How ambitious plans for a floating aid pier off Gaza fell apart

An American soldier stands on a a US military vessel that ran aground at a beach in the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod on May 25, 2024. The US military said four of its vessels, supporting a temporary pier built to deliver aid to Gaza by sea, had run aground in heavy seas. (Photo: AFP)
An American soldier stands on a a US military vessel that ran aground at a beach in the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod on May 25, 2024. The US military said four of its vessels, supporting a temporary pier built to deliver aid to Gaza by sea, had run aground in heavy seas. (Photo: AFP)

Summary

Biden promised it would deliver ‘massive amounts’ of aid, but weather and logistics have hampered plans.

LARNACA, Cyprus—In a large multistory warehouse, food intended to help stave off famine in Gaza sits alongside cases of Corona, Stella and Brooklyn Lager.

The aid pallets with food, each with a label of the organization that provided them, are wrapped in either black or clear cellophane for the approximately 36 hours of sea travel to the U.S.-built temporary pier off Gaza. Many of the roughly 4,000 pallets have been sitting here in commercial warehouses for weeks, some covered in a layer of dust, waiting to be delivered.

The $230 million pier was installed amid the Israeli military advance in the city of Rafah and the closure of the two southern border crossings that were supplying most of the aid to the Gaza Strip. The maritime corridor between Cyprus and Gaza—and an ongoing airdrop campaign—was meant to supplement ground deliveries, which are cheaper and more efficient.

But the hastily constructed pier was never designed to handle the Mediterranean Sea’s rough waters, which are expected to worsen over summer, and the logistics of delivering aid from the pier to the Gazan population proved vexing. The floating structure broke apart late last month after 10 days of operation, something defense officials privately described as all but inevitable, and some humanitarian organizations have all but given up making longer-term plans around the pier.

After a week of repairs, the pier went back in place Saturday, only to be shut down again Sunday because of the rough waters, the Pentagon said. It reopened Tuesday.

The life and near death of the pier reflect the Biden administration’s larger struggle to deal with the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Three months after President Biden announced the pier during his State of the Union address, only enough aid to support Gazans for a few days has flowed through this maritime route, a fraction of what is needed for more than 2 million civilians facing severe hunger and famine.

During his address, Biden said the pier “would enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day."

The Pentagon, which only learned about the president’s plan to mention the pier days before his speech, began scrambling to put it in place, U.S. defense officials said.

Soon, roughly 1,000 troops left Virginia’s shores in ships carrying parts of the pier. Even then, defense officials said they didn’t know many aspects of the plan, including where inspections of aid would happen.

The concept was daunting: The U.S. military would need to assemble the pier several miles off Gaza’s coast. Support vessels and barges would be used to transport aid from the structure to a roughly 1,800-foot-long floating causeway leading to the shore.

Among the challenges the Pentagon faced was using the pier in the sometimes rough waters off the Gaza coast.

Military guidance on the pier, known as Joint Logistics Over the Shore or JLOTS, says its usage is “weather-dependent," and it can’t operate in conditions beyond sea state 3, or short and moderate waves. Such conditions are usually in a bay.

The Mediterranean Sea is often at sea state 4, or significant winds and waves.

Some defense officials were also skeptical about how well the U.S. military, the Israeli military, the Cypriot government, the U.S. Agency for International Development and others could coordinate with one another, particularly during war and on such a short timeline.

Key details hadn’t been fully sorted out days before the pier went into place, including how to ensure a steady stream of aid to Cyprus. Some private groups such as Fogbow, a private-U.S. security company that bought 1,100 pallets of aid for Gaza, sought approvals to bring aid over the U.S. pier. The company has yet to receive permission.

Other relief organizations, including José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, opted to build their own pier off Gaza’s shore to deliver the aid.

The U.S. military pier was in place by mid-May, but weather damaged the structure May 22 and three U.S. troops were injured, one seriously. But the pier was still functioning.

A few days after that, parts of the pier broke off and the Pentagon announced that it had been damaged beyond use. The U.S. military moved the pier to Israel’s Ashdod port for repairs.

Those involved in the shipping industry in Cyprus described the pier’s suspension as inevitable.

“We know the weather, and we know the rhythm of the waves and the wind at any time of year, and we could have told it was not going to work," Miki Peleg, general manager of EDT Offshore, a Cypriot cargo ship-owning company that, with Fogbow, was contracted by the U.S. military to remove the pier, via tugboats, back to Gaza’s shores.

On June 7, the Pentagon announced that the repaired pier was reopening. Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, deputy commander, U.S. Central Command, told reporters that “issues with the pier stemmed solely from unanticipated weather."

Cooper said the Pentagon expected to “increase the volume of humanitarian assistance provided through the pier over the previous levels" after it reopened.

At the port in Larnaca late last week, pallets of aid provided by U.S. Agency for International Development were being loaded onto a U.S. Navy support vessel in anticipation of the pier reopening.

Aid began traveling again from Cyprus to Gaza on Saturday, and U.S. Central Command said that roughly 1.1 million pounds of humanitarian aid was delivered to Gaza through the pier.

“Let’s see how long this lasts," one U.S. defense official said shortly after the pier resumed operations.

On Sunday, the United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, said it paused delivery of aid from the pier after two of its warehouses were hit by rockets during one of the deadliest days of the war.

“I’m concerned about the safety of our people after the incident yesterday" in Gaza, Cindy McCain, the director of the WFP, told “Face the Nation," addressing the suspended deliveries.

World Central Kitchen, which had relied on its own private pier, moved its staff out of Cyprus roughly one month ago, U.S. officials said, after seven of its workers were killed in Gaza in an Israeli airstrike. One World Central Kitchen staffer returned this week to determine what to do with its aid in Cyprus, a spokesperson for the organization said.

USAID, the leading provider of aid sent over the maritime corridor, said it plans to continue to secure supplies for delivery from Cyprus.

While the Pentagon has allotted enough money to pay for the pier to receive aid for three months, those familiar with its operations say they don’t expect it to last that long, at least not without multiple repairs.

If the pier shuts down permanently, the aid could end up being delivered by sea to the Ashdod port in Israel, and then sent along the very land routes the maritime corridor was meant to bypass.

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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