Biden administration secures key agreement for aid distribution from US military pier being built off Gaza coast

The Biden administration has secured an agreement with a major UN agency to distribute aid from the pier the US military is constructing off the coast of Gaza, two senior US officials told CNN – a key development as the US and its allies have rushed to finalize plans for how desperately needed humanitarian aid will be distributed inside the war-torn strip.

The US military is expected to finish constructing the pier early next month. The World Food Programme (WFP) will support distribution of aid from the pier following weeks of diplomatic wrangling, the organization said Saturday.

“The UN has agreed to work with the US and other partners on the maritime corridor as an additional route for relief to Gaza, on the condition that humanitarian principles can be ensured and that land access is also expanded,” a spokesperson told CNN.

“Our objective remains to bring as much food to starving Gazans as possible, to avert looming famine,” the spokesperson added.

The US role in the effort has been complex, with the military carrying out a high-stakes construction mission in a warzone and diplomats helping to organize a dangerous and highly politicized aid distribution operation. And as the US military is beginning to set up in the eastern Mediterranean, a private American company is eyeing a similar operation nearby that will also need security and some help from the UN.

The logistics have been particularly complicated because no US troops will be on the ground in Gaza — something President Joe Biden ruled out when announcing the pier last month.

As recently as this week, some US officials said it was still not clear to them who would be trucking the aid from the beach to the warehouses, and humanitarian aid organizations have not yet been briefed on the plans for the distribution of aid from the pier. But the senior US official said the system will be similar to how aid distribution works at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in Israel, with the aid groups taking control of their own cargo at the shoreline and commercial assistance being moved by contracted partners.

The aid’s point of origin will be Cyprus, where it will be loaded onto ships before being ferried over to the US military pier and then trucked over a US military-constructed causeway to the Gaza shoreline, officials said. US military and commercial ships will be able to transport aid to the US military pier, a defense official said, but only the US military will be allowed access to the causeway.

The US government had to work in recent weeks to convince potential partners for the US military-run operation, including the UN, to work in an aid distribution zone secured by the Israel Defense Forces, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.

“Weeks of coordination and interaction with WFP, UN agencies that are responsible for security and other decision making, have all yielded a situation in which WFP will take on this work,” said one of the senior officials who spoke to CNN.

The UN and other aid groups initially did not necessarily want to be seen as partnering with an IDF operation in Gaza, the sources explained, and are also concerned for their safety, as IDF airstrikes have killed more than 200 aid workers since October 7.

“Everyone is wary of being too close to the IDF” for both security and political reasons, one humanitarian official told CNN.

US officials also told CNN that there has been concern in the region and at the UN that the pier operation will lessen pressure on Israel to keep the land corridors into Gaza up and running, which was the most efficient way of getting aid into the enclave prior to the war.

The humanitarian official said the issue of whether the US pier will be connected to the UN distribution channels that already exist within Gaza had been discussed at the highest levels of the administration and the United Nations.

A spokesperson for the World Food Programme said the group is “committed to supporting all available options to get more aid into Gaza.”

“This includes sea and air to complement overland access. We can manage and receive assistance via a maritime corridor only if we can ensure that humanitarian principles are preserved, that we maintain our neutrality and independence, and that our staff can operate safely,” the spokesperson said.

Private company setting up parallel aid operation

At the same time, a private company called Fogbow, an advisory firm run by former US military and intelligence officials, is in the process of setting up its own maritime aid operation that will run parallel to — but separate from — the US military-led process, according to several people familiar with the plan.

People familiar with Fogbow’s plan say the firm has identified a construction company owned by a Palestinian-American with hundreds of trucks and a vast storage facility near Israel’s border to move the aid. Some aid groups would prefer all the distribution to be handled by the UN, and have raised concerns about the idea of concentrating so much power and responsibility into the hands of one wealthy Palestinian entrepreneur, whom sources identified as Bashar al Masri.

Fogbow’s initial plan is for much of the aid to be moved by Masri’s trucks to a zone in Gaza called the Gaza Industrial Estate that was developed by a company Masri now chairs called the Palestine Development and Investment Company.

Masri declined a request for comment.

Gaza’s shoreline is only about 25 miles long, and it is still unclear how far apart the US military’s aid drop zone will be from Fogbow’s. People familiar with Fogbow’s operation said that the IDF had agreed to provide security for them as well, but that it would be easier if the two drop zones were closer to each other so that the security perimeter is not too large for the IDF to handle.

But that proximity also raises questions about the distribution networks, and whether they will conflict with or complement each other.

Scott Paul, the associate director peace and security at Oxfam, said that “what we don’t want is to create a parallel humanitarian system when we have one that could work without interference.”

“We particularly want to avoid creating a parallel humanitarian system if it is one that might at some point be leveraged to undermine the UN’s leadership role, or to expand permanent Israeli control in Gaza,” he said. “Those are the sort of the things that we are keeping an eye out for in all of this.”

And while the US government has insisted that the pier is additive to the land routes rather than a replacement, “the push to utilize the maritime corridor and pier so it doesn’t become a monument to diplomatic ineffectiveness is really picking up,” Paul said.

The World Food Programme spokesperson said, “It’s important to emphasize that the opening of the sea corridor should complement – and not replace – the continued use of Rafah and Kerem Shalom as entry points and the opening of additional land crossings into northern Gaza.”

The spokesperson added that WFP supports “all efforts to increase the flow of humanitarian supplies into Gaza, but road access is the priority because nothing can compete with truck convoys when it comes to the volume of aid they can bring.”

Fogbow, for its part, will be funded through a new foundation headquartered in Geneva called the Maritime Humanitarian Aid Foundation, the people familiar with the operation said. The foundation’s executive director is Cameron Hume, a career diplomat and former US Ambassador to Algeria, South Africa, and Indonesia. Qatar has already pledged $60 million to their effort, the people and a Qatari official familiar with the matter said, which is about two months of operating costs.

Fogbow is willing to use the US military pier to get aid onto shore, the sources said, but also won’t need to use it in order to carry out its operations. Instead, the firm is planning to contract a maritime logistics company that will dredge near Gaza’s coastline in a way that allows a large barge, also contracted by Fogbow, to get close enough to shore to drop off aid.

One of the people familiar with the Fogbow plan said that they want to set up the additional beach landing site for aid because the more aid drop zones there are on the coast, the more aid can be flowed into places that may be harder to reach by the traditional land crossings. This person also said it ensures that there is still a way to flow aid into Gaza by sea even if the US military ever decides to withdraw its pier or stop operating it.

US officials told CNN that the US military is likely to operate the pier it constructed for at least the next three months, but that the ultimate goal is to turn it into a commercial operation that can be used by other countries and non-governmental organizations—including Fogbow—to use full time.

Paul, of Oxfam, said a key question for the US government when it comes to the pier is whether they have received any assurances from Israel, which will be securing the infrastructure, that Palestinians will be authorized to use the system once the US departs.

“Because otherwise, if they build it and they don’t have that assurance, and they ultimately have to leave, then it’s going to be controlled by the IDF,” Paul said. “And that could make it a potential chokepoint for aid and commercial imports.”

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