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Biden to announce construction of temporary port on Gaza coast for humanitarian aid

State Department spokesperson on Gaza, Haiti
State Department spokesperson on Gaza cease-fire talks, situation in Haiti 05:22

Washington — President Biden will announce a plan in his State of the Union address Thursday for the U.S. military to help establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast, increasing the flow of humanitarian aid for the beleaguered territory during the Israel-Hamas war, according to administration officials.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement, said the operation will not require that American troops be on the ground to build the pier that is intended to allow more shipments of food, medicine and other essential items.

The officials did not provide details about how the pier would be built. One noted that the U.S. military has "unique capabilities" and can do things from "just offshore." The effort will take "a number of weeks" to execute, one official said, and initial shipments will originate from Cyprus.

Palestinians wait for an airdrop of humanitarian aid by the Egyptian Air Force at the beach in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on Feb. 27, 2024.
Palestinians wait for an airdrop of humanitarian aid by the Egyptian Air Force at the beach in Deir al Balah, Gaza, on Feb. 27, 2024. Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images

Five months of fighting between Israel and Hamas have left much of Hamas-run Gaza in ruins and led to a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. Many Palestinians, especially in the devastated north, are scrambling for food to survive.

Aid groups have said it has become nearly impossible to deliver supplies within most of Gaza because of the difficulty of coordinating with the Israeli military, the ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order.

The move provides one more layer to the extraordinary dynamic that's emerged as the United States has had to go around Israel, its main Mideast ally, and find ways to get aid into Gaza, including through airdrops that started last week.

"We're not waiting on the Israelis. This is a moment for American leadership. And we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need," the U.S. official said.

Pressure on Israel to establish a sea route for aid has been growing in recent days. European Union Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen planned to visit Cyprus on Friday to inspect installations at the port of Larnaca, from where aid is expected to leave for Gaza if a sea route is established. Israeli officials said Wednesday the country would cooperate with the creation of a sea route from Cyprus, an idea that's been under discussion for months.

American Gen. Erik Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that he had briefed officials on such a maritime option. Kurilla said Central Command has provided options for increasing the number of trucks taking aid to areas in northern Gaza.

International mediators had hoped to alleviate some of the immediate crisis with a six-week cease-fire, which would have seen Hamas release some of the Israeli hostages it is holding, Israel release some Palestinian prisoners and aid groups be given access to to get a major influx of assistance into Gaza.

Palestinian militants are believed to be holding around 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others captured during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into Israel that triggered the war.

Egyptian officials said Hamas has agreed to the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage but wants commitments that it will lead to an eventual more permanent cease-fire. They say Israel wants to confine the negotiations to the more limited agreement.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with media. Both officials said mediators are still pressing the two parties to soften their positions.

Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said Israel "refuses to commit to and give guarantees regarding the cease-fire, the return of the displaced, and withdrawal from the areas of its incursion." But he said the talks were still ongoing and would resume next week. There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Mediators had looked to Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Sunday, as an informal deadline for a deal because the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting often sees Israeli-Palestinian violence linked to access to a major Jerusalem holy site. The war already has the wider region on edge, with Iran-backed groups trading fire with Israel and the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly ruled out Hamas' demands for an end to the war, saying Israel intends to resume the offensive after any cease-fire, expand it to the crowded southern city of Rafah and battle on until "total victory." He has said military pressure will help bring about the release of the hostages.

"The [Israeli military] will continue to operate against all Hamas battalions all over the strip — and this includes Rafah, the last stronghold of Hamas," Netanyahu said at a combat officers' graduation ceremony Friday. "Whoever tells us not to operate in Rafah tell us to lose the war. And that will not happen."

Hamas-led militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and captured another 250 when they stormed across the border on Oct. 7. Over 100 hostages were released in a cease-fire deal last year.

Israel launched a massive air, land and sea campaign in Gaza that has driven some 80% of the population from their homes and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

Gaza's Health Ministry says at least 30,717 Palestinians have been killed. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tallies but says women and children make up around two-thirds of those killed. The ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, maintains detailed records and its casualty figures from previous wars have largely matched those of the U.N. and independent experts.

Israel says it has killed over 13,000 Hamas fighters, without providing evidence. It blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because its fighters operate in dense, residential neighborhoods.

Gaza's humanitarian crisis is particularly dire in the north, where many of the estimated 300,000 people still living there have been reduced to eating animal fodder to survive. The U.N. says one in six children younger than 2 in the north suffers from acute malnutrition.

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