US military faces reality in Gaza Strip as aid project struggles

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.
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 03:14 IST
Last Updated : 24 May 2024, 03:14 IST

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Washington: In the week since the US military and allies attached a temporary pier to the Gaza Strip 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 UN 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 UN 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 US 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 remains dire. 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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 denied the charges.

But many civilians in Gaza are experiencing immense hunger, aid groups say. Palestinians have forcibly taken aid from trucks, which UN 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 deliver aid to distribution centers without police escorts to protect the convoys from swarms of people, UNRWA and US 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 spokesperson, described the process Tuesday as a “crawl-walk-run approach.”

President Joe 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 US troops, US officials said. It is connected to central Gaza. Last Friday, the first aid trucks began moving ashore.

So far, however, the operation has fallen far short of its goal of bringing in 90 trucks a day and eventually ramping up to 150 trucks. Altogether, about 70 trucks have reached warehouses in the week since the pier opened, but the World Food Program said at least 11 had been looted on their way there.

Still, Daniel Dieckhaus, a response management team director at the US Agency for International Development, told reporters Thursday that enough aid had gotten through to feed tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Defense officials said Thursday that three service members involved in the pier operation had suffered noncombat injuries. Two had minor injuries, and one was taken to a hospital.

The Pentagon calls the project JLOTS, short 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, president of 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 US military put a pier in place to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the war there. Four light-infantry Army battalions — 2,000 troops — were on the ground to help the aid get through, 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 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.

Describing the security situation on the ground, Dieckhaus said the trucks faced “manifold” problems, from miscommunication at checkpoints to organized crime to “desperate crowds conducting self-distribution.”

Although a sizable number of commercial goods has been entering southern and central Gaza in recent days, many people in the war-ravaged enclave cannot afford to buy them after months of war without regular income. The cash crisis has increased the importance of aid to impoverished Gaza civilians.

Abeer Etefa, a spokesperson 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 Tuesday and Wednesday, and the convoys were believed to have 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, those 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, former commander of US Central Command.

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

Published 24 May 2024, 03:14 IST

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