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US launches a “coordinated review” of Gaza pier and aid mission

To few people’s surprise, the Inspectors General from the US Department of Defence and the US Agency for International Development have confirmed that they were launching coordinated, independent oversight projects to review the delivery and distribution of US humanitarian assistance to Gaza through the maritime corridor.

The entire project has been beset with difficulties. The original idea, announced by President Biden in March, was to bring in aid to Gaza by sea to compensate for the restricted amount of aid getting into the enclave by land. The Biden administration announced that up to 40% of Gaza’s aid could eventually arrive by sea via ships sailing from Cyprus.

However, it would appear that things were not thought through.

The first problem came with the construction of the pier. It quickly became clear that it could not be put together in situ, and its assembly was transferred to Ashdod, the southern Israeli port on the Mediterranean.

When this was completed several weeks later, the logistics of the operation became problematic. The US did not want to be seen to have “troops on the ground” in Gaza – the optics of which would have been undesirable. Therefore other military forces or aid volunteers were sought to handle the goods from pier to beach and thence to trucks. UK armed forces were initially rumoured to be a possibility, but this option was quickly ruled out by the UK government.

The operation is complex, involving about 1,000 US military personnel. The Pentagon estimates the first 90 days of operation will cost about $230m.

The amount of aid which physically arrived on the pier never remotely approached the 40% “target”, and what did get there was poorly distributed to potential recipients.

Worse, it soon became apparent that the pier itself, of a type that had been deployed in Haiti, was less suited to the Mediterranean. The “poor weather” that had forced assembly to take place in Ashdod, turned out to be at the rougher end of “normal weather” in the Eastern Mediterranean. And the pier could not cope with it. Twice it saw operations suspended, and after returning from the second of these, it was closed down after just five days for “maintenance”.

After taking longer than expected to implement (it has been in operation for only just over six weeks), the pier has broken loose and been damaged by heavier than expected seas, required repairs, and was removed for a second time to prevent further damage from more heavy seas.

There have also been problems and security concerns with the handoffs and convoys to move the aid from beach to Gaza residents. Some of the early efforts were reportedly shelled and the convoys looted before they could reach the warehouses.

Rumours by now were circulating widely that the US Department of Defence was looking to cut its losses, with the main aim being able to do so without too much embarrassment all round.

According to the joint announcement from the DoD and the USAID OIG, the two agencies will review key aspects of their shared mission to provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza. No timeline was announced for the review. The agencies said that it would be conducted in phases.

“The DoD OIG and USAID OIG are working together to address the challenges associated with this mission,” said DoD Inspector General Robert Storch. “Through our collaboration, we will leverage the unique expertise, resources, and capabilities of our teams to optimize our oversight in this important area.”

The DoD Office of Inspector General reported that it would be assessing the effectiveness of the maritime corridor. The review will first assess DoD’s roles, responsibilities, and controls and then the implementation of the mission.

USAID’s Office of Inspector General will focus on the plans and controls over the distribution of the aid through the maritime corridor. It will assess the handover of aid for the pier to the UN World Food Programme on the beach.

US CENTCOM said last Monday June 24th that the pier had been in continuous operation between June 19th and 24th, but that operations at the pier were pausing for “scheduled maintenance activities.” They said that Sunday had been the largest single day with 1.58m lb of aid delivered and a total of just over 3m lb over the course of the weekend. However, telling was the use of the unit of weigh “pounds” rather than the more usual “tons”.

Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, the pier had become a political issue. The chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Mike Rogers of Alabama, published a letter sent to the Biden administration in which he called the project “a gross waste of taxpayer dollars.” Rogers claimed that the whole project had been “riddled with setbacks, sidelined more often than operational”. He demanded the immediate end of the programme.

The letter, sent to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, had not previously been reported. Rogers has long opposed the pier and has called in the past for it to be dismantled, but he had not previously expressed that view in a formal written letter to the administration. Rogers’ armed services committee is the Pentagon’s top oversight body in the House of Representatives, and formal requests from its chairman traditionally require a response from Pentagon officials.

“As of June 19, JLOTS (Joint Logistics Over the Shore ) had only been operational about 10 days and had only moved 3,415 metric tons onto the beach in Gaza,” Rogers wrote. According to US military data, as of Tuesday, 8,332 pallets had been delivered via the pier. But around 84% of them have been sitting on Gaza’s coast in a marshalling area waiting to be picked up by the United Nations for distribution.

The World Food Programme paused deliveries earlier this month over security concerns.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has also called for the immediate end of the pier.

Sources within the administration said that it was always going to be a temporary programme that would only be possible until the autumn, when weather conditions deteriorated in the Mediterranean.