UN to use new Gaza aid pier but insists land access still needed to prevent famine

As world body gears up to distribute supplies using US-built floating pier, aid chief warns stocks almost dry since closure of Rafah crossing: ‘The humanitarian operation is stuck’

A ship is seen off the coast of Gaza near a US-built floating pier that will be used to facilitate aid deliveries, as seen from the central Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP/Abdel Kareem Hana)
A ship is seen off the coast of Gaza near a US-built floating pier that will be used to facilitate aid deliveries, as seen from the central Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 16, 2024. (AP/Abdel Kareem Hana)

The United Nations on Thursday said it is finalizing plans to distribute aid delivered via a temporary floating pier anchored by the US to a beach in central Gaza, but stressed that delivering aid by land is the “most viable, effective and efficient” method.

“To stave off the horrors of famine, we must use the fastest and most obvious route to reach the people of Gaza – and for that, we need access by land now,” deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq said.

The US military announced earlier on Thursday that it had finished installing the pier, with officials poised to begin ferrying badly needed humanitarian aid into the enclave after seven months of intense fighting in Gaza.

The final, overnight construction sets up a complicated delivery process, more than two months after US President Joe Biden ordered it in order to help Palestinians facing starvation as food and other supplies have dwindled due to interruptions caused by the war.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths warned Thursday that famine was an immediate risk in Gaza with food stocks running out, describing fresh challenges since Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah Crossing in the south of the Strip early last week.

Since then, Cairo has refused to coordinate with Israel on the Rafah Crossing — which borders Egypt and has been the main gateway for goods and people entering and leaving Gaza — concerned that the takeover is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to launch a widespread offensive inside the city of Rafah.

IDF troops on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF began sending troops into the southern Gaza border city last week in what it has described as a “precise” operation, with soldiers currently holding a relatively small area southeast of the city. However, Israel has for months vowed a major offensive in the city as part of its war on Hamas, which began with the Palestinian terror group’s devastating October 7 attack on the country.

Amid airstrikes on Rafah, some 600,000 people or about half of the uprooted population sheltering there have fled to other areas of Gaza, sometimes returning to bombed-out houses or empty fields.

Griffiths said the global body was struggling to help them, with imports of aid all but halted through southern Gaza and fresh fighting adding to distribution challenges.

“Stocks of food which were in place already in southern Gaza are running out. I think we’re talking about almost none left,” Griffiths told Reuters in an interview in Geneva.

“And so the humanitarian operation is stuck, it’s completely stuck. We can’t do what we want to do,” he said, calling the relief operation “unplannable.”

Palestinian women and children flee Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip with some belongings on May 15, 2024. (AFP)

Israel says the Rafah operation aims to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in southern Gaza and dismantle infrastructure used by the terror group. Israel accuses Hamas of diverting aid, which the terror group denies, despite multiple instances of video footage showing armed men atop humanitarian aid trucks in Gaza.

Griffiths had previously warned that a military operation in Rafah would be deadly and put the UN’s fragile humanitarian operation “at death’s door.”

“What I think is so deeply, deeply tragic is that all the predictions that so many people, including us, but so many other member states and society have made about the consequences of an operation in Rafah are coming true,” he said.

Israeli troops are seen on the coast of central Gaza, where a US-built floating pier is to be placed, in a handout photo issued May 16, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

People who had moved to areas such as the expanded humanitarian zone in the al-Mawasi area, where Israel has told Palestinian civilians to relocate, had no food or water and tents had run out, he added. “What is the hope for these people? They don’t know what’s coming next.”

Aid officials have repeatedly warned of famine in the seven-month conflict, though their fears ebbed slightly in April as Israel ceded to international pressure to boost supplies.

The State Department said Thursday that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was continuing to deteriorate, urging Israel to do more to allow sustained access for aid via southern and northern parts of the enclave.

Speaking at a daily news briefing, State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said Washington continued to remain concerned that both travel and the flow of fuel into Gaza via Rafah crossing has “come to a complete halt.”

Currently, three crossings are actively being used to transfer humanitarian aid from Israel to Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip: Western Erez, which was opened this week; Eastern Erez, opened earlier in May adjacent to the existing Erez Crossing; and Gate 96, the military’s entrance to central Gaza’s Netzarim Corridor, used for the first time for aid deliveries in March.

Israel says UN agencies are to blame for not distributing aid more efficiently within the coastal enclave, creating backlogs of supplies.

Workers unload a truck in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip of humanitarian aid delivered from Jordan to the coastal territory through the Erez border crossing with Israel, on May 1, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Asked about the current risk of famine, Griffiths said: “I think it’s an immediate, clear and present danger because of the facts on the ground tell us we don’t need to be scientists to see the consequence of the removal of food.”

Griffiths, a British former diplomat who has also worked as a conflict mediator, is set to step down next month for health reasons after three years as the head of the UN’s humanitarian branch which manages a multi-billion-dollar relief budget.

Griffiths voiced concern for the future given the high number of conflicts in what he described as an “angry world.”

“It has never been as bad as this,” he said.

“I’m very worried, I think that it’s a world which has lost its way and we need to help find its way back to those norms that we all lived to create,” he said.

File – United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths speaks during a press conference in Geneva, November 15, 2023. (Jean-Guy Python / AFP)

The war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 252 hostages, mostly civilians, many amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

Vowing to destroy the terror group and free the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale military operation in Gaza, which Hamas-run health authorities say has left over 35,000 Palestinians dead. Israel says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. An estimated 15,000 terror operatives have been killed in Gaza amid the war, according to Israeli officials. The IDF also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

The IDF says 279 soldiers have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border.

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