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Biden will order US forces to build ‘emergency’ aid seaport on Gaza coast

President Joe Biden is set to order US forces on an “emergency” mission that will see them construct a seaport on the Gaza coast to allow a new influx of much-needed humanitarian aid into the territory amid the continuing Israeli war on Hamas.

A senior administration official said Mr Biden will announce the new aid mission on Thursday evening when he delivers his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

The official said Mr Biden will tell Congress that he is “directing the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a port in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters”.

“This is an initiative that will get underway here when the president makes the announcement and issues the orders,” the official said, adding later that the building of a bespoke temporary seaport in Gaza is part of continuing efforts to “get life-saving humanitarian aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of innocent Palestinians who have nothing to do with Hamas”.

“Responding to the humanitarian crisis and the needs of the Palestinian people has been a priority since day one and it remains one today. But the truth is, we know that the aid flowing into Gaza is nowhere near enough and nowhere near fast enough,” they said. “The president will make clear again this evening that we all need to do more and that the United States is doing more and we are seeking to use every channel possible to get additional assistance into Gaza”.

The senior official, who has been directly involved in negotiations with the Israeli government over aid routes into Gaza, also said Israel has now agreed to open a “new land crossing” it has prepared into northern Gaza.

He also confirmed UN reports that the crossing will see its first aid deliveries transit through it in the coming week, and said the Israeli government has agreed to boost capacity at the Kerem Shalom border crossing from roughly 48 trucks per week to as many as 50 or more trucks of aid per day.

The news of increased aid transfers through land crossings into Gaza comes after the US government faced criticism for conducting airdrops of aid into Gaza rather than pressuring the Israeli government into allowing more aid into the territory over land.

Pointing to the continuing airdrops, the official said the Biden administration is “not waiting on the Israelis” to ensure sufficient humanitarian assistance reaches Gaza.

“This is a moment for American leadership, and we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need,” said the official, who noted that the Defense Department has conducted three rounds of airdrops of 192 bundles containing 112,896 meals into both northern and southern Gaza, with yet more airdrops planned for the coming days.

A second official said the port construction is “part of a sustained effort” to ensure that more aid enters Gaza, in partnership with allies including Jordan, Egypt, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

“The United States is taking the lead and activating a maritime corridor to allow assistance to flow by sea directly into Gaza as part of our sustained effort to increase aid flows coming into Gaza by land, air and sea. So tonight, the president will announce in his State of the Union address that he has directed the US military to undertake an emergency mission to establish a port in Gaza, working in partnership with like-minded countries and humanitarian partners,” they said.

The official added that the “temporary pier” would permit “capacity for hundreds of additional truckloads of assistance each day” to be brought into Gaza in coordination with Israel on security matters and with the UN and other NGOs that can provide expertise and resources to ensure the aid is properly distributed within Gaza.

The first shipments of aid through the port will come via Cyprus and will be facilitated by US forces along with “partners and allies”.

A US defence official said the forces needed to build the emergency port are either in the region or will be in transit there soon, but without putting any American boots on the ground in Gaza. The flow of goods through the port will make use of capacity for screening by Israeli officials in the Cypriot port of Lanarca, and while the port will initially be operated by US forces, the official said it is expected that it would eventually transition to be operated by a commercial entity.

“Any way to get more aid into Gaza, whether by sea or airdrop, is obviously good,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, but that the international community’s focus should be on increasing the large-scale distribution of aid into Gaza by land. Entry of aid by land is cost and volume-effective, and “we need more entry points and we need a larger volume of aid to come in by land”, he added.

The president’s announcement comes as Washington has been ramping up the political pressure for a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, triggered by a Hamas attack inside Israel during which around 1,200 people were killed and another 250 were taken hostage. The Israeli response, an aerial assault, ground operations and a blockade, have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.

On Thursday, Hamas said a delegation had left Cairo amid ongoing negotiations on a possible ceasefire that mediators hope to achieve before the start of Ramadan early next week. After four days of talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt to secure a 40-day ceasefire ahead of the Muslim fasting month there is still no sign of progress on key sticking points, with both sides blaming the other.

“Hamas’s delegation left Cairo this morning for consultation with the leadership of the movement, with negotiations and efforts continuing to stop the aggression, return the displaced and bring in relief aid to our people,” a Hamas statement said.

Later, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his intention of to press on with the military campaign in Gaza. Israel has previously said its aim is to destroy Hamas and that any ceasefire must be temporary. It has also pressed for a list of hostages still alive and held by Hamas in Gaza.

“There is international pressure and it’s growing, but particularly when the international pressure rises, we must close ranks, we need to stand together against the attempts to stop the war,” Mr Netanyahu said – referring to warnings from the US, the UK and other nations that pushing into the southernmost city in Gaza, Rafah, where up to 1.5 million of the territory’s population of 2.3 million are sheltering.

“Whoever tells us not to act in Rafah is telling us to lose the war and that will not happen,” Mr Netanyahu said.