Biden Orders US Military to Set Up Temporary Aid Port for Gaza as Famine Threatens

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. military Thursday to set up a temporary port off the coast of Gaza, joining international partners in trying to carve out a sea route to deliver food and other aid to desperate Palestinian civilians cut off by the Hamas-Israel war and by Israeli restrictions on humanitarian access by land.

While reiterating his support for Israel, Biden used the announcement and the bright spotlight of his State of the Union speech to renew months of U.S. calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to change how he conducts the war, including by allowing in more aid to Gaza and doing more to protect humanitarian workers there.

"To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip," Biden declared before Congress. He repeated calls as well for Israel to do more to protect civilians in the fighting, and to work toward Palestinian statehood as the only long-term solution to Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The U.S. announcement, signaling deepening U.S. involvement in the war and the escalating fighting in the region, comes as Biden faces pressure to act more forcefully to ease what the U.N. says are near-famine conditions for many of Gaza's 2.3 million people.

It also shows the administration resorting to an unusual workaround after months of appealing to Israel, the U.S.'s close ally and top recipient of military aid, to step up access and protection for trucks bearing humanitarian goods for Gaza.

Meanwhile Thursday, efforts to reach a cease-fire before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts within days, appeared stalled. Hamas said its delegation had left Cairo, where talks were being held. The outline for the cease-fire included a wide infusion of aid into Gaza.

A widening humanitarian crisis across Gaza and tight Israeli control of aid trucks has left virtually the entire population desperately short of food, the U.N. says. Medical workers in northern Gaza this past week reported 15 children dead of starvation there. In a meeting pressing Israel Ambassador Michael Herzog to provide access and security for more aid trucks, the U.S. international development director, Samantha Power, warned that blockaded Gaza "faced a real risk of famine," her office said Thursday.

Israel accuses Hamas of commandeering some aid deliveries.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden's announcement before his State of the Union speech, said the planned operation will not require American troops on the ground to build the pier that is intended to allow more shipments of food, medicine and other essential items from a port in the Mediterranean island country of Cyprus.

The U.S. officials said it would likely take weeks before the pier was operational. They gave few other immediate details.

One of the options under consideration is for the military to provide a floating pier called a JLOTS, or Joint Logistics-Over-the-Shore, another U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss the options before a decision has been made. The large floating pier allows supplies to be delivered without having a fixed port in place, alleviating the need to have troops on a dock on shore. Ships can sail to the pier, which is secured by anchors, and dock there.

Defense Department spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Thursday that U.S. officials and international partners were looking at options, including using commercial companies and contractors to aid in the delivery.

Officials from the U.S., Europe, Israel and the Middle East have already been deep in discussions and preparations on the possibility of opening a maritime sea route.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides in November offered use of his country's port in Larnaca for aid deliveries to the Palestinian enclave, a 230-mile (370-kilometer) journey from Cyprus.

European Union Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen planned to visit Larnaca on Friday to inspect installations.

Cyprus early on invited authorities from Israel, the U.S. and other European countries to join Cypriot agents in vetting all shipments so nothing could be used by Hamas against Israel.

Aid groups have said their efforts to deliver desperately needed supplies to Gaza have been badly hampered because of the difficulty of coordinating with the Israeli military, the ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order. It is even more difficult to get aid to the isolated north.

The United Arab Emirates also says it is working with its partners, including chef and humanitarian Jose Andres and his World Central Kitchen, to launch deliveries by sea, and is finishing details and timing.

While land routes could be the most efficient way to get aid into Gaza, one of the senior U.S. administration officials said, Biden has directed that "we not wait for the Israelis" to get more humanitarian help in, more quickly.

Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, told reporters late Thursday after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors that air and sea deliveries cannot substitute for expanding and diversifying supply routes on land, which remains "the optimal solution."

The Biden administration's latest move provides one more layer to the extraordinary dynamic that's emerged as the United States has had to go around Israel, its main Mideast ally, and find ways to get aid into Gaza, including through airdrops that started last week.

Biden has been a crucial partner to Netanyahu's military offensive following Hamas's Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. That includes providing bombs and other weapons to Israel and fending off efforts to censure Israel in the United Nations for the growing deaths among Gaza civilians.

But administration officials have grown frustrated at Netanyahu for seeming to shrug off much of the U.S. pressure for Israel to do more to reduce civilian deaths and to allow in humanitarian aid.

The World Food Program says an average of 99 aid trucks a day entered Gaza in February, one-fifth of what is needed.

"This is an expensive, inefficient workaround to a problem that has other ready solutions," Brian Finucane, a former State Department official now with the International Crisis Group, said of the U.S. announcement on a temporary port and wartime sea route.

"It's another symptom of the pathology of the overall approach to the war in Gaza ... which is that the Biden administration is unwilling to use U.S. leverage either unilaterally or multilaterally" to try to influence conduct of the war by Netanyahu, Finucane said.

Pressure on the Biden administration surged last week after Gaza health officials reported more than 100 people killed at an attempted aid delivery to the isolated north. Israel said its forces fired warning shots when members of the crowd began moving toward them. Witnesses and medical workers told The Associated Press that most of those injured were shot when Israeli forces fired into the crowds of hungry people.

International mediators had hoped to alleviate some of the immediate crisis with a six-week cease-fire, which would have seen Hamas release some of the Israeli hostages it is holding, Israel release some Palestinian prisoners and aid groups be given access to to get a major influx of assistance into Gaza.

Palestinian militants are believed to be holding around 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others captured during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack.

Egyptian officials said Hamas has agreed to the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage but wants commitments that it will lead to an eventual more permanent cease-fire. They say Israel wants to confine the negotiations to the more limited agreement.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with media. Both officials said mediators are still pressing the two parties to soften their positions.

Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said Israel "refuses to commit to and give guarantees regarding the cease-fire, the return of the displaced, and withdrawal from the areas of its incursion." But he said the talks were still ongoing and would resume next week. There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Mediators had looked to Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Sunday, as an informal deadline for a deal because the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting often sees Israeli-Palestinian violence linked to access to a major Jerusalem holy site. The war already has the wider region on edge, with Iran-backed groups trading fire with Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu has publicly ruled out Hamas' demands for an end to the war, saying Israel intends to resume the offensive after any cease-fire, expand it to the crowded southern city of Rafah and battle on until "total victory." He has said military pressure will help bring about the release of the hostages.