The United States has a history of using its military to get food, water and other humanitarian relief to civilians during wars or natural disasters. The walls of the Pentagon are decorated with photographs of such operations in Haiti, Liberia, Indonesia and countless other countries.

But it is rare for the United States to try to provide such services for people who are being bombed with tacit U.S. support.

President Biden’s decision to order the U.S. military to build a floating pier off the Gaza Strip that would allow aid to be delivered by sea puts American service members in a new phase of their humanitarian aid history. The same military that is sending the weapons and bombs that Israel is using in Gaza is now also sending food and water into the besieged territory.

The floating pier idea came a week after Mr. Biden authorized humanitarian airdrops for Gaza, which relief experts criticized as inadequate. Even the floating pier, aid experts say, will not do enough to alleviate the suffering in the territory, where residents are on the brink of starvation.

Nonetheless, senior Biden officials said, the United States will continue to provide Israel with the munitions it is using in Gaza, while trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Palestinians under bombardment there.

So the Pentagon is doing both.

For decades the Army Corps of Engineers, using combat engineers, has built floating docks for troops to cross rivers, unload supplies and conduct other military operations. Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, said on Friday that the Army’s Seventh Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, near Norfolk, Va., would be one of the main military units involved in the construction of the floating pier for Gaza.

The dock will be built and assembled alongside an Army ship off the Gaza coast, General Ryder said. The ship will need armed escorts, particularly as it gets within range of the coast, Defense Department officials said, adding that they are working through how to ensure its protection.

A U.S. Army official said that typically in these operations, a large vessel sits off the shore of the desired location, and a “roll-on-roll-off discharge facility” — a big floating dock — is constructed next to the ship to serve as the holding area. Cargo driven or placed on the dock is loaded onto smaller Navy boats and moved toward a temporary pier or causeway anchored ashore.

The 1,800-foot, two-lane temporary causeway is built by Army engineers, flanked by tugboats and driven, or “stabbed,” into the shore. Cargo aboard the smaller Navy boats can then be driven onto the causeway and onshore.

General Ryder insisted on Friday that the military could build the causeway and stab it into the shore without putting any American boots — or fins — on the ground in Gaza. He said it would take up to 60 days and about 1,000 U.S. troops to move the ship into place from the East Coast and to build the dock and causeway.

After the ship arrives offshore, it will take about seven to 10 days to assemble the floating dock and the causeway, a Defense Department official said.

“This is part of a full-court press by the United States to not only focus on working on opening up and expanding roads via land, which of course are the optimal way to get aid into Gaza, but also by conducting airdrops,” General Ryder said.

The floating pier will allow for the delivery of “upward of two million meals a day,” he said. The Gaza Strip has a population of about 2.3 million people.

General Ryder acknowledged that neither the airdrops nor the floating pier would be as effective as sending aid by land, which Israel has blocked. “We want to see the amount of aid going via land increase significantly,” General Ryder said. “We understand that is the most viable way to get aid in.”

But, he added, “we’re not going to wait around.”

The United States will work with regional partners and European allies to build, fund and maintain the corridor, officials said, noting that the idea for the project originated in Cyprus.

On Thursday, Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, welcomed the Biden announcement. But, speaking with reporters after briefing the Security Council, she added, “At the same time I cannot but repeat: Air and sea is not a substitute for land, and nobody says otherwise.”

The Biden humanitarian efforts in Gaza so far “may make a few people in the United States feel good,” Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said in an interview. But, he added, “this is applying a very small Band-Aid to a very big wound.”

The humanitarian aid will probably be gathered in Larnaca, Cyprus, some 210 nautical miles from Gaza, officials said. That would allow Israeli officials to screen the shipments first.

While the temporary port will initially be military-run, Washington envisions it eventually being commercially operated, the official said.

Officials did not go into detail about how aid delivered by sea would be transferred from the coast farther into Gaza. But the assistance will be distributed in part by the Spanish chef José Andrés, founder of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, which has served more than 32 million meals in Gaza.

Two diplomats briefed on the plans said the port would be erected on Gaza’s shoreline slightly north of the Wadi Gaza crossing, where Israeli forces have erected a major checkpoint.

The central problems, however, remain unsolved. Aid officials say that delivering supplies by truck is far more efficient and less expensive than bringing them to Gazans by boat. But trucks are still unable to deliver goods amid Israeli shelling and ground fighting, which is fierce in southern Gaza.

And delivering assistance by sea may not prevent the chaos that has accompanied deliveries.

More than 100 people in Gaza were killed last month, health officials there said, when hungry civilians rushed at a convoy of aid trucks, leading to a stampede and prompting Israeli soldiers to fire at the crowd.

The U.S. military has airdropped aid in the Middle East and South Asia during previous conflicts, even during wars in which the United States was directly involved.

In 2014, President Barack Obama ordered military aircraft to drop food and water to tens of thousands of Yazidis trapped on a barren mountain range in northwestern Iraq. The Yazidis, members of an ethnic and religious minority, were fleeing militants who were threatening genocide.

In 2001, President George W. Bush ordered British and American troops striking the Taliban in Afghanistan to airdrop daily rations to civilians trapped in remote areas of the country.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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