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US port plan to step up aid delivery to Gaza criticised as ‘distraction’

Plan criticised as attempt to ‘divert attention’ from widening famine in Gaza as Israel obstructs aid operations.

Rafah aid
Palestinian children receive cooked food rations as part of a volunteer youth initiative in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on March 5, 2024, amid widespread hunger in the besieged territory [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

A United States plan to build a temporary port off Gaza’s coast to step up the delivery of humanitarian aid has been criticised as an attempt to divert attention from hundreds of thousands of starving Palestinians and Israel’s consistent blocking of assistance to the enclave.

US President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union speech on Thursday that he was directing the US military to lead an emergency mission to set up a pier off Gaza’s Mediterranean coast to receive ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.

Planning for the operation, initially based on the island of Cyprus, does not envision the deployment of US military personnel in Gaza.

“No US boots will be on the ground,” Biden said.

While there has been growing criticism from the Biden administration of Israel severely restricting the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza by land – prompting the US to airdrop 36,000 meals in northern Gaza – it continues to supply the Israeli military with weapons and remains a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden gave few logistical details, but US officials said the operation would “take a number of weeks to plan and execute”, and that the required US forces are in the region or would soon begin moving there. Washington would also coordinate with the Israeli army regarding the security situation on Gaza’s coast, they said.

Gaza port plan a ‘distraction’

Mustafa Barghouti,  the secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Al Jazeera on Friday that the plan to build a port in Gaza “is not a new idea”.

“It seems to be just another effort to divert attention from the real issue here, which is that 700,000 people are starving in north Gaza now, and Israel is not allowing humanitarian aid to them or the rest of the Gaza Strip,” he said.

There are large quantities of aid waiting to get into the enclave at Gaza’s border with Egypt, Barghouti said, adding that “the international community are doing nothing to pressure Israel to stop this blockade”.

Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, said Biden’s announcement is a distraction from Washington’s continued support for Israel.

“I think a statement like that in the State of the Union address is more theatrical and more public relations … than it is a sincere attempt at bringing an end to the suffering in Gaza,” Bishara said.

Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told Al Jazeera that Biden’s focus on foreign policy – specifically the war in Gaza – in his speech was also him “trying to reaffirm fundamentally his support for Israel, first, and trying to assuage some of the criticism he’s getting from members of his own party about the US response to Gaza”.

He added that the way Biden framed the war by “adopting the Israeli line that everything they are doing, the genocide, the mass killings, is a response to October 7” sent a clear message that the US still stood firmly with Israel, despite its expressed frustration with the lack of aid getting into Gaza.

No substitute for aid delivery by land

Sigrid Kaag, the United Nations coordinator for humanitarian and reconstruction in Gaza, welcomed the US plans to provide sea access for aid delivery into Gaza.

“At the same time, I cannot but repeat – air and sea is not a substitute for land, and nobody says otherwise,” Kaag told reporters on Thursday after briefing the UN Security Council.

A spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinians said this week that “the most straightforward way of getting aid into the Gaza Strip is to use the existing crossings, namely Karem Abu Salem [called Kerem Shalom by Israel] and Rafah from Egypt”.

Tamara Alrifai told Al Jazeera that the existing land crossings are “faster, safer and more economical” than a maritime route and airdropping attempts.

“Why should we reinvent the wheel? Let us use what exists and what has worked before,” Alrifai said, stressing that there are “constant requests for a ceasefire that would allow an influx of humanitarian assistance”.

Melanie Ward, the CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians, told Al Jazeera: “Airdrops, temporary seaports, and the like are not realistic or lasting solutions to stave off looming famine and sustain life in Gaza.”

“Five months on, it is long past time for the US, the UK and others to use their substantial weight to ensure that their ally Israel immediately reopens land crossings into Gaza,” she said on Friday.

“Only an immediate and lasting ceasefire will allow us to deliver the massive humanitarian response that is required after five months of Israel’s indiscriminate bombardment and siege of the people of Gaza,” Ward said.

Since 1967, Israel has exercised full control of Gaza’s coastline and territorial waters, blocking ships from reaching the Strip.

Since 2007, Israel shut almost all of Gaza’s border crossings, and its port has been under Israel’s naval blockade, making it the only seaport in the Mediterranean closed to shipping.

After Israel launched its war on the enclave, it only allowed a trickle of aid in through the Karem Abu Salem crossing and the Rafah crossing with Egypt.

Israeli forces have also targeted Palestinians waiting for food aid. On February 29, at least 112 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire on hundreds of families waiting for food aid southwest of Gaza City.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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