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Why did US' humanitarian aid pier in Gaza fail?

The floating pier off the coast of Gaza meant to alleviate aid shortages was operational for just 12 days before it was destroyed by stormy weather.
A US soldier gives the thumbs-up as an Israeli digger attempts to extricate a US military vessel.

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WASHINGTON — Top officials at US Central Command spent weeks running through plans for the Israeli military to set up a perimeter on land, sea and air to secure a beachhead on the shores of the Gaza Strip to unload humanitarian aid in a last-ditch effort to help avert famine.

After President Joe Biden authorized the mission in March, the US Army dispatched its own top commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Patrick Frank, to set up a dedicated office near Ashdod to oversee joint command-and-control with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in a bid to ensure UN aid workers — and US troops — were protected.

But it wasn’t hostile action by Hamas that took down the US-built pier. It was the weather.

After less than two weeks of operation, high sea swells swept away four US Army vessels designed to hold the pier in place on Saturday. Two of the ships washed up on Gaza’s coast while the others beached near Ashkelon, some 15 miles north in Israel.

Then, on Tuesday, the floating platform at the end of the pier broke free, effectively ending the humanitarian aid delivery mission indefinitely. 

Makeshift solution 

“The important thing to remember about this temporary pier is the word ‘temporary,’” White House National Security Council coordinator John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

“It's not rooted into the seabed with pilings, concrete,” said Kirby. “It’s held in place by anchoring and by vessels that are adjacent to — moored to it — keeping it in place.”

The Pentagon is downplaying the breakdown, emphasizing that no soldiers were hurt and over 1,000 metric tons of aid made it ashore in just 12 days of operation. Yet that number fell short of USAID's initial projection of 290 metric tons per day. 

Publicly, Pentagon officials are insisting that the US Army will reinstall the pier and the flow of aid will continue. “This is a mission directorate that was set up by the president. We take it very seriously,” deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Tuesday. 

But there is no guarantee the dock will be sustainable on the Eastern Mediterranean’s choppy seas, roused by a North African weather system months before the Pentagon expected. 

“This is difficult, complicated work, particularly in a maritime environment that you can't control,” Kirby, a former Navy admiral, said to reporters this week.

The floating pier system, formally known as JLOTS (short for Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore) is capable of handling light to moderate sea states. But its use in conditions beyond "sea state two" — or swells approaching 1 meter or higher — is not recommended, according to a Joint Staff doctrine manual on deployment of the system.

It’s not the first time the US military has deployed JLOTS for an emergency humanitarian mission. A similar floating pier system was used to support international aid efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and on the coast of Somalia amid a famine triggered by civil war in 1993. 

The US military’s ready access to ports around the world in recent decades has lessened the need for frequent training on the system by US Army soldiers.

“JLOTS is only a viable option in environments up to sea state two; however, many exercises will only take place in sea state one,” according to a 2013 thesis published by the Joint Advanced Warfighting School at the US Joint Staff College. 

“Unfortunately, limiting the training to only those favorable situations promotes an unrealistic sense of optimism about JLOTS and its ability,” the report read.

The elongated pier is designed to allow small US Army ships to ferry and unload cargo out beyond the break point. But its length, and the main anchoring point at the beach, make it dependent on small, shallow-berth boats to hold it in place.

And while the system remains the US Army’s premier option for establishing a dock on open beachfront in absence of a protected port, doing so carries the inherent risk of exposure to high winds and sea swells.

The Army’s 7th Transportation Brigade, which has led the JLOTS deployment, suffered similar difficulties due to heavy seas while training with the system last summer off the coast of Australia.

The failure of the aid pier is the latest setback for the Biden administration’s handling of the war, and it comes as aid agencies say Gaza’s humanitarian emergency is growing more acute. 

While the Pentagon says air drops of humanitarian aid will continue, they and the pier were never intended to be a substitute for cross-border aid shipments, without which Gaza’s population cannot receive adequate food.

Port collapses, humanitarian needs increase

As Israel advances its encirclement of Rafah, the humanitarian situation has worsened in the enclave, USAID director Samantha Power said this week.

Yet the White House is waving off increasing signs of dissent among European allies over Israel’s apparent defiance of an order by the UN’s International Court of Justice to halt the military operation. 

While some aid has gotten through the Kerem Shalom crossing following an agreement between President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last week, the Rafah crossing remains closed since the IDF took control of the Gaza side of the border. 

Egyptian officials have threatened to downgrade their ties with Israel over the IDF's move. US officials are expected in Cairo next week to negotiate an agreement for management of the border crossing to enable aid to resume, Axios reported Thursday. 

“The fact remains that due to the military operations and very limited flow of aid through the remaining crossings, the UN is running out of food commodities for hundreds of thousands of repeatedly displaced people in Gaza,” Power told international donors in a virtual meeting on Wednesday.

In the meantime, the Pentagon is saying it will take over a little more than a week, at least, to get the JLOTS pier up and running again. Privately, US officials close to the discussions are less certain. 

“I think sometimes there's an expectation of the US military — because they're so good — that everything that they touch is just going to turn to gold in an instant,” Kirby told reporters after the pier broke down on Tuesday. 

“If there’s any frustration, it’s that people had expectations … for this that we knew at the outset were not an appropriate set of expectations.”

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