Why is the US building a pier in Gaza and how much aid will it deliver?

Structure could supply millions of meals a day, but won't be operational until May, Pentagon says

A US Army ship sails from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, to take part in the Gaza pier mission. AP
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The Pentagon this week sent military ships from the US East Coast to the Mediterranean, where American troops will help to install a temporary pier and dock to deliver more aid into the Gaza Strip.

President Joe Biden announced the plan last week after demanding that Israel do more to allow aid into Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people are on the brink of famine and aid groups say children are already dying of starvation.

But the mini-port will not be up and running until early May, the Pentagon said, raising questions about US priorities as it continues to back Israel in its war against Hamas.

Here is a look at what the port will look like and what it will accomplish.

Why build a new dock?

Plans to build a dock to unload food for Gaza come as the US and other countries drop aid from planes into the Palestinian territory.

Such drops are dangerous and cannot provide enough sustenance for the 2.3 million people in Gaza.

Israel has refused to allow its port of Ashdod, just 30km north of Gaza, to be used to take in food and supplies.

Aid entering Gaza has slowed to a trickle as Israel keeps lorries waiting for days or weeks at its land border crossings.

Israel also inspects aid lorries destined for Gaza from Egypt, leading to long delays as security personnel search for fuel or anything that might be of use to Hamas.

Because Israel maintains a total blockade of Gaza through its air, sea and land access points, a US-built dock is one way to get significant aid into the enclave.

Aid provided directly by the US, Israel's top ally and benefactor, is not be subject to the same inspections as land deliveries.

How will it be built and how much food will be delivered?

The Pentagon says it will take more than 1,000 US troops to build the dock, which it describes as a “temporary offshore maritime pier”.

Despite it being a sea operation, the effort is being led by the US Army, with the Navy acting in a supporting role. The Army has more than 130 ships of various sizes under its command.

The 550-metre pier forms part of the Joint Logistics Over the Shore, or Jlots, and falls under the command of the 7th Transport Brigade.

The dock will operate around the clock and will be able to unload up to 2 million meals a day, as well as medicine, water and other critical non-profit supplies.

US plan to build temporary pier in Gaza will take several weeks

US plan to build temporary pier in Gaza will take several weeks

Christopher Pehrson, a retired US colonel who wrote a military study on Jlots operations, said that without a significant presence on the shore – not necessarily American – there was risk of an aid bottleneck.

“There’s lots of risks. There’s political risks, there’s material risk," Mr Pehrson told The National. "If there’s a bad actor on the ground, that can really disrupt things, you know.

"The negative press that would come out of that would be probably more overwhelming than anything positive that would come out of it.

“At the same time, there’s people suffering. There’s a humanitarian crisis, both in terms of food, water and potential disease outbreak. So something needs to be done. It’s just tragic.”

He said that the portable pier, which has not been used in a disaster situation since the 2010 Haiti earthquake relief effort, and not used in wartime since 2003, would remind US foes of a forgotten capability.

Ian Ralby, who runs maritime security company, IR Consilium, agrees with Col Pehrson.

"There are critical security questions, which could still lead to all kinds of of impediments, even if we can figure out the physical logistics of delivery of aid which is its own challenge," he says.

Mr Ralby also points to the long term issue that Gaza "does not control its own coastline," due to years of Israeli blockades, a question that needs to be resolved as more permanent structures are built.

A US private advisory company called Fogbow will play a key role in the overall plan, a source said.

“Our organisation essentially stood up to do this. The whole team were hired as advisers for the project,” a source working on the mission, known as Blue Beach, told The National.

“We are a small group of former military, USAid, CIA, UN. We don’t do security. We combine the skills of those groups together as advisers.

"We set up the whole mechanism and we are very confident it will work. We just need the funding to get started.”

Salvatore Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University, said the US revival of this capability could re-invigorate US military operations at sea, known as Army Watercraft.

"There were efforts in 2019 to cut the entire army watercraft program. This is low order for the army but absolutely vital if there is no port for the army watercraft and a strategic sealift ship. This will involve hundreds of personnel and take months to deploy and get into place. Now this may afford the army the opportunity to purchase newer watercraft and overhaul the system," he says.

"This operation is complex but well rehearsed by the army's 7th Transportation Group. It will cost millions. They are deploying 5 Army watercraft and a strategic sealift ship. This will involve hundreds of personnel and take months to deploy and get into place."

What other maritime efforts are taking place?

Several countries have been discussing a maritime aid route that would deliver food through Cyprus, about 320km north-west of Gaza, to the territory.

On Tuesday, a charity ship carrying about 200 tonnes of food destined for Gaza left a port in Cyprus in a pilot project to open a sea route for aid.

Planned in November last year, the sea route was arranged by several nations including the UAE, the US, the EU, the UK and Cyprus, with support from the EU.

Officials from the UAE, UK, US, Qatar, EU and the UN met by video link to discuss establishing a maritime assistance corridor off the coast of Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it would help to “close the gap” in aid.

We need to “make sure that we're doing everything possible by every means possible to serve, support those who need it by land or by sea by air", Mr Blinken told reporters in Washington.

Updated: March 26, 2024, 2:46 PM