Why Biden’s Floating Pier Is Unlikely To Meet Gaza’s Needs

During his State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden announced a plan to build a temporary pier off the coast of the Gaza Strip, to allow for a “massive increase” in much-needed humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians. Biden’s announcement came after he repeatedly expressed frustration with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government over its refusal to allow sufficient aid into Gaza even as the Administration continues to provide Israel with military assistance. Just how such a plan would work remains unclear, and the Department of Defense, which is in charge of the construction, has said that it could take up to sixty days to build the pier. The need for supplies is urgent: children in Gaza have begun to die from malnutrition, and, since the beginning of Israel’s bombardment of the territory on October 7th, an estimated seventy-three thousand Palestinians have been injured and thirty-one thousand have been killed.

To learn more about Biden’s plan, I recently spoke by phone with Sean Carroll, the president and C.E.O. of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), an organization that provides humanitarian assistance on the ground in Gaza. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the pier idea is likely to be insufficient, why the recent airdrops of food did not meet expectations, and how Carroll’s staff in Gaza is providing food for starving families.

As someone who does humanitarian work in this area, how do you understand this Biden Administration plan to get more aid into Gaza?

I think it’s a couple of things. So much aid is needed. There’s such a massive gap. This is a well-intentioned effort to get more aid in, and all efforts are needed. There need to be more land crossings, and then there’ll need to be sea crossings, and eventually heavy equipment coming in. But it’s also a distraction and a bit alarming. If you’re feeling like you can negotiate only a few things at a time, then maybe you take your eyes and your attention off the land crossings. But there are hundreds of trucks sitting in Rafah. There’s probably somewhere between twenty to fifty times what that first boat is going to bring in, and it is sitting in trucks at the border.

How would you describe what the Administration is trying to do?

They are trying to open up a way to bring things in by sea in a situation where there is no seaport. There’s a small seaport in the north, which is really a fishing seaport, and it’s not deep enough for big ships. Of course, the infrastructure there, probably including the port, is pretty damaged. There was a port that was being constructed after the Oslo Accords, but Israel destroyed that, in 2000.

It’s not deep sea; it’s shallow water there. The idea is to build a temporary pier so they can bring ships to a pier that’s out in the deeper water, and then [cargo] gets off-loaded onto smaller ships and brought to shore.

People in your line of work are saying that what remains most important is to open land crossings from Rafah and hopefully elsewhere. Why are these crossings considered the most efficient and easiest?

It’s just the cost per ton. Land crossings are drastically cheaper per ton than airdrops. The cost efficiency on sea is also good, like land crossings, but it’s going to take at least sixty days to build and you can’t get the volume. Eventually, I suppose, they can get big ships in there, and you can start to equal the capacity needed. But, right now, there’s nothing close to what needs to be brought in each day. Everyone has become an expert on the number of trucks, but the truth is we’re just not anywhere near where we need to be. We only have an average of a hundred trucks a day since October 7th; I think only one or two days have had more than two hundred and fifty trucks and very few days have had over two hundred trucks. So when you’re doing ten per cent to twenty per cent of the need . . .

The Israeli government talks about capacity and blames others, such as the U.N., and says there’s not enough capacity inside Gaza. Well, yeah, true. The bombs are still falling, and there are not enough trucks. If suddenly we were getting four to five hundred trucks a day, every day, there would need to be more distribution capacity, but the international community can build that capacity. We can all scale up in order to meet the supply. We have things backward. People say, “Well, there’s a problem bringing in aid because there’s desperation, and therefore chaos and violence and insecurity.” But, no, it’s the other way around. There’s chaos and violence and insecurity because people are desperate—because not enough food aid is getting there. If you actually do a surge on food aid, you can tamp down that desperation and that violence.

You mentioned sixty days, or two months, to build this, which is what the Pentagon has suggested. I imagine there are still a lot of logistics to get ships supplied with food.

That’s right. José Andrés and the World Central Kitchen move faster than anybody does. He told me back in October that he was going to bring a boat, and they had done it in Ukraine, but look how long it took. [The ship departed Cyprus on March 12th and is currently en route to Gaza.]

There is kind of a craziness to this: the U.S. is announcing the building of the pier in order to get more aid in, because we’re failing to get stuff in the land crossings, which already exist. Routes already exist. Thousands of trucks have come in. Instead of the fifteen thousand to sixteen thousand that have come in, it should have been seventy thousand or eighty thousand. I think there’s some fear that once [the pier] is operational, people will say, “O.K., all set. We dealt with it.” Usually, it’s not very often [that a project like this gets] done faster than people are hoping. Everyone is saying sixty days; I’m not hearing anybody say thirty anymore.

Several people were killed in one of the airdrops, although we don’t know who conducted it. Can you explain why the airdrops don’t seem to have had a major effect yet, and also the risks that they pose?

I understand why they were done. There’s desperation. Everybody is trying to do what they can. I think, frankly, some governments—not just the U.S. but others as well—who thought that they would make more headway with the Israelis on land aid threw up their hands and said, “Well, let’s do airdrops.” Jordan has been able to do airdrops to supply field hospitals. But they have a huge cost per ton. It is just prohibitive.

You’ve mentioned the cost a couple of times. The U.S. government has a lot of money. Is the reason that airdrops are not happening sufficiently just because it costs a lot to get the planes up in the air?

Well, they’re still going on, right? Other governments are doing them. There is a need, but it’s just the cost, and then killing people is not great. Now, obviously, we’re all worried about people getting killed when they approach food trucks, too, so there are issues there. But, yeah, that’s not a great look to have a parachute fail.

I think it’s more that it shouldn’t need to be resorted to. There are some instances where you could imagine access is completely cut off, or the violence on both sides of the conflict is so bad, and no one is providing any access, which is kind of what’s happening here.

The Biden Administration has said that this pier plan would be temporary, but I’ve also heard the argument that this pier could actually be helpful to Gaza in the long term because it’s going to need a tremendous amount of aid for a very long time.

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