Why is delivering aid to Gaza by sea quickly becoming complicated?
The Biden administration is working on a plan to move large amounts of aid to Gaza by sea, possibly via military warships.But this requires overcoming several major obstacles, including protecting troops and safely distributing supplies to desperate Palestinians.

In recent days, the United States has stepped up efforts to deliver aid to the enclave, where 30,000 people have died since Israel began operations in October. Last week, dozens of Palestinians died while struggling to get food from aid delivered in trucks. The United States soon announced that it would begin sending aid with military aircraft and is now studying the possibility of sending food and supplies by sea as well.

Although ships can carry much more aid than planes or trucks, delivering it by sea is a much more complex operation, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.

“The sea route, yes, can move more volume at sea, but it is also going to require heavier logistical transportation and some infrastructure on land, and to a large extent, it is going to need the support of allies and partners,” Kirby said.

The debate over delivering aid by sea highlights new tensions between the United States and Israel, as Washington has failed to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to open access to more humanitarian convoys. It is unclear whether Israel would support such a maritime operation, given its reluctance to increase the number of aid trucks arriving in Gaza. Israel says it is concerned that Hamas could intercept any aid intended for civilians.

One option is to send one of the U.S. Navy’s amphibious warships, which carry Marines and can launch planes and cargo-carrying vessels directly to shore, according to three Defense Department officials who were granted anonymity to talk about the delicate planning.

The US military often deploys these types of ships to respond to crises in disaster zones, for example, delivering hundreds of thousands of kilos of food, cargo and medical supplies to Haiti after the devastating 2021 earthquake.

The USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, which the Pentagon sent near Israel after the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7, is in the Mediterranean. However, the unit is headed back to the United States and has no plans to go to Gaza, according to one of the Defense Department officials, but the Pentagon could choose to keep it in the region.

However, an operation of this type is complicated, both logistically and politically. The military often sends surveyors to map the beach in advance and determine factors such as the depth of the water and what type of port facilities exist. Ground infrastructure and personnel are also needed to unload the landing craft physically, coordinate with the crew to distribute the cargo, and protect the vessel.

«It’s not like in the movies. “It is a methodical process to establish a zone in order for your operation to be successful,” said the first Defense Department official. “No one is raiding a beach here.”

Normally, those tasks would be performed by U.S. military personnel, but the Biden administration has made clear that it does not want U.S. troops in Gaza.

“To my knowledge, there are no plans at this time to send US forces to Gaza,” Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder reiterated Tuesday.

Without Marines or Navy personnel on the ground, the United States would likely have to rely on Israel to establish a buffer zone, both to protect itself from any attack by Hamas or Lebanese Hezbollah and to prevent desperate civilians from raiding the landing craft. The crew would also have to coordinate cargo distribution with aid groups, some of which maintain tenuous relations with Israel.

The security situation in Gaza is of serious concern, according to Defense Department officials. «It is a war zone. A ship in port is an easy target. You don’t want to take that risk for an asset like that. You don’t get it back.”

Retired Vice Admiral John Miller, former commander of US naval forces in the Middle East, said he does not believe the US military would carry out such an operation in Gaza without sending US troops.

“The people who do that are trained to do it, so it’s not like you can have a bunch of Palestinians or NGOs, all well-intentioned, just waiting for it,” Miller said. “I don’t see us doing that without a troop commitment, and again, unless we know it’s a permissive environment, it’s probably a difficult policy to overcome.”

The U.S. Navy has not yet been tasked with establishing a sea route to deliver aid to Gaza, the Defense Department official said, although there are “many options” if the request occurs. The Army could also deploy its Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore capability to “essentially build a dock where no dock exists,” the official said.

There are other non-military options, such as a chartered civilian ship or even a contracted ferry, the Defense Department official said.

An administration official said that the US is working with Cyprus and other partners on a range of options to establish a maritime corridor. NSC Chief of Staff Curtis Ried traveled to Cyprus in January to study its infrastructure for loading and shipping aid to Gaza.

“I think the fact that we are exploring all avenues, all channels, to get aid to Gaza shows how serious and desperate the situation is there,” the official declared.

Lara Seligman