Facing warnings that the war-ravaged Gaza Strip is on the precipice of widespread famine, the United States on Thursday announced plans for a large-scale, amphibious military operation in the Mediterranean Sea that would ferry food and other aid to desperate civilians in the enclave.

U.S. officials sketched out the plan, which would make the United States more directly involved in delivering aid, hours before President Biden was scheduled to give his State of the Union address on Thursday evening. Details for what they described as a floating pier off Gaza would be included in the speech, the officials said.

The White House called it an “emergency mission” that would allow hundreds of truckloads of additional aid to be delivered to Gaza via the temporary port, which would be attached to some kind of temporary causeway.

Briefing reporters, officials said it could take more than 30 to 60 days to implement, and involve hundreds or thousands of U.S. troops on ships just off shore, in keeping with Mr. Biden’s mandate that no American soldiers be on the ground inside Gaza as the conflict rages. The port would be constructed in cooperation with other countries in the region, the officials said.

American officials said that they had “worked closely” with Israelis as they developed the seaport initiative, but they did not specify whether Israel would provide direct assistance or support for its construction or operation.

Shani Sasson, a spokeswoman for COGAT, the Israeli agency which regulates aid to Palestinians in Gaza, did not respond to a request for comment. One Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations, said that under the latest plan, aid donated by the United Arab Emirates would be sent to Cyprus, where it would eventually be inspected, then transported by ship to the coast of Gaza.

The new facility could provide another way to get truckloads of aid into the region. But it would not solve a central problem of distributing aid inside Gaza while intense fighting and Israeli bombing continues in the south, and as lawlessness in the north has grown so bad that aid groups suspended operations there.

Until now, the United States has pressured Israel to allow more aid into Gaza through two border crossings and recently joined France and Jordan in airdropping aid from planes, including 38,000 meals on Thursday.

The number of trucks entering Gaza with food and other aid rose in early March compared with February, according to data from the United Nations. But the flow is still far lower than it was before the conflict between Israel and Hamas began on Oct. 7.

The new project gives Mr. Biden a concrete program to point to at a time that he is under sharp criticism for not reining in Israel’s attacks and for moving too slowly to address the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

And while U.S. officials have engaged in extensive, multinational talks seeking a temporary cease-fire, hopes for an imminent truce after five months of war further dimmed on Thursday when Hamas negotiators left talks in Cairo without a breakthrough.

International mediators have sought to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas that would see the release of some hostages held in Gaza and Palestinians detained in Israeli jails, but weeks of indirect negotiations appear to have stalled. Hamas wants Israel to commit to a permanent cease-fire during or after hostage releases, a demand that Israel has rejected.

The lull in the talks comes as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has vowed to continue his country’s offensive against Hamas, including into the southern city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are sheltering in sprawling makeshift tent encampments after fleeing Israeli bombardments in other parts of Gaza. Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged he was facing growing international pressure as Gazan health officials reported that the toll in the territory had surpassed 30,000 people killed.

“It is precisely when the international pressure increases that we must close ranks among ourselves,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech Thursday. “We must stand together against the attempts to stop the war.”

He added that Rafah was the “last Hamas stronghold.”

“Whoever tells us not to operate in Rafah, is telling us to lose the war — and that will not happen,” he said.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, also signaled Israel’s willingness to continue fighting Hamas on Thursday. “Surrender or death,” he was quoted by The Times of Israel as saying. “There is no third option.”

Egypt and Qatar, along with the United States, are trying to secure a cease-fire before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins around March 10, worried that there could be flare-ups during the month of fasting.

The United Nations has warned that more than 570,000 Gazans are facing “catastrophic levels of deprivation and starvation” and that northern Gaza is a particular concern.

South Africa on Wednesday asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to issue emergency orders for Israel to stop what it called the “genocidal starvation” of the Palestinian people, part of a case that South Africa filed in December accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has categorically denied the charge.

It is unclear where the Biden administration intends to build its new floating port or pier off Gaza, though the Army Corps of Engineers has long experience in the rapid construction of floating facilities to accommodate U.S. military operations. Based on the description provided by White House and military officials, this one would be built from U.S. ships, and then moved close to shore.

One of the main military units involved in the construction will be the Army’s 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., near Norfolk, according to U.S. Defense Department officials.

The ships, which are large, lumbering vessels, will need armed escorts, particularly as they get within range of the Gaza coast, the officials said, so the Defense Department is working through how to ensure their protection as they build the pier. Assuring them that armed protection could take weeks to a few months, and the White House put no firm timeline on the construction effort.

While aid workers welcomed the U.S. plan to deliver more supplies by sea, they also warned that a maritime corridor would not be a replacement for opening more overland routes for trucks.

“We support all means of getting supplies into Gaza — maritime, airdrops — but the priority is road convoys,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the top U.N. relief official in Jerusalem, adding that it would take time to set up the infrastructure for the sea passage.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Adam Sella, Aaron Boxerman, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Victoria Kim.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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