'We’re not waiting on Israel. Now's a moment for US leadership'

US to build pier off Gaza coast that will enable maritime aid shipments — officials

Project, which will be announced in Biden’s SOTU address, will see deliveries inspected in Cyprus before docking in Gaza once temporary structure is built in coming weeks

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A Palestinian fisherman arrives with a boat at the port Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)
A Palestinian fisherman arrives with a boat at the port Gaza City early on December 1, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

US President Joe Biden will announce in his Thursday State of the Union address that the US military will embark on an “emergency mission” to establish a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza, which will allow for the direct delivery of humanitarian assistance from the Mediterranean Sea, senior administration officials told reporters in a briefing.

“We’re not waiting on the Israelis. This is a moment for American leadership, and we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need,” a senior official said, in the latest demonstration of the lack of US faith in Israel’s ability to prevent a humanitarian crisis while prosecuting the war against Hamas in Gaza.

The idea for a marine humanitarian corridor into Gaza has been floated for years, but never got off the ground due to Israeli reticence and concerns that Gaza City’s fishing port isn’t equipped for large ships to dock. The US made a renewed push to establish the corridor following last week’s deadly mass-casualty incident in which dozens of Palestinians were killed trying to collect aid in northern Gaza.

Believing that the best way to ensure civilians receive aid is by flooding the Strip with assistance by land, air and sea, the US has airdropped food over Gaza three times since Saturday, and will over the coming weeks begin work to establish a causeway off the coast of Gaza that will be able to receive large ships carrying hundreds of truckloads of food, water, medicine and temporary shelters each day, according to the administration officials.

The US is coordinating with Israel to ensure its security concerns are met, and with the UN and humanitarian organizations on the ground to ensure the aid is properly distributed.

Initial shipments will arrive at the port via Cyprus’s Larnaca, where they will ostensibly undergo security inspections.

US President Joe Biden arrives to board Air Force One, March 5, 2024, in Hagerstown, Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It will take “a number of weeks” for the temporary pier to be built and operational, one of the officials briefing reporters said, adding that the US hopes that the port will turn into “a commercially operated facility over time.”

The officials clarified that the project will not require US boots on the ground in Gaza. Instead, US military personnel will be present on vessels offshore while the pier is being built.

An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Jerusalem “fully supports” the US plan, but did not comment on what it said about Israel’s ability to prevent a humanitarian crisis on its own.

Since last week’s deadly incident involving the aid convoy in Gaza City, the Biden administration has come under immense domestic, political and international pressure to explain why it has been unable to ensure the delivery of assistance to civilians in a war zone being managed by one of its closest allies that relies on American weapons.

Hamas claims at least 115 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded on Thursday as they swarmed aid trucks that entered the city.

The terror group accused Israeli troops of shooting at the crowd of thousands, while the IDF says many of the casualties were trampled in a chaotic crush for food aid, and that its troops only fired at a few individuals who rushed toward them in a threatening manner. Nonetheless, the army said promised a thorough investigation of the incident.

For months, the US has pressured Israel to open more crossings and implement deconfliction mechanisms to ensure that aid convoys aren’t targeted by the IDF. Israel insists that the bottlenecks are not its doing and that the UN has failed to keep up with the pace at which it is inspecting trucks.

A picture shows aid parcels being airdropped over the northern Gaza Strip on March 5, 2024. (AFP)

The UN charges that Israeli restrictions have handcuffed their efforts. One UN diplomat cited an instance in which a truck full of aid was ordered to turn around because an Israeli inspector spotted sleeping bags that were green — the color of Hamas’s flag. A spokesman for Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusation.

More damaging to the humanitarian effort, however, has been the breakdown of law and order in Gaza.

Israel began more aggressively implementing a policy in recent weeks that has seen it target Hamas-linked police officers who have been tasked with securing the aid convoys, a US official said.

Roughly a dozen officers have been killed, leading police to cease securing the convoys. Israel has said the Hamas-linked police are legitimate targets, but the US official criticized the IDF for carrying out the strikes without having an alternative plan in place for how aid will be distributed.

Another hindrance to aid distribution has been the protests taking place near the Kerem Shalom Crossing where Israel inspects trucks before they enter directly into Gaza or are ferried to Egypt and enter the Strip through the Rafah Crossing. Some members of hostages’ families and many far-right activists succeeded for weeks in blocking hundreds of trucks from entering Kerem Shalom, with the US official saying that they received support from far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who signaled to police that they need not clamp down on the demonstrators.

Protesters near the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza on January 25, 2024. (Eli Katzoff/Times of Israel)

While Israel declared the area surrounding Kerem Shalom a closed military zone, the protests have still managed to periodically slow the amount of aid going into Gaza.

One of the administration officials briefing reporters Thursday said Israel has prepared a new land crossing directly into northern Gaza at Washington’s request and that it should be operational in the coming week.

Also on Thursday, the US carried out its third joint airdrop of 28,000 meals into Gaza with Jordan.

The senior administration official said that 192 bundles containing 112,896 meals have been airdropped in the Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday operations.

“We have long believed that land routes can be the most efficient, cost-effective way to get assistance in. But the president has directed us to look at all options,” the official continues. “We have and will continue to press Israel to allow more aid into Gaza by land.”

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