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Gaza port announcement is a desperate policy decision Biden hoped never to have to make

This is a significant announcement but details are scant. 

The timing reflects the urgency of the humanitarian situation but it's also about politics.

Here's what we know so far.

President Biden has "directed" the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a port on the Gaza coast.

The word "lead" is important. It suggests other nations will be involved.

Cyprus will be the coordination point for this mission and for the sea bridge of aid once it's flowing.

The island, more than 200 miles northwest of Gaza, has a significant British military presence so perhaps there will be UK involvement in the aid operation.

"Port" is a somewhat misleading word to describe what the Americans intend to construct.

It will take the form of a temporary pier or causeway that will allow aid to be offloaded from ships to trucks for distribution.

We are told it will take "a number of weeks to plan and execute" and that the forces required to complete the mission are either already in the region or will be moved there soon.

Importantly, American officials tell us that US boots will not be on the ground in Gaza.

A senior White House official said: "We're not planning for this to be an operation that would require US boots on the ground but issues in terms of the dates - the timelines, etc - those are all things that we're working through.

"The concept that's been planned involves the presence of US military personnel on military vessels offshore but does not require US military personnel to go ashore to install the pier or causeway facility that will allow the transportation of humanitarian assistance ashore."

All of this leaves plenty of unanswered questions and exposes deep failures in diplomatic leverage the US has over Israel.

On that second point first, the Israeli government agency responsible for the flow of aid across the borders into Gaza, COGAT, has told Sky News that it could open up more land crossings but "that needs to be a decision made by the government and if they were to make such a decision then we would find a way to facilitate their decision".

It added: "If the directive came from the [Israeli] government, then COGAT would find a way to fulfil that mission."

That statement alone shows what the Israeli government could do but is unwilling to do, despite US pressure.

A US official said today that Israel has now agreed for a crossing into northern Gaza to be opened.

That said, there has been pressure for many weeks without success. It is not clear when this crossing will open.

It's worth adding that Israel has been using numerous crossings to move its military in and out of Gaza.

On the first point - the unanswered questions - there are plenty.

Who will build the infrastructure that will be needed on the land end of the pier?

Who will distribute the aid once it is offloaded?

Who will manage crowd control and prevent stampedes (which will be inevitable without considerable policing of a mass of desperate people)?

Consider this too - there are two extensive ports just north of Gaza in Israel at Ashkelon (12 miles to the north), and Ashdod (18 miles to the north). Aid could easily be delivered there from Cyprus and driven down to Gaza. Why has America been unable to persuade its ally, whose war it's funding, to allow aid into these ports? It's quite remarkable.

And how long will all this take?

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As I mentioned at the start, there is a political dimension to all this, too.

President Biden will announce this emergency mission at his annual State of the Union address in Washington tonight.

It's being billed as a make-or-break moment for him as he tries to counter significant criticism of his suitability to run for president again.

His polling is terrible. Gaza is a key challenge for him. He needs to show that he has got a grip on it.

Like the airdrop announcement last week, the port announcement represents a desperate policy decision that President Biden hoped never to have to make.