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The U.S. military pier off Gaza may soon be operating. Aid workers question its role

A U.S. Navy ship docks off the coast of the Gaza Valley area in the central Gaza Strip on April 29, 2024. The ship is expected to participate in the construction work of a floating naval dock to deliver more humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip  announced in March.
Ashraf Amra
Anadolu via Getty Images
A U.S. Navy ship docks off the coast of the Gaza Valley area in the central Gaza Strip on April 29, 2024. The ship is expected to participate in the construction work of a floating naval dock to deliver more humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip announced in March.

As early as this weekend, some 90 trucks will roll off a metal causeway onto a beach in Gaza.

Then the United Nations will deliver the much-needed food and medicine to Palestinians, some of whom are already suffering famine conditions. The United Nations said half of Gaza's more than 2 million people are starving.

But questions remain about whether this will be a successful operation. Senior military officials say tens of thousands of desperate residents could cluster at the end of the causeway, snarling the trucks and denying much needed aid.

There are also security concerns. Recently two mortars landed in the marshaling area in Gaza that will receive the trucks, causing minor damage.

Officials say the effort will begin with 90 trucks per day and soon ramp up to 150. But that's not enough, humanitarian officials say, noting that 500 trucks per day rolled into Gaza from land crossings before the October 7th Hamas attack.

U.S. officials say aid from the sea and causeway are meant to supplement the more efficient land crossings. But with the Rafah border crossing now closed, rimmed with Israeli tanks, and an Israeli military operation is imminent, the situation is now even more dire.

The U.S.-led initiative, which President Biden first touted in his March State of the Union as an important measure to address the worsening humanitarian crisis in the region, was slated to begin operating by early May.

At a Department of Defense briefing Tuesday, officials said the pier itself is complete but that weather complications play a factor in delaying its operations. On Monday, National Security spokesman John Kirby said security arrangements for those delivering the aid are still being worked out.

While U.S. officials have described the pier as a supplement — not a replacement — for existing aid distribution efforts, humanitarian aid groups say that the port is a "performative" aid operation that will make minimal headway in addressing the humanitarian crisis in the region.

How the pier will work

The Department of Defense began work on the construction of the pier after Biden announced it in March, with the goal of starting initial operations 60 days later. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the federal agency for coordinating U.S. humanitarian assistance globally, is partnering with the Department of Defense to facilitate aid distribution.

The operation comes as the Biden administration continues to face pressure to provide greater humanitarian relief to the Palestinian people. In March, U.S.-led efforts to air-drop aid into Gaza began, and the president has admonished Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that if Israel fails to do more to protect civilians, aid workers and address the growing humanitarian crisis, there could be a possible change to U.S. policy and security assistance.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy are working jointly to construct a floating platform, along with a temporary pier off the Gaza Strip. Biden made it clear, however, that "no U.S. boots will be on the ground" in Gaza.

Shipments of aid will first arrive in Cyprus, according to USAID. Before the shipments leave for Gaza from Cyprus, Israeli officials will inspect the deliveries. The ships will then deliver the aid to a floating platform further out from shore, and then smaller vessels will move the aid to the pier itself, which is located on the shore of the Gaza Strip. Trucks deployed by another group would then bring shipments to the rest of Gaza over land.

According to the Pentagon, the World Food Program (WFP) will play a key role in delivering the aid. Security is a top concern, and questions remain about safety for any aid group working to deliver aid from the pier. More than 200 aid workers have died in the war, and the recent killing of seven foreign aid workers with World Central Kitchen, who died in targeted Israeli airstrikes, catapulted the issue into the global spotlight.

Frustration among humanitarian groups mounts

But Abeer Etefa, a spokesperson for the WFP, was unable to elaborate on its role in the operation.

"The details are still being worked out," Etefa said.

USAID did not respond with answers to NPR's questions about the the pier and how humanitarian aid would be delivered.

Deepmala Mahla, chief humanitarian officer for CARE, which has not been approached about supporting the pier operation, was blunt in her appraisal.

"Generally there is a sense of frustration: Why are we not focusing on land borders and why are we bringing these distractions?" she said of the pier.

Aid distribution efforts by land have faced significant delays because the Erez Crossing, the only border crossing between the northern part of the Gaza Strip and Israel, had been closed for months until it reopened this month. Israeli military also seized the Rafah border crossing earlier this week, which the U.N. warns could further restrict the distribution of aid to the Palestinian people. That, plus bottlenecks at the critical Kerem Shalom crossing, on the southeastern edge of Gaza, due to lengthy inspections, frustrates Mahla.

"I do not know of a situation where hundreds and hundreds of trucks laden with lifesaving aid are just a few miles away from the border, where over 95% of the people are in need," Mahla said. "The only way — the best way — to save lives at this moment is to let the trucks in."

Kate Phillips-Barrasso, the vice president of global policy and advocacy with Mercy Corps, said the construction of a pier wouldn't mitigate ongoing challenges that humanitarian organizations, such as Mercy Corps, face.

"The sort of novel creation of a port and a floating pier does not necessarily address any of the real problems that we've been facing as humanitarian organizations in delivering that aid in a consistent and safe manner, at scale, to populations across Gaza," she said. "We're facing these famine-like metrics right now across Gaza because what has been getting in through those low land crossings hasn't been coming in at the volume or the speed to the people who need it — enough that now we have half of the population actively starving to death."

Phillips-Barrasso said what Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organizations say would help most — more so than a pier — would be a ceasefire.

"Unless the fighting stops, we can't safely deliver aid at the level that is needed," Phillips-Barrasso said. "We have been very clear that what's really driving the humanitarian situation — it's the siege."

NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jeongyoon Han
[Copyright 2024 NPR]