HomeWorld NewsU.S. announces ‘emergency mission’ port plan, as cease-fire hopes fade

U.S. announces ‘emergency mission’ port plan, as cease-fire hopes fade

Amid dimming hopes that an Israel-Hamas cease-fire and hostage-release deal will be reached before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, President Biden has ordered the U.S. military to construct a temporary port and pier on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast to open a new route for providing humanitarian aid.

Administration officials described what they called an “emergency mission,” to be announced in Biden’s Thursday night State of the Union speech, as part of the president’s directive to “flood the zone” with desperately needed assistance arriving by air, land and sea.

The port plan follows last week’s initiation of U.S. military airdrops of aid into Gaza, the third of which took place Thursday. The new maritime facility will allow “hundreds” of truckloads of assistance to be delivered daily to Gaza, said one of three senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the plan on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House. The aid will be routed through Cyprus, where the goods will undergo inspection by Israel before being loaded onto what officials said would be “large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.”

Relations between Washington and Jerusalem have become increasingly strained as Israel’s siege of Gaza has severely limited the amount of humanitarian assistance permitted to enter the enclave. Millions of civilians inside the war zone are on the verge of famine amid a worsening public health catastrophe, according to humanitarian organizations.

Both at home and abroad, Biden’s attempts to balance unwavering U.S. diplomatic and military support of Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas militants with the increasingly dire situation in Gaza have become increasingly untenable.

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“We are not waiting on the Israelis” to facilitate more aid, one senior official said. “This is a moment for American leadership and we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need.” After initial U.S. deliveries by sea, the official said, the hope is that other countries will join in a mission that eventually will include commercial operations.

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no initial statement on the U.S. announcement. An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity pending an official response, said that Israel “welcomes and fully supports” the port plans, which have been discussed “and will be carried out with full coordination between the two parties.”

Biden has pledged that no U.S. military troops would become involved in the war, and officials said there would be no American boots on the ground in construction of the port facility.

“The concept that’s been planned involves the presence of U.S. military personnel on military vessels offshore” of Gaza, but does not require U.S. military personnel to go ashore to install the pier or causeway facility or to offload the aid, said one official.

“This significant capability will take a number of weeks to plan and execute,” the official said, adding that the U.S. forces required “are either already in the region or will begin to move there soon.”

The Pentagon declined to provide more details on how, when or where — or with which military units — the facility would be constructed, saying that more details on the mission would be released Friday.

The United Nations and other humanitarian organizations will distribute the aid inside Gaza, and Israel will make security arrangements, the officials said. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, said Thursday that they welcomed “any way to get more aid into Gaza,” but emphasized that truck convoys were more effective. “We’ve been saying from the beginning, we need more entry points and we need a larger volume of aid to come in by land,” he said.

Israel has allowed land transport only from southern Gaza, through the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the Israeli crossing at Kerem Shalom in the southeast corner of the enclave. Most of that aid is going to the city of Rafah, where about 1.5 million Gazans have taken refuge to escape Israel’s bombardment. Israel has warned of a pending offensive in Rafah, where it says Hamas units and their leadership are hiding.

Gaza has long relied on international aid. Before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack — in which about 1,200 people were killed and 253 hostages were taken to Gaza, according to Israeli authorities — an average of roughly 500 trucks of humanitarian and commercial goods entered the enclave daily. Both Israel and Egypt tightened access after the attack and Israel’s subsequent military offensive, in which Gaza health authorities say more than 30,000 people have been killed. The average number of daily trucks fell to 170 in January and 98 in February, numbering in the single digits on some days.

Only a handful of convoys have reached the north, which saw massive destruction from Israeli air and ground attacks last year. Most northern residents evacuated to the south, but at least 300,000 people are believed to be sheltering amid the rubble in and around Gaza City. Israeli forces have denied access or delayed aid convoys, while criminal gangs have hijacked and starving civilians have mobbed the trucks that have managed to approach the area in the absence of local police escorts, which abandoned that task after coming under Israeli attack.

Desperation and death surround an aid delivery in northern Gaza

More than 100 people died last week, either from Israeli gunfire or a stampede, when a crowd descended on a rare aid convoy in Gaza City. The World Food Program said a second attempt to reach the north Wednesday was “largely unsuccessful” when Israeli forces delayed and then rerouted 14 trucks that were looted by civilians before reaching their destination.

The growing need to get more food, medicine and supplies into Gaza has increased pressure on both Israel and Hamas to stop hostilities before the fasting month of Ramadan starts at the beginning of next week.

The Gaza port announcement came as a senior administration official declined to predict whether ongoing cease-fire and hostage-release negotiations would succeed. The terms of a provisional deal, which the Biden administration says Israel has agreed to, include a six-week cease-fire and the release of the women, children, sick and elderly held captive by Hamas, including some Israeli soldiers. Some of the hostages are believed to be dead and the provisional deal includes the return of their bodies. During a pause in the fighting late last year, Hamas exchanged more than 100 hostages for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

The official said the offer on the table before Hamas also includes the repositioning of Israeli forces in Gaza away from urban areas, allowing residents of northern Gaza to return home, and massively increasing the flow of humanitarian assistance. “All of that stuff has been negotiated,” the official said. The United States and Israel say the ball is now in Hamas’s court.

A Hamas official told The Washington Post that the group has rejected Israel’s offer of a six-week truce while it keeps troops in Gaza and receives the return of hostages. “We want a permanent cease-fire, and we want the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss ongoing negotiations. A cease-fire that lasts only through Ramadan and the release of the hostages, he said, would leave Gazans without a guarantee for protection after it ended.

U.S. officials have said they anticipate a three-phase deal, with additional cease-fires — and ultimately an end to the war — to be negotiated during the first phase. Israel has said it intends to return to its mission of wiping out Hamas in Rafah as soon as it gets its hostages back.

Israel withdrew its negotiating team from talks in Cairo earlier this week. A Hamas delegation left Cairo on Thursday for what it said were consultations with the group’s political leadership in Qatar.

Dadouch reported from Beirut. Missy Ryan and Alex Horton contributed to this report.

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