US military begins construction of pier off Gaza for complex and dangerous aid delivery mission

The United States has begun construction at sea of the temporary pier intended to help deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, the Pentagon said on Thursday, with the ultimate goal of delivering up to 150 trucks of aid per day to the starving population there.

“US military vessels to include the USNS Benavidez have begun to construct the initial stages of the temporary pier and causeway at sea,” said Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder at a briefing Thursday.

A senior military official confirmed later on Thursday that “we are on track to begin delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza from the sea in early May,” which will begin at the equivalent of 90 trucks per day of aid and then “quickly scale up” to 150 trucks per day once full operational capacity is reached, the official said.

The official said the US military is prepared to execute the mission “for several months,” but emphasized that there will be no US boots on the ground in Gaza — something President Joe Biden ruled out when he first announced in March that the pier would be built. Instead, the Israel Defense Forces will partner with the US military to anchor the causeway to the shore in Gaza “on day one,” the military official said.

A US Army engineering unit has been training an IDF engineering unit in recent weeks on how to anchor the causeway to the shore, the official said. The IDF has also agreed to provide a security perimeter on the ground in Gaza “over a fairly wide area” where the aid will be offloaded, the official added.

But US troops will be several hundred meters from the Gaza beach as they operate the system, known as Joint Logistics Over the Shore, or JLOTS, and potentially within range of rockets or missiles fired from terror groups from Gaza. An unidentified group fired mortars on Wednesday at the site on Gaza’s coastline where the aid is expected to be offloaded, but the military official said they don’t assess that the attack had anything to do with the US’ pier mission.

“We’ve factored in all the variables to maximize force protection,” the official said, adding that US Navy destroyers currently in the eastern Mediterranean “will be complementary” to the overall mission.

Dire humanitarian situation

The pier’s construction comes as the humanitarian situation in Gaza has become dire, a senior administration official said Thursday.

“The entire population of Gaza, 2.2 million people, is facing acute food insecurity and more than half of the population in northern Gaza is facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity,” the official said, warning that the numbers will increase “significantly” without intervention.

The official confirmed that USAID will be working with the UN to distribute the aid once it reaches Gaza. CNN reported last week that following weeks of diplomatic wrangling, the Biden administration secured an agreement with the UN World Food Programme to distribute aid from the pier.

The senior military official said that the aid will flow from Cyprus via commercial vessels, which will travel about 200 miles to a large floating pier anchored “miles off the coast of Gaza.”

That aid will then be moved onto smaller Army boats, which can hold about 15 trucks of aid each, that will shuttle the aid to the causeway that is anchored to the shore. Trucks driven by a partner country will then pick up the aid and drive them down the roughly 100-meter-long causeway to a secure distribution point near the shore, the military official said. The official did not clarify who the partner country is.

Two command and control cells have been set up to facilitate the delivery of the aid via the pier, the military official said. The first is in Cyprus, spearheaded by USAID in coordination with the Cypriot government. That cell will work to avoid bottlenecks in the inspection process—something aid organizations have been concerned about because of how the IDF has held up aid in the past at land crossings into Gaza.

The second cell will be in Israel at Hatzor airbase near Ashdod, led by an American 3-star general “who has been on scene and in country for nearly a month,” the official said. US troops will be living and sleeping either in Cyprus, in Israel, or at sea on the United Kingdom’s RFA Cardigan Bay.

The US role in the effort has been complex, with the military carrying out a high-stakes construction mission in a warzone and diplomats helping to organize a dangerous and highly politicized aid distribution operation.

US officials previously told CNN that the US military is likely to operate the pier for at least the next three months, but that the ultimate goal is to turn it into a commercial operation that can be used by other countries and non-governmental organizations to use full time.

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