World

Aid for Gaza will soon flow from pier project just finished by US military, Pentagon says

WASHINGTON — (AP) — The Pentagon said Thursday that humanitarian aid will soon begin flowing onto the Gaza shore through the new pier that was anchored to the beach and will begin reaching those in need almost immediately.

Sabrina Singh, Pentagon spokeswoman, told reporters that the U.S. believes there will be no backups in the distribution of the aid, which is being coordinated by the United Nations.

The U.N., however, said fuel imports have all but stopped and this will make it extremely difficult to deliver the aid to Gaza's people, all 2.3 million of whom are in acute need of food and other supplies after seven months of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas.

“We desperately need fuel,” U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said. “It doesn’t matter how the aid comes, whether it’s by sea or whether by land, without fuel, aid won’t get to the people.”

Singh said the issue of fuel deliveries comes up in all conversations with the Israelis.

The U.S. military finished installing a floating pier off the Gaza Strip early Thursday, and officials were making final checks before trucks begin driving onto the shore to deliver pallets of aid.

The pier project, expected to cost $320 million, was ordered more than two months ago by U.S. President Joe Biden to help starving Palestinians as Israeli restrictions on border crossings and heavy fighting hinder food and other supplies from making it into Gaza.

Fraught with logistical, weather and security challenges, the pier project is not considered a substitute for far cheaper deliveries by land that aid agencies say are much more sustainable.

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.

U.S. officials said Thursday as much as 500 tons of food will begin arriving on the Gaza shore within days and that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

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, U.N. officials say. Israel recently seized the key Rafah border crossing in its push against Hamas.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. military's Central Command. "We are confident in the ability of this security arrangement to protect those involved.”

Central Command stressed that none of its forces entered the Gaza Strip to secure the pier and would not during its 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 U.N. agency handling the aid, officials said.

Israeli forces will be in charge of security on shore, but there are also two U.S. Navy warships nearby, the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Paul Ignatius. Both are destroyers equipped with a wide range of weapons and capabilities to protect American troops offshore and allies on the beach.

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 U.S. military) on this project, facilitating it, supporting it in any way possible,” Shoshani said. “It’s a top priority in our operation.”

The U.N., U.S. 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 U.N. for delays in distributing goods entering Gaza. The U.N. says fighting, Israeli fire and chaotic security conditions have hindered delivery. Under pressure from the U.S., 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 U.S. military ship, the Roy P. Benavidez, off the coast of Gaza.

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. Aid agencies say that isn't enough 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 U.S.-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. It is then loaded onto ships and taken about 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the large floating pier built by the U.S. military off the Gaza coast.

There, the pallets are transferred onto trucks, driven onto smaller Army boats and then shuttled several miles (kilometers) 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.

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Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Julia Frankel in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.

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