Joe Biden’s Gaza Pier Plan Runs Aground

Get ready for what may be the final round of President Biden’s ill-fated Gaza pier adventure. After rough seas scattered parts of the project across the Eastern Mediterranean in late May, forcing it to shut down, the pier was repaired and sent back into action.

But less than a week later, heavy swells again suspended operations. The latest report is that the entire effort may be scrapped months early.

The failure to solve the problem of Gaza’s notoriously choppy waters obscured a more fundamental challenge that has plagued all plans, Biden’s included, to surge humanitarian assistance to suffering Gