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Biden Orders Military to Build Port to Ease Gaza’s Hunger Crisis

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden directed the US military to establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast to ease the humanitarian crisis in the territory sparked by the Israel-Hamas war, and used his State of the Union speech to call on Israel to let more aid into the territory.

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Biden reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack but said he was working nonstop for a six-week cease-fire. He said the pier would enable “a massive increase” in the amount of aid getting into Gaza.

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“But Israel must also do its part,” Biden said in his speech Thursday night in Washington. “To Israel I say this — humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.”

The ships will carry food, water, medicine and other supplies, according to US officials, who spoke before Biden’s speech. They said the temporary pier will provide capacity equivalent to hundreds of truckloads of additional assistance each day. US officials plan for control of the port to transition to a commercially operated facility over time.

Biden’s bid is only the latest effort by the US to address the dire conditions for the 2 million Gazans following Israel’s military campaign to root out Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist group by the US and European Union. Earlier this week, the UN Children’s Fund warned that children are dying in Gaza because of a lack of food, water and medical services.

Building a temporary port has been described as a daunting undertaking. Officials cautioned Thursday that it would take weeks to build the facility and deliver the aid. They said the project would involve US military personnel on vessels offshore but wouldn’t require American forces to go onshore.

The move indicates a shift in strategy for the US, which had previously sought to persuade Israel to allow more aid to get to Gaza by land. But Biden has grown frustrated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the crisis in Gaza has gotten more dire, and has focused on workarounds. 

“A famine requires an all hands on deck, shock-and-awe level of humanitarian operation — this is not that,” Refugees International President Jeremy Konyndyk said. “This could be a part of that, but the fundamental part of that is humanitarians need to be allowed to move, without obstruction, around Gaza to deliver aid.”

Initial shipments will come through Cyprus, aides said, which has the capability to screen shipments. Israel already was expected to approve a new aid effort that could get underway soon, with provisions from the United Arab Emirates being transported to Gaza from Cyprus.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the country welcomes Biden’s decision to deploy a temporary dock, and the project will be carried out with full US-Israeli coordination. 

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Last week, the US began airdropping aid into the territory. The Defense Department has executed three airdrops into Gaza, including as recently as Thursday. Those provided 192 bundles with more than 112,000 meals, and more airdrops are planned in the coming days. But aid groups have said airdrops are a limited and inefficient way to provide relief.

US forces are already in the region or will begin to move there soon, the officials said. The US will work with like-minded countries, the United Nations and humanitarian partners to distribute the assistance, and will coordinate with the Israelis on the security on land near the port, they said. 

Rabih Torbay, chief executive officer of the relief organization Project Hope, said in a statement that the US-planned port “could be a promising development in opening additional humanitarian entry points.” But Torbay called for a cease-fire in Gaza to let more aid trucks in immediately, saying that “people are dying from malnutrition and dehydration today.”

–With assistance from John Bowker, Jordan Fabian and Courtney McBride.

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