US officials dismiss 'mission creep' fears over Gaza aid pier

Much-anticipated pier to be operational in 'coming days'

Part of the temporary pier built by the US military to take humanitarian supplies into Gaza. US Army / Reuters
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The US remains confident about the safety of two piers being built by the American military to send aid into Gaza, despite increased fears over “mission creep”, officials said on Wednesday.

Concerns over the future of the project rose late last month as mortar rounds landed at a marshalling site for the aid – which was being secured by the Israeli military – as some analysts feared the piers would require some form of US presence on Gazan soil.

“We're fully ready, no issues with vessels,” said Vice Admiral Brad Cooper. The main pier was connected to Gaza's shore on Thursday, Centcom said, adding that no US forces set foot on the beach.

“There are no obstacles right now to the execution of the mission, which is to deliver humanitarian assistance to people in Gaza.”

Pentagon spokesman Maj Gen Patrick Ryder said that the pier, where about 1,000 US troops would be working, was “well out of mortar range”.

A Hamas official recently said that any soldiers in Gaza, even in a humanitarian capacity, would be considered “an occupying force”.

While the officials did not detail how security for the pier might work, Vice Admiral Cooper said that the US and Israel had established joint security plan.

The 100-metre “pier” consists of a floating platform and a separate floating pier called the Trident, which connects to Gaza’s shore.

It is based on a US military system called Joint Logistics Over the Shore, or JLots, designed for military operations and used during the 1991 Gulf War, as well as in humanitarian disasters in which ports have been destroyed, such as the Haiti earthquake.

“In the last several weeks, the United States and Israel and have developed an integrated security plan to protect all the personnel who are working at the JLots placement and the surrounding area, which we call the marshalling yard,” he explained.

The pier has also attracted controversy partly due to its $320 million price tag and lengthy construction time, while naval forces have taken months to get into position.

Israel, meanwhile, has resisted maximising aid deliveries, despite a looming famine in northern Gaza, insisting on extremely strict searches of vehicles entering the strip, slowing deliveries to a trickle.

US officials have been keen to stress that there is no substitute for keeping land crossings open, which before the war carried more than 500 lorries of aid and goods into Gaza a day.

Numbers have slipped well below what the World Food Programme says is the bare minimum of 300 lorries of food a day – despite crossings opening on Gaza’s northern border – because Israel recently captured and closed off the southern Rafah crossing with Egypt.

Fighting has raged in Rafah since Israel began a long-threatened ground operation in the town of 300,000, which has swelled to more than one million, as displaced Gazans sought shelter there.

The US says the pier, when operating at full capacity, could allow for the delivery 150 aid-carrying lorries a day,

The operation is immensely complex and has been dogged by technical challenges.

Two vessels bringing equipment for the pier had to return to port after mechanical problems, while the USNS 2nd Lt John P Bobo suffered an engine room fire.

The incidents have led critics to say the mission highlights US neglect of military maritime logistics and ships.

The port in the city, designed for fishing, has been damaged in the conflict and cannot handle the necessary volume of aid cargo for the enclave.

Once brought near the shore, a relay of ships, some military and some commercial, will offload aid on to barges, which will then moor alongside the floating structures to be moved on to lorries.

Once ashore, the UN and World Food Programme will receive and distribute the aid.

The maritime aid corridor plan is being carried out in conjunction with an EU-Cypriot led effort – which also involves the UAE and World Central Kitchen – to deliver aid starting with a temporary pier made from rubble.

World Central Kitchen resumed operations in Gaza two weeks ago, after seven of its staff were killed in an Israeli air strike, sparking a global outcry.

Deconfliction issues remain a concern for aid agencies operating in Gaza and the US government.

“We're not at all satisfied with where they're at now,” USAID response director Dan Dieckhaus said.

“We continue to press them. It is a highlight of our co-ordination for JLots but it is by no means limited to JLots that we want to see better notification and better adherence to respect for protected sites and movements.”

US officials stressed that there would be no boots on the ground in Gaza.

“To date, we have received no indication that UN or other humanitarian partners desire armed escorts nor is it something that we are promoting,” Mr Dieckhaus said.

“We understand that they believe that safety and security of their own staff and potential recipients of that aid is better facilitated through the community engagement strategies that they employ.”

Updated: May 16, 2024, 9:25 AM