Gaza aid pier opens as US warns of ‘imminent famine’

The first humanitarian aid to reach Gaza by sea via a US-built floating pier arrived on Friday after shipments over land have frequently been impeded by Israeli restrictions and protests by members of the country’s far right.

The new aid route has drawn criticism from aid groups, however, that say it is costly and limited in capacity to help Gazans facing acute food shortages, compared with far more efficient land routes.

The arrival follows two months of work by US forces at a cost of about $320mn and forms part of a larger maritime corridor between Cyprus and Gaza that aims to help send more aid to the besieged territory.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House on Friday that the pier was “designed solely for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

He said there was a “small US military component on the pier itself,” but they would “not go into Gaza.” He said more than 300 pallets of food assistance were delivered on Friday via the pier. 

A senior UN official, who requested anonymity, last month called the project a “wasteful distraction”, saying: “There’s [already] aid waiting outside Gaza.”

Before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war, Gaza received about 500 trucks of aid per day, a number that has fallen to about 200 per day over the past six months, according to UN and Israeli military figures.

The pier route has capacity to handle 150 trucks a day. The UN estimates that Gaza needs as many as 1,000 trucks of aid per day for several weeks to overcome the shortages of food, medicine and other critical supplies that have built up in recent months.

US President Joe Biden announced the floating pier initiative in March, amid deep concern over the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The US state department said on Thursday it was “deeply concerned about the reports indicating worsening conditions and imminent famine in Gaza”.

“Israel needs to do more to urgently provide sustained and unimpeded access for humanitarian assistance to enter both northern and southern Gaza,” it added.

Aid sent to Gaza via the maritime route is delivered and inspected in Cyprus, then shipped to a floating platform off the coast of the enclave and shuttled aboard US Army vessels to the pier and causeway attached to the Gazan shoreline.

Pentagon officials have made clear that no US troops will be on the ground in Gaza, with the World Food Program expected to take responsibility for distributing aid inside the territory.

The Israeli military has said that it will help secure the pier — known officially as the Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore — both at sea and at the docking point just south of Gaza City.

“This is a top priority in our operations, to support this humanitarian mission,” Nadav Shoshani, an Israeli military spokesperson, said on Thursday.

The entry of aid into the Palestinian enclave has been slowed by Israeli inspections at border crossings, a lack of security for distribution within war-torn Gaza, and far-right Israeli protesters who oppose any aid to Gaza and are seeking to block humanitarian convoys from reaching the territory.

Israel’s military insists that the pier would not aim to replace other routes, but would be an additional entry point for aid, especially to devastated north Gaza. Israel recently opened two new overland border crossings after months of delays.

Military personnel disembarking from the RFA Cardigan Bay
Military personnel disembark from the UK’s RFA Cardigan Bay to help with the construction of the pier © UK MOD Crown copyright

Air drops by countries including the US, United Arab Emirates and Jordan have also continued, but with negligible impact, international aid groups say.

Humanitarian supplies to Gaza have faced renewed disruption after Israel launched a military offensive into the southern city of Rafah earlier this month, seizing the key border crossing with Egypt.

Cairo in turn has stopped all aid shipments from its territory, according to documents seen by the Financial Times. On Thursday, more than 350 trucks entered Gaza, the vast majority either from Israel directly or the Palestinian private sector in the West Bank.

The main Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza has also been sporadically shut because of Hamas rocket fire.

On Thursday night, a truck believed to be carrying aid to Gaza was stopped on a West Bank highway and set on fire by far-right Israeli protesters. Israeli media reported that it was at least the fourth such attack since late last week.

Far-right Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, demanding “clarifications” about aid being supplied directly from the West Bank and Israel for Gaza. He claimed the supply of aid via this route violated previous cabinet decisions.

“We must defeat Hamas — renewing trade with Gaza is not the way,” Smotrich wrote.

Later on Friday the Israeli military announced it had retrieved the bodies of three hostages during an overnight special operations raid inside Gaza. The three people — Shani Louk, Itzik Gelerenter, and Amit Buskila — were murdered near the Nova music festival on October 7 during the Hamas assault and their bodies taken to Gaza, said Daniel Hagari, chief military spokesperson.

A video of Louk, 22, lying semi-naked and apparently unconscious in the back of a pick-up truck surrounded by armed men became one of the most impactful images of the Hamas attack. She was confirmed dead by Israeli authorities in late October.

Some 250 Israeli and foreign nationals were taken hostage during the attack, with more than 110 freed as part of a ceasefire agreement in late November. Some 129 people remain in captivity, including four Israelis captured before the current war, although Israeli intelligence believes nearly 40 to have died.

Kirby told reporters that US national security adviser Jake Sullivan would go to Saudi Arabia on Saturday to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “to discuss bilateral and regional matters including the war in Gaza . . . and ongoing efforts to achieve a lasting peace and security in the region”.

On Sunday, Sullivan will meet Netanyahu in Israel.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington

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