US says Gaza pier project is complete and aid will soon flow

US says Gaza pier project is complete and aid will soon flow

The US military has finished installing a floating pier off the Gaza Strip with officials poised to begin ferrying badly needed humanitarian aid into the enclave besieged over seven months of intense fighting in the Israel-Hamas war.

The final construction sets up a complicated delivery process more than two months after US President Joe Biden ordered it to help starving Palestinians as Israeli restrictions on border crossings and heavy fighting prevent food and other supplies from making it into Gaza.

Fraught with logistical, weather and security challenges, the pier project — expected to cost $320 million — is designed to bolster the amount of aid getting into the Gaza Strip, but it is not considered a substitute for far cheaper deliveries by land that aid agencies say are much more sustainable.

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The boatloads of aid will be deposited at a port facility built by the Israelis just southwest of Gaza City and then distributed by aid groups.

US officials said on Thursday as much as 500 tons of food will begin arriving on the Gaza shore within days and that the US has closely coordinated with Israel on how to protect the ships and personnel working on the beach.

But there are still questions on how aid groups will safely operate in Gaza to distribute food to those who need it most, said Sonali Korde, assistant to the administrator of the US Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, which is helping with logistics.

“There is a very insecure operating environment” and aid groups are still struggling to get clearance for their planned movements in Gaza, Korde said.

Those talks with the Israeli military “need to get to a place where humanitarian aid workers feel safe and secure and able to operate safely. And I don’t think we’re there yet.”

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Fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants on the outskirts of the southern city of Rafah as well as Israel restarting combat operations in parts of northern Gaza have displaced some 700,000 people, UN officials say. Israel recently seized the key Rafah border crossing in its push against Hamas.

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Pentagon officials say the fighting isn’t threatening the new shoreline aid distribution area, but they have made it clear that security conditions will be monitored closely and could prompt a shutdown of the maritime route, even just temporarily.

Already, the site has been targeted by mortar fire during its construction, and Hamas has threatened to target any foreign forces who “occupy” the Gaza Strip.

The “protection of US forces participating is a top priority.

And as such, in the last several weeks, the United States and Israel have developed an integrated security plan to protect all the personnel,” said Navy Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, a deputy commander at the US military’s Central Command. “We are confident in the ability of this security arrangement to protect those involved.”

US troops anchored the pier on Thursday morning (Thursday night AEDT), Central Command said, stressing that none of its forces entered the Gaza Strip and would not during the pier’s operations.

It said trucks with aid would move ashore in the coming days and “the United Nations will receive the aid and coordinate its distribution into Gaza.”

The World Food Program will be the UN agency handling the aid, officials said.

Israeli forces will be in charge of security on shore, but there are also two US Navy warships near the area, the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Paul Ignatius.

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Both are destroyers equipped with a wide range of weapons and capabilities to protect American troops offshore and allies on the beach.

The British logistics ship RFA Cardigan Bay will also provide support, Cooper said.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Nadav Shoshani confirmed that the pier had been attached and that Israeli engineering units had flattened ground around the area and surfaced roads for trucks.

“We have been working for months on full cooperation with (the US military) on this project, facilitating it, supporting it in any way possible,” Shoshani said.

“It’s a top priority in our operation.”

The UN, US and international aid groups say Israel is allowing only a fraction of the normal pre-war deliveries of food and other supplies into Gaza since Hamas’ attacks on Israel launched the war in October.

Aid agencies say they are running out of food in southern Gaza and fuel is dwindling, while USAID and the World Food Program say famine has taken hold in Gaza’s north.

Israel says it places no limits on the entry of humanitarian aid and blames the UN for delays in distributing goods entering Gaza.

The UN says fighting, Israeli fire and chaotic security conditions have hindered delivery.

Under pressure from the US, Israel has in recent weeks opened a pair of crossings to deliver aid into hard-hit northern Gaza and said that a series of Hamas attacks on the main crossing, Kerem Shalom, have disrupted the flow of goods.

The first cargo ship loaded with food left Cyprus last week and the cargo was transferred to a US military ship, the Roy P. Benavidez, which is off the coast of Gaza.

The installation of the floating pier several kilometres off the coast and of a causeway, which is now anchored to the beach, was delayed for nearly two weeks because of bad weather that made conditions too dangerous.

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Military leaders have said the deliveries of aid will begin slowly to ensure the system works.

They will start with about 90 truckloads of aid a day through the sea route, and that number will quickly grow to about 150 a day.

But aid agencies say that isn’t enough to avert famine in Gaza and must be just one part of a broader Israeli effort to open land corridors.

Because land crossings could bring in all the needed aid if Israeli officials allowed it, the US-built pier-and-sea route “is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Scott Paul, an associate director of the Oxfam humanitarian organization.

Under the new sea route, humanitarian aid is dropped off in Cyprus where it will undergo inspection and security checks at Larnaca port.

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It is then loaded onto ships and taken about 320 kilometres to the large floating pier built by the US military off the Gaza coast.

There, the pallets are transferred onto trucks, driven onto smaller Army boats and then shuttled several kilometres to the causeway anchored to the beach. The trucks, which are being driven by personnel from another country, will go down the causeway into a secure area on land where they will drop off the aid and immediately turn around and return to the boats.

Aid groups will collect the supplies for distribution on shore.

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