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In State of the Union address, Biden announces temporary port in Gaza

The U.S. president addressed relatives of American hostages held by Hamas sitting in the Congress chamber, pledging that "we will not rest until we bring their loved ones home."

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the Capitol building in Washington, March 7, 2024. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the Capitol building in Washington, March 7, 2024. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

During his State of the Union address on Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden announced an “emergency mission” to establish a port in the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian supplies.

“Tonight, I’m directing the U.S. military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters,” the president said.

The port, which will be set up in “a number of weeks,” will allow the equivalent of “hundreds” of truckloads of aid to enter Gaza daily, senior administration officials told reporters ahead of Biden’s speech.

Speaking on background, the officials said that Washington coordinated with Israel and Cyprus, with the shipments arriving from the neighboring island country. U.S. troops will not participate in the operation on the ground in Gaza, and Washington will coordinate security for the port with Jerusalem.

“The president has directed that we look at all options, that we not wait for the Israelis, and that we are pursuing every channel possible to get assistance into Gaza,” one of the officials said.

The Biden administration has increasingly described Israel as an obstacle to aid entering Gaza and has said that it was considering opening a maritime corridor. The U.S. military began airdropping food supplies directly to Gazan civilians on Saturday, but it has acknowledged that the tens of thousands of meals delivered in each airdrop are only a small supplement to the aid requirements of more than two million Gazans.

Once maritime aid arrives in Gaza, the United Nations and “other humanitarian partners” will deliver it, the senior officials said.

Gaza Sea
The sea border between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip on Aug. 4, 2022. Photo by Attia Muhammed/Flash90.

Biden allotted a part of the speech to discuss the Israel-Hamas war and his administration’s vision for the Middle East, calling the last five months since the Hamas-led massacre of Oct. 7 “gut-wrenching.”

“Israel has a right to go after Hamas,” Biden said.

“Hamas could end this conflict today by releasing the hostages, laying down arms, and surrendering those responsible for October 7th,” the president continued. 

“Israel has an added burden because Hamas hides and operates among the civilian population. But Israel also has a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.”

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients said in an interview with Politico on Thursday that Biden’s State of the Union would address Gaza “head-on.”

“The president is working hour by hour to negotiate an immediate and sustained cease-fire in Gaza over a period of at least six weeks, as part of a deal that would release hostages and get significantly more humanitarian aid in,” Zients said. 

“He wants enduring peace in the region so that Palestinians and Israelis can live with security, dignity in two states—something he is actively working towards every day,” Zients added.

During his address, Biden said that “we’ve been working non-stop to establish an immediate ceasefire that would last for at least six weeks. It would get the hostages home, ease the intolerable humanitarian crisis, and build toward something more enduring.”

Ronen Neutra
Ronen Neutra (center), the father of Omer Neutra, whom Hamas is holding hostage in the Gaza Strip, speaks with Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.). Credit: Courtesy of the Office of Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.).

SOTU guests

In his State of the Union remarks Thursday evening in Washington, Biden addressed family members of American hostages held by Hamas in Gaza who were watching the speech from the gallery. (At least 17 family members of hostages were in attendance.)

“Here in the chamber tonight are American families whose loved ones are still being held by Hamas,” the president said.

“I pledge to all the families that we will not rest until we bring their loved ones home.”

Eight of the Americans whom Hamas terrorists kidnapped and took to Gaza on Oct. 7 remain in the Strip, including two who are known to be dead.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and 14 other House members from both parties, spoke at a Wednesday press conference in the Cannon House Office Building. Family members of hostages joined them.

“This was an attack on America, and, as a reminder, as much as they hate Israel, they also hate us,” said Gottheimer, who organized the event. “They are Iranian-backed proxies who continue to wage attacks on our bases, on Americans and our families.”

“We want to make sure that no American forgets that Americans are still being held hostage as we speak,” Gottheimer added. “Despite Israel’s agreement to terms of a temporary pause, Hamas refuses to agree to the negotiated terms.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) asked why the Israeli hostages in Gaza haven’t received worldwide attention and support as did the nearly 300 Nigerian school children, whom Boko Haram kidnapped. (Wilson was a leading advocate of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign.) 

“I am demanding the same kind of worldwide advocacy for the release of the Israeli hostages kidnapped by the terrorist group Hamas,” she said. “Bring back the hostages. The time to act is now. We cannot allow these families to endure endless suffering, living each day in the shadow of uncertainty, not knowing whether their loved ones are even alive, much less what conditions they are in.”

Wilson called on fellow members of Congress to wear blue each Wednesday in solidarity with the hostages and to promote the cause on social media. (She wore red weekly on Wednesdays for seven years as part of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.)

Congress hostages
Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) and other members of Congress speak alongside relatives of U.S. hostages in Gaza at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2024. Photo by Andrew Bernard.

Members of Congress can invite a guest to attend the president’s annual address to Congress, with congressional leadership and the White House allotted additional invites. Sixteen senators and congressmen extended invites to the hostage family members, including Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

“This has to stay in front of politicians. It has to stay in front of the media, and it has to stay in front of the public,” stated Ronen Neutra, father of American hostage Omer Neutra, who with his wife Orna Neutra will be a guest of Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) at the State of the Union.

“This is one of the biggest stages of the year,” Neutra said. “We are hopeful that President Biden will mention us and our dear ones in his speech, and I know he cares deeply about the situation.”

Biden has said that he wants a ceasefire-for-hostages deal in place in time for the start of Ramadan, which is expected to begin Sunday at sundown. 

The senior officials said on the press call on Thursday that there was no hard deadline for the deal, acknowledging that Hamas leaders have directly called for violence during Ramadan. “I think Hamas has said what their intentions might be,” one official said.

Two-state solution

Biden also said that a Palestinian state next to Israel is “the only real solution,” despite it being rejected by the political leadership in Jerusalem and, according to polling, large swathes of the Israeli and Palestinian public.

“As we look to the future, the only real solution is a two-state solution. I say this as a lifelong supporter of Israel and the only American president to visit Israel in wartime,” the president said.

“There is no other path that guarantees Israel’s security and democracy.  There is no other path that guarantees Palestinians can live with peace and dignity. There is no other path that guarantees peace between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia,” he continued.

Iranian threat

The president also briefly addressed the U.S. response to threats posed by the regime in Tehran, including the U.S.-led coalition to counter Houthi attacks to shipping interests in the Red Sea

“Creating stability in the Middle East also means containing the threat posed by Iran,” the president said.

“That’s why I built a coalition of more than a dozen countries to defend international shipping and freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. I’ve ordered strikes to degrade Houthi capabilities and defend U.S. forces in the region. As commander in chief, I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and military personnel.”

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