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David Cameron warns of Gaza famine as UK sends Royal Navy ship to boost aid effort

The Royal Navy was ordered into action on Saturday to help supply desperately needed aid to Gaza, as the foreign secretary, David Cameron, warned that the Palestinian people trapped there were on the brink of famine.

With the UK and US governments under intense pressure to halt arms sales to Israel, Downing Street said on Saturday that ministers would instead boost support for a planned new maritime corridor from Cyprus to Gaza, to channel “life-saving aid” by sea to a population in urgent need of basic food supplies.

Announcing the emergency deployment of a Royal Navy vessel and £9.7m in aid, Lord Cameron said: “The situation in Gaza is dire and the prospect of famine is real. We remain committed to getting aid to those who so desperately need it.”

The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, said a navy ship was en route to the eastern Mediterranean.

As part of the operation, first announced by Joe Biden at the beginning of Ramadan last month, the US, UK, EU and other partners will establish a new temporary pier off the coast of Gaza, where aid can be channelled straight into the blockaded territory without the risk of it being sent back at the border. The shipments will be inspected by Israeli officials in Larnaca before setting off.

The move follows a wave of international outrage at the killing last week by Israeli forces of seven aid workers, three of them British, employed by the charity World Central Kitchen (WCK), which had just sent a second ship and tug carrying 400m tonnes of aid – enough for 1m meals – to Gaza after a successful pilot run last month.

Starving Palestinians - adults and children.
Palestinians at Jabalia refugee camp, Gaza, wait to receive food distributed by charity organisations. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

The organisation and several other agencies have since suspended operations in the Palestinian territory, increasing the risk of starvation for its 2.3 million people still further.

The WCK deliveries, which were unloaded at a makeshift jetty near the central town of Deir al-Balah that was constructed by volunteers from rubble, are separate to the US-led project for a temporary floating pier, which officials hope will be fully operational by early May.

The announcement on increased aid is unlikely to reduce calls for both the UK and US governments to stop supplying arms to Israel. Many legal experts believe the UK is breaching international humanitarian law with its prosecution of the war on Hamas, which, according to the health ministry in the Islamist-run territory, has led to the deaths of at least 33,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children. With many bodies still trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings, the true figure is likely to be higher.

The Guardian reported last week that Israeli military officials had permitted large numbers of Palestinian civilians to be killed in unguided “dumb” bomb strikes targeting even low-level Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants, based on what intelligence sources said was an AI-driven system that in many cases risked “attacking by mistake”.

Both the White House’s national security spokesperson, John Kirby, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said they were looking into the report.

Israel says it is fighting a war of self-defence against a brutal enemy bent on destroying the state, after Hamas killed more than 1,100 people, the majority civilians, on 7 October last year in cross-border attacks and took at least 250 people hostage to Gaza.

Israel denies blocking aid, saying any shortages are a result of logistics failures by humanitarian organisations or Hamas diverting supplies.

Last week, the Observer reported Alicia Kearns, the Tory MP and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, as saying that the Foreign Office’s own lawyers had concluded that Israel was in breach of international law and that the UK as a result had to halt arms sales. This was not denied by the Foreign Office.

The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, will outline on Sunday how Labour will try to use parliament to pressure the government into releasing the legal advice. Lammy said that the UK government should “unequivocally commit to complying with international law in this conflict, including following the licensing criteria governing arms sales, as well as calling on Israel to implement the provisional measures in the ICJ [international court of justice]’s binding January ruling in full.”

To mark six months since the Hamas attacks, Rishi Sunak toughened his line on Israel, saying that while the UK stood by the state’s right to defend itself, “the whole of the UK is shocked by the bloodshed and appalled by the killing of brave British heroes who were bringing food to those in need”.

Sunak added: “This terrible conflict must end. The hostages must be released. The aid – which we have been straining every sinew to deliver by land, air and sea – must be flooded in. The children of Gaza need a humanitarian pause immediately, leading to a long-term sustainable ceasefire.”

The comments were in stark contrast to those he made a week after 7 October, in which he offered unconditional and permanent support to Israel and failed even to mention innocent Palestinians caught up in the conflict.

The maritime corridor scheme will take several weeks to put into action, carrying the risk of supplying too little relief, too late. While aid experts have welcomed it as a step in the right direction, they said the plan, along with airdrops introduced after more than 100 people were killed at an aid distribution point in February, remains a less effective way of getting aid into Gaza than deliveries by land.

The number of aid lorries entering the territory over the past five months has been far below the 500 a day that entered before the war, and getting assistance to where it is most needed has been made difficult by damaged roads, a lack of fuel, a breakdown of public order and what aid agencies have described as unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles imposed by Israel and a failure by Israeli forces to ensure safe passage.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told Biden last week that Israel would reopen a key land crossing into Gaza, allow more aid through another crossing and open an Israeli port to aid deliveries after a warning in the wake of the aid worker killings that future US support for Israel will depend on it taking concrete action to protect civilians and humanitarians.

The Israeli cabinet’s decision followed briefings by foreign ministry officials who warned that if aid were not increased, Israel would risk sanctions and arms embargos.

The US has also made clear that it strongly opposes Israel’s plans for a ground operation in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, where a million people are sheltering, not least because of Israel’s “unrealistic plans” to evacuate civilians before an assault.

Although 100 Israelis were freed in a week-long ceasefire at the end of November in exchange for 240 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails, negotiations since aimed at a second, longer truce and the release of the remaining hostages have repeatedly faltered.