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Port of no return: The US plan for aid relief in Gaza

By spearheading the Gaza Port operation, the United States has not only underscored its commitment to addressing the dire humanitarian needs in Gaza but is also taking on significant inherent risks.

U.S. soldiers with the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) ready the USAV SP4 James A. Loux to deploy from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. on March 12, 2024. The unit is deploying as part of a Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore mission to conduct 1,800-foot causeway off the coast of Gaza to enable the flow of critical aid from the sea to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict. Credit: Joseph Clark/U.S. Department of Defense.
U.S. soldiers with the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) ready the USAV SP4 James A. Loux to deploy from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. on March 12, 2024. The unit is deploying as part of a Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore mission to conduct 1,800-foot causeway off the coast of Gaza to enable the flow of critical aid from the sea to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict. Credit: Joseph Clark/U.S. Department of Defense.
David Levy
David Levy

The United States has chosen to cross the Rubicon. In his 2024 State of the Union address, President Biden reminded Americans, “The United States has been leading international efforts to get more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.” He said, “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.”

Washington has taken ownership of the crisis by committing significant U.S. resources to mitigate the Gaza humanitarian emergency. It is now America’s problem to solve. The Marshall Plan saved Western Europe from starvation and Soviet domination, but it came at a serious price: the United States became intimately and inextricably involved in European affairs, effectively becoming “the most important country in Europe.” The U.S. Gaza port plan is the first step in a “Marshall Plan for Gaza.”

However, American aid missions attempted in other areas embroiled in war and conflict in the years since the original Marshall Plan have had less success. In the early 1980s, President Reagan deployed U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to stabilize the country amid its civil war and to facilitate the withdrawal of Israeli forces. While their goal was to provide a neutral intervention to restore peace and order, the U.S. forces increasingly found themselves embroiled in the conflict, as they were perceived as siding with the Lebanese government and its Christian allies against Muslim factions. The situation deteriorated dramatically on Oct. 23, 1983, when a Hezbollah truck bomb destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American service personnel. The devastating attack, one of the deadliest against U.S. forces since World War II, led President Reagan to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces, marking an end to the ill-fated intervention.

Similarly, in the early 1990s, the United States initiated a humanitarian aid operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, to alleviate the severe famine and restore order amid the country’s civil war. What was meant to be a U.N.-backed aid distribution operation escalated into a military engagement when local warlords appropriated all the aid and monopolized its distribution. The United States resolved to end the control of the warlords through military force, culminating in the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, vividly depicted in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.” Intense urban warfare resulted in significant casualties, with 18 U.S. soldiers killed and 73 wounded. On the Somali side, hundreds, perhaps as many as 1,000, were killed. The dramatic failure of the operation prompted another embarrassing U.S. withdrawal.

There is significant risk in endeavors of this kind. Hamas uses its monopoly on the distribution of resources, including foreign aid, to reward its members and supporters. It withholds these resources as a means of control. Power is a finite resource, and an increase in power for one party directly corresponds to a decrease in power for others. Should an alternative source of aid distribution emerge, this lever of Hamas’s power will greatly diminish. There is therefore a strong likelihood that Hamas or a related group will employ violence against aid distribution personnel (civilian or military) to provoke an American withdrawal.

It is also important to bear in mind that some in Gaza have adopted a strong Islamist worldview. These individuals will see the U.S. effort not as a form of international aid relief but as the United States attempting to gain a foothold in Dar al-Islam (the territory of Islam). During the Gulf War (1991-92), Al-Qaeda made an argument about the sanctity of Dar al-Islam by criticizing the presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin-Laden argued that it was a violation of Islamic principles for non-Muslim forces to be stationed in the land of the believers. He called for the expulsion of U.S. forces and for Muslims to unite against what he perceived as a Western intrusion into Islamic territory. Some Palestinians are already calling the U.S. port just another form of occupation. For Gazans who embrace Islamist ideology, expelling a U.S. presence would be part of their jihad, and the use of force against Americans would be sanctioned.

In the current conflict, Iranian proxies are already targeting Americans. The Houthis of Yemen are attacking U.S. warships and neutral shipping nearly daily. U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have faced over 130 attacks since October. In all probability, Iran’s surrogates in Gaza will also attack U.S. forces when they arrive  in the hope of driving them out. As one analyst put it, “The port will be a bullet magnet.” If casualties mount and the United States abandons the project, it will strengthen Iran and deepen Tehran’s impression that Washington is wavering in its regional support.

