Thursday to coordinate aid and help for the wounded in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, with the possible creation of a maritime corridor, naval medical facilities and field hospitals to be considered, European diplomats said.
A month after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas Islamists that killed 1,400 people in Israel, concern is growing over civilian casualties that have soared under Israel’s retaliatory bombardments, with more than 10,000 Palestinians killed, and many more wounded and forced to flee their homes.
The conference brings together regional stakeholders such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Arab countries as well as Western powers and G20 members – excluding Russia. International institutions and non-governmental organisations operating in Gaza are also due to attend.
The Palestinian Authority will be present but Israel has not been invited, although it will be kept informed of the developments.
The broad aim is to mobilise financial resources and find ways to get aid into the enclave, while also getting those seriously wounded out given Gaza’s medical infrastructure is fast collapsing.
Cyprus, the closest EU member state to Gaza, has put forward an idea to get more aid into Gaza via a maritime corridor.
It would expand the limited capacities beyond the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but the concept is tricky, four diplomats said.
Israeli officials would also want to check all goods coming from Limassol port in Cyprus, the diplomats said.
Who would receive the aid would also need to be clarified as there are concerns it could fall into Hamas’ hands, two diplomats said. Israel would also want to vet what aid was going into Gaza and opposes supplying badly-needed fuel to the enclave, they said.
There are also technical issues. Port infrastructure off Gaza was started in 2016, but has since been abandoned.
“Gaza doesn’t have a harbour fit for such purpose,” said a senior EU official. “It would require building a floating marina by a country with proper navy experience.”
Should it even go ahead, the mission’s safety would need to be ensured and would be likely to need a pause in fighting.
On top of the Cypriot proposal, diplomats said France has also suggested taking the idea further and expanding the corridor to evacuating people who are severely wounded onto hospital ships in the Mediterranean off the coast of Gaza.
French officials have said they are discussing the issue with Israeli and Egyptian authorities, but the idea would be to get critical masse from several countries willing to send ships with the necessary medical capacity.
Paris is preparing a helicopter carrier for that purpose including beds, surgical capacities, medication and personnel. It is not expected in the region for another 10 days.
“Regarding the humanitarian corridor with France, there is an idea to bring a ship with some medical capabilities.” Col. Elad Goren, head of Israel’s Civil Department of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), told reporters on Tuesday.
“We are working with the French and with the Egyptians in order to try to build up a mechanism to evacuate wounded people, but it’s still ongoing.”
In a letter sent to European counterparts on Nov. 3, Italy’s defence minister has also said his country is ready to send a ship equipped with an intensive care ward and surgical capacities as soon as possible, two diplomats said.
“But the question is how you would get evacuated from land to ships?” said one of the diplomats. “On the ground first through Egypt or Israel? Directly from Gaza by sea? It’s very complex.”
Either way, three diplomats said that hospital ships were essentially only a temporary solution and that the aim would be to eventually set up field hospitals either close to the border in Gaza or on the Egyptian side.
“The Egyptians do not want multiple field hospitals on their side because it could be used as a pretext to push the Palestinians into the Sinai,” said one diplomat.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in Jerusalem; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Angus MacSwan)