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US floating port in Gaza might serve important purpose

People inspect humanitarian aid for Gaza loaded on a cargo ship in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus March 15, 2024. (Reuters)
People inspect humanitarian aid for Gaza loaded on a cargo ship in the port of Larnaca, Cyprus March 15, 2024. (Reuters)
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17 Mar 2024 01:03:04 GMT9
17 Mar 2024 01:03:04 GMT9

Desperate times call for desperate measures and I can’t think of times more desperate than the current one in Gaza where, frustratingly, urgently needed humanitarian aid is still only trickling in. For more than five months, humanitarian supplies have continued to fall far short of the very bare minimum required to sustain a population caught up in a hellish war.

Therefore, US President Joe Biden’s announcement during his State of the Union Address last week that he has directed the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary floating dock on the Gaza shoreline, through which humanitarian aid can enter the Strip on a large scale, is a welcome development. Beyond the immediate needs, if the plan succeeds, it might have longterm implications for the future of Gaza as part of an independent Palestinian state, and for the territory’s economic viability and connections with the world.

Israel went to war with Hamas in anger and rage, rather than with any clear strategy for peace in its aftermath. It is hard to identify where the thirst for revenge ends and political objectives begin, including among some senior Cabinet members.

The stated objective of eliminating Hamas was one that could never be met militarily. A more achievable Israeli objective should have been to make the group less politically relevant to the people of Gaza by avoiding hurting the wider population and instead offering them hope for a better future free from occupation and oppression.

To achieve this, Israel should have carried out clinical and surgical military operations against Hamas, and not treated the entire population of the territory as mere collateral damage and turned the response to Oct. 7 into a war on the Palestinians of Gaza that has so far killed more than 31,000 of them, including thousands of children.
Instead, despite its actions — perhaps because of them — Israel is no closer to “destroying Hamas” or seeing the hostages held by the group returning home. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Gazan population has been displaced and left with little or no access to food, clean water, medical treatment, or sanitation.

In a message posted on social media platform X last week, the World Health Organization said that during visits to hospitals in northern Gaza, its workers witnessed “severe levels of malnutrition, children dying of starvation, serious shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, hospital buildings destroyed.”

Without the delivery of emergency aid on a much larger scale than we are currently seeing, the situation will only worsen. The possibility of a threatened Israeli incursion into Rafah, the last refuge for more than a million displaced Gazans, would only make the situation even more catastrophic.

At the beginning of March, the average number of lorries crossing the border and delivering aid to Gaza increased from 98 a day the previous month to 168. This still falls far short of the 500 trucks this crisis demands. For both logistical and political reasons, this woefully severe shortage of humanitarian aid remains a constant, devastating feature of this war.

While some aid is also now being delivered using parachute drops, that is a mere drop in the ocean of need. Therefore, a floating port could play an important and significant role in addressing the crisis by facilitating a huge increase in the quantity of aid entering the disaster-stricken territory, and enabling the distribution of aid in a more orderly fashion. 

A floating port is an important step in the right direction. But it is only a small one.

Yossi Mekelberg

Unfortunately, we are told it might take as long as two months to build and the people on the ground cannot afford to wait this long. Delivering aid by road is still quicker, in theory, but since it is proving difficult to overcome the “administrative” and political difficulties that are preventing enough relief supplies from getting through, the sea route could offer a solution until a ceasefire agreement is reached.

However, one wonders why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion. Biden’s announcement last week was accompanied by a stark warning to Israeli authorities that they must play their part in alleviating the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. “To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority,” he said.

An initial attempt to deliver desperately needed aid by sea in this way took place this week, when a Spanish ship, the Open Arms, towing a barge loaded with 200 tonnes of supplies left the Cypriot port of Larnaca en route to Gaza. Due to the current lack of a functioning port in Gaza, the US-based charity that organized the shipment, World Central Kitchen, is building a jetty where the aid can be offloaded. This goes to show that determination and creativity, and above all compassion and care for the suffering of the population in Gaza, can have at least some degree of positive effect on the situation.

There is something that seems a little ironic about the fact that it is only in these horrifying circumstances that Israel is accepting, or is being forced to accept, the opening up of maritime access to Gaza after it has blockaded the territory for so many years.

But this might prove to be a silver lining to these dark clouds of death and destruction, and encourage us all to think ahead to a future beyond the war. The symbolism and practicality of this development should not elude the international community.

If we assume that the Gaza Strip will not remain indefinitely under Israeli control, but authorities in Israel will want to decide what items enter or exit the Strip, which has been a recurring demand in all previous negotiations with the Palestinians, an important precedent for future negotiations is being set here, especially when we consider that this sea route will be the first passage in or out of Gaza in more than 75 years not controlled by either Israel or Egypt.

Moreover, this development might have the potential to evolve from being a viable mechanism for the delivery of goods to being one for the movement of people, too.

Thinking too far ahead might seem premature but it is crucial that we look to the future. So we need to consider that if the most viable route for the delivery of aid by sea is the one from Cyprus used by the Open Arms shipment to Gaza, that opens a window of opportunity for establishing links with an EU member state and, potentially, trade ties with the rest of this powerful economic and political union.

In the past few months we have seen only death and misery and very little, if any, rational or longterm strategic thinking about how to transform this unmitigated disaster into not only an end to the war in Gaza, but also an end to the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Raising the idea of establishing a port in Gaza, which one can only hope will become reality very soon, is an important step forward. It is a clear sign that the Biden administration is recognizing and internalizing the need to take a different approach to the war, one that overrides and bypasses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Otherwise this war will drag on for a very long time, prolonging the unbearable suffering of the people of Gaza while also having wider regional and international implications.

A floating port is an important step in the right direction. But it is only a small one. It needs to be followed up by a comprehensive plan for the future of Gaza and eventual peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House.

X: @YMekelberg

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