Contrary to media representation, Israel has been providing aid to the Gaza Strip. A recent Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) report noted that “Since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, Israel has supported the transfer of 11,943 humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza. As of February 4, these deliveries included 144,030 tons of food, 20,780 tons of water, 23,160 tons of shelter equipment, 16,700 tons of medical supplies, 146 tanks of fuel, and 222 tanks of cooking gas.” This aid is being delivered while major combat operations are still ongoing, putting Israeli soldiers, aid workers and Gazan residents at risk. In a recent aid delivery attempt, Gazans rushed toward an aid truck, causing a stampede with significant loss of life.

However, even with the significant risk involved, the effort may be worthwhile. The United States has a storied history of successful humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) programs. The most celebrated would be the aforementioned Marshall Plan (1948-52). The Berlin Airlift (1948-49) was also a major U.S. success. The United States has achieved positive results in more recent HADR programs as well, including its responses to a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean (2004), an earthquake in Haiti (2010), the massive Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013), Cyclone Idai in Mozambique (2019) and a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey and Syria (2023).

In Gaza, the relief plan calls for a combination of forward basing out of Cyprus and non-combatant “seabasing” nearer to Gaza with a temporary pier and infrastructure. Gaza has a port, but it is a small fishing boat marina that is not suitable for this sort of operation.

The U.S. military is planning a Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore (JLOTS) operation. JLOTS is designed to facilitate the transport and distribution of personnel, equipment and supplies from sea to shore in environments where traditional port facilities are limited or nonexistent. It involves a coordinated effort among multiple branches of the armed forces, utilizing various specialized equipment and techniques such as roll-on/roll-off ships, causeways, barges and amphibious vehicles to offload cargo directly onto the shore. It is used when conventional ports are unavailable due to damage, conflict, or lack of infrastructure in remote or austere environments.

Pentagon spokesman Gen Ryder said, “[JLOTS] is a capability…that we are going to execute and enable us to get…up to 2,000,000 meals in [to Gaza] a day.” Also, the European Union has donated barges laden with foodstuffs that will be consolidated in Cyprus. According to a recent article in The Jerusalem Post, the operation would involve the screening of cargo in Cyprus, with Israeli officials’ involvement.

U.S. Military Sealift Command (MSC) conducted a demonstration of its JLOTS capabilities in 2017 through an exercise involving an Expeditionary Transfer Dock (ESD) ship. The USNS Montford Point (T-ESD-1) is a large vessel with a wide-open deck area and low freeboard, facilitating cargo transfer from conventional ships. The exercise demonstrated the feasibility of the “floating pier” concept. It showcased the ability to transfer large cargo at sea by using the Montford Point as a floating pier that would receive freight from traditional logistics vessels for further transfer by lighters or similar small vessels.

One day after President Biden’s speech, U.S. Central Command announced that it was deploying five ships and 1,000 troops to build the offshore port, and has already dispatched the US Army Vessel (USAV) General Frank S. Besson (LSV-1).  The Besson departed from Virginia and will arrive no earlier than the end of March. The Besson is tasked with delivering the equipment necessary to establish the temporary pier. The USNS Benavidez (T-AKR-306), a Bob Hope-class ship, has been activated from the ready reserve to participate. The Benavidez is a large vessel that carries modules to build both floating and shore-based piers. The 7th Transportation Brigade from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, will oversee the JLOTS operation. Their mission is to “conduct multi-modal transportation operations in support of the Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (RSOI) of joint and/or combined forces into a theater of operations.”

President Biden assured Americans in his speech that there would be no U.S. military personnel with “boots on the ground.” It is unclear how the pier can be built securely and aid safely provided without a military presence. In addition, the pier facilities themselves need regular tending and maintenance. “No boots on the ground” likely means highly paid U.S. and foreign contractors to do the job so U.S. military and government personnel can avoid having to do so.

At a recent Pentagon press briefing, General Ryder was asked, “Does the DoD anticipate that Hamas will fire on them, on the JLOTS operation?” He replied, “That’s certainly a risk, but if Hamas truly does care about the Palestinian people, one would hope that this international mission to deliver aid to people who need it would be able to happen unhindered.” If the United States is depending on Hamas’s goodwill for the success of this operation, it is likely to be disappointed.

By spearheading the Gaza Port operation, the United States has not only underscored its commitment to addressing the dire humanitarian needs in Gaza but is also taking on significant inherent risks. The initiative mirrors historic U.S. humanitarian missions, highlighting America’s capacity to mobilize substantial resources in response to global crises. While the plan aims to deliver essential aid and foster stability, it also exposes the U.S. to risks associated with local power dynamics and anti-American sentiment, echoing past challenges in Lebanon and Somalia. Those were places where the United States found itself entangled in local conflicts, with varying degrees of success and failure, all with a fair share of unintended consequences. For Washington this is a serious gamble with high stakes of either peace and stability or calamity and conflict.

Originally published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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