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U.S. will soon end its troubled Gaza pier mission, Pentagon says

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The U.S. military has failed to re-anchor its humanitarian pier to Gaza, the Pentagon said Thursday, and soon will “cease operations” on an aid-delivery mission plagued by setbacks from almost the moment President Biden announced it four months ago.

Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman, said in a statement that U.S. troops tried to reconnect the floating structure to Gaza’s shoreline Wednesday but were unable to do so because of “technical and weather-related issues.” The pier and its support vessels were taken back to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where they had sheltered amid the latest spell of rough waves to sideline the project, and will remain there until further notice, Ryder said.

Ryder’s statement does not specify whether U.S. forces will make another attempt to resume operations; a few officials said that remains unclear. One senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the military’s calculus, said commanders considered trying again Thursday but decided against it due to concerns about the sea state.

“The pier will soon cease operations, with more details on that process and timing available in the coming day,” Ryder’s statement says.

The on-again, off-again mission, with a cost of $230 million, has been a source of controversy in polarized Washington, with administration officials defending the effort despite its shortcomings, while other Democrats have said the project underscores Biden’s failure to ensure Israel prioritizes the hunger crisis facing Palestinians as a result of its war with Hamas.

The operation has delivered about 20 million pounds of food ashore since it began May 17. It’s a fraction of what humanitarian groups say is needed as Israeli officials resist U.S. and international demands to let more aid into Gaza by land.

Many Republicans have maintained that the mission, announced by Biden at his State of Union address in early March, puts the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops involved at risk of being attacked. Those fears have not materialized.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the pier mission had made a difference “in trying to deal with the heartbreaking humanitarian situation” resulting from the nine-month war. “I see any result that produces more food, more humanitarian goods getting to the people of Gaza as a success,” he added.

Sullivan said the chief focus now is getting aid moved into and around Gaza.

Distribution from the pier has been challenged by aid groups’ fears for their workers’ safety as the war’s staggering number of civilian casualties continues to climb. Until recently, arriving supplies were left to pile up in a staging area along the beach. A U.S. defense official familiar with the issue, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss recent developments, said a significant amount of that aid has been moved to other locations, leaving room for new deliveries if the pier can get up and running again.

Late last month, U.S. personnel moved the structure to Ashdod, to the north of Gaza, citing worries that rough waves, which had earlier caused extensive damage to the structure, could jeopardize it once again.

Defense officials have said repeatedly, though, that the pier’s deployment is temporary and dependent on calm seas to enable aid delivery. The floating structure is connected to land by a steel causeway, and is limited to operating in waves that are no more than three feet high, according to past assessments in U.S. military journals.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which coordinates with the humanitarian groups working in Gaza, will continue to use all available routes into the territory to get food and medicine to Palestinian civilians in need, an official there said this week. Those groups have begun using the port at Ashdod for additional aid deliveries, the official said.

When the project was announced, administration officials said that the pier would enable delivery of up to 2 million meals per day to starving Palestinians. Biden said then the scope of suffering in Gaza made the U.S. mission a moral necessity, and he stressed that no U.S. troops would go ashore — seemingly attempting to find a tenuous balance between putting Americans in harm’s way and idly standing by as famine compounded the war’s civilian toll.

Officials forecast then that operations would begin in early May, but in what would become a recurring theme, strong waves altered the plan, pushing back the pier’s initial anchoring until the middle of the month.

On May 25, days after initial shipments began flowing, heavy seas and high winds tossed four Army vessels onto the Gaza shore and broke the pier into pieces, prompting suspension of the mission. U.S. officials estimated that the pier incurred at least $22 million in damage.

U.S. troops reassembled it at Ashdod and then towed it back into place June 8. It was removed six days later again because of weather concerns. Before its most recent removal at the end of June, the pier had facilitated steady deliveries for about a week, with 10 million pounds of aid brought ashore, the Pentagon said.

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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