US aircraft carry out airdrops of aid to Gaza with 38,000 meals

<span>Joe Biden announced the airdrops while meeting with the Italian prime minister.</span><span>Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</span>
Joe Biden announced the airdrops while meeting with the Italian prime minister.Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The US air force began airdrops of aid over Gaza on Saturday afternoon, in a joint operation with Jordanian planes in a last-resort attempt to get food into the besieged coastal strip as mass starvation looms.

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US officials said that US and Jordanian C-130 planes taking off from Jordan dropped 66 pallets of food, containing a total of 38,000 meals at mid-afternoon local time, in the first of a series of airdrops that Joe Biden announced on Friday.

“The [defence department] humanitarian airdrops contribute to ongoing US government efforts to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza,” US Central Command said in a statement. “We are conducting planning for potential follow-on airborne aid delivery missions.”

“These airdrops are part of a sustained effort to get more aid into Gaza, including by expanding the flow of aid through land corridors and routes.”

A senior US official said the drops had been made along the Gaza coastline at places where it had been judged they could be most safely retrieved by the civilian population.

“We’ve been monitoring the location where the assistance was dropped ..and we have seen civilians approaching the aid to distribute it amongst themselves,” the official said. “The sites were specifically chosen as ones where we thought there was the greatest likelihood of safety and this is being dropped in areas that are nearby where people are sheltering and in need.”

Jordan has already airdropped aid into Gaza, as have France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Saturday’s drop marks the first US involvement.

The decision to use air drops has been fiercely criticised by aid agencies and human rights groups as being an ineffective way of delivering humanitarian assistance. The critics have pointed out that Biden has opted not to use Washington’s leverage as Israel’s principal arms supplier.

Emile Hokayem, the director for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the US air drops “virtue signalling and an admission of impotence on the part of the US”.

“Airdrops are not the solution to relieve this suffering, and distract time and effort from proven solutions to help at scale,” the International Rescue Committee aid organisation said. “All diplomatic focus should be on ensuring Israel lifts its siege of Gaza … We need a sustained ceasefire.”

Talks over a hostage and ceasefire deal took place in Doha on Saturday and are due to move to Cairo on Sunday. US officials said that Israel had “more or less” accepted a proposal for a six-week phased ceasefire that would begin with the release of the wounded, elderly and female hostages.

The White House insists it is pressing for the opening of more land and sea routes at the same time as carrying out airdrops. They argue the main problem in delivering aid now has become insecurity and looting, which has prevented aid trucks moving up the Gaza strip from the crossing points in the south.

“The problem has been distribution, and distribution is what matters,” a senior US official said. “Lawlessness, which was always a problem in the background, has now moved to a very different level. Criminal gangs are taking it, looting it, reselling it. They’ve monetised humanitarian assistance.”

“There’s a way that you resolve this problem – you flood the market. You bring in assistance from every point you can: air, sea and land,” the official said.

The US air drops came after at least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 others were injured on Thursday among a crowd of Palestinians waiting for food deliveries. The Palestinian authorities said the victims were gunned down in a massacre, while the Israeli military said that most of the casualties were caused by a stampede and by trucks speeding away, knocking over some of the people looking for food.

The flow of trucks carrying aid through two land crossings has slowed to trickle, restricted by Israeli red tape and increasing incidents of looting. The UN has warned that Gaza now faces “imminent famine” with a quarter of the 2.3 million population “one step away from starvation”.