U.S. Military Faces Reality in Gaza as Aid Project Struggles

U.S. Military Faces Reality in Gaza as Aid Project Struggles

In the week since the U.S. military and allies attached a temporary pier to the Gaza shoreline, Pentagon planners have come face to face with the logistical nightmare that critics had warned would accompany the endeavor.

The Defense Department predicted that a steady stream of humanitarian aid would be arriving in Gaza via the pier by now, but little relief has reached Palestinians in the besieged strip, officials acknowledged this week. Several trucks were looted as they made their way to a warehouse, the U.N. World Food Program said, and the complexity of operating the pier project in a war zone is continuing to slow distribution.

The problems, as expected, are on the back end of the operation. Looting of aid trucks has continued, officials said, and forced the World Food Program to suspend operations for two days. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, suspended food distribution in Rafah on Tuesday, citing lack of security. It added that it had not received any medical supplies for 10 days because of closures and disruptions at the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings.

The project was always expected to be difficult. For one thing, White House policy does not allow U.S. troops to be on the ground in Gaza. So the Pentagon has the ability to start but not finish the mission, a situation one military analyst likened to having the engine of a car but not the wheels.

As the pier project struggles to get going, the situation in Gaza becomes more dire by the day. More than 34,000 people have died and more than 77,000 have been wounded, according to health authorities in the territory. The number of casualties will only increase as Israel expands its operation in Rafah, in southern Gaza.

Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday of causing “starvation as a method of war, including the denial of humanitarian relief supplies, deliberately targeting civilians in conflict.” The Israelis vehemently denied the charges.

But many Gazans are experiencing immense hunger, aid groups say. Palestinians have forcibly taken aid from trucks, which U.N. officials have said reflects the desperation of people trying to feed themselves and their families. Aid groups and the United Nations have also blamed the hunger crisis on black marketers who have seized supplies to sell at inflated prices.

It is extremely difficult to distribute aid without police escorts to protect the convoys from swarms of people, UNRWA and U.S. officials say.

The pier project is the Biden administration’s attempt to alleviate some of the humanitarian suffering in Gaza. Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, described the process on Tuesday as a “crawl-walk-run approach.”

President Biden announced the project during his State of the Union address in March, amid warnings that Gaza was on the precipice of famine. The Pentagon built and assembled the pier alongside an Army ship off the coast with involvement from about 1,000 American troops, U.S. officials said. It is connected to central Gaza. On Friday, the first aid trucks began moving ashore.

So far, however, the operation has fallen short of its goal of bringing in 90 trucks a day and eventually ramping up to 150 trucks. Ten trucks came into the World Food Program warehouse on Friday, the agency said, but on Saturday, 11 of 16 trucks were looted. Operations were suspended for two days. On Tuesday, 17 trucks arrived, and 27 on Wednesday.

The Pentagon calls the project JLOTS, for joint logistics over the shore, a capability that it has used for humanitarian relief in Somalia, Kuwait and Haiti.

Military officials who have worked on past efforts say distributing humanitarian aid to those in need is harder than setting up the infrastructure.

“Getting a pier in place and getting supplies onto the pier and onto shore is one thing,” Rabih Torbay, the president of the aid organization Project Hope, said in an interview. “Getting the logistics in place to get the aid to the places that need it the most is a completely different ballgame, and that is where the lack of planning and coordination comes into play.”

Paul D. Eaton, a retired major general, was in Somalia in 1993 when the U.S. military put a pier in place to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the war there. Some four light infantry Army battalions — 2,000 troops — were on the ground to help the aid get through, General Eaton said in an interview.

“The ships with humanitarian relief would deliver to the port, which we controlled absolutely, and then the trucks would be loaded,” he said. “And then we put armed forces — American armed troops — in the vehicles to protect the drivers.”

He added, “Supplies arrived in a protected environment, were loaded in a protected environment and were moved forward in a protected environment to the end use spot.”

That is not happening in Gaza.

The World Food Program warned on Tuesday that the pier project could fail if Israel did not do more to ensure the safe distribution of the aid. The agency suspended deliveries from the pier after the aid trucks were looted and one Palestinian man was killed.

While some food and commercial goods have been entering Gaza in recent days, few people in the war-ravaged enclave can afford to buy them after months of war without regular income. The cash crisis has increased the importance of aid to impoverished Gazans.

Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, said a key to overcoming the aid impasse was receiving Israel’s permission to deliver goods on alternative routes. New routes were used on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the convoys reached their destinations without incident, she said.

The initial failures of the pier project have reinforced criticisms among some diplomats, who have said the initiative was too expensive and inefficient.

Pentagon officials have privately complained that the Biden administration came up with the pier project with little consultation with the military, which has had to build and operate the venture in the Mediterranean. Defense officials scrambled to put the plan in place after estimating that it would take two months to complete.

Even if all the kinks are ironed out, the sea operation would still be less efficient than a land route, aid organizations say. If the project reaches its goal of getting through 150 trucks per day, the shipments of food and other supplies would still fall short of what aid groups say is needed for a war-ravaged population.

Aid workers have described bottlenecks for shipments at border crossings caused by lengthy inspections of trucks, limited operating hours and protests by Israelis. Israeli officials deny that they are hampering the flow of aid, blaming the United Nations for backlogs.

“There is not yet an established process and architecture for aid delivery in Gaza,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the former commander of U.S. Central Command.

“This is the responsibility of the international aid community and the I.D.F.,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “This still is very much a combat zone.”

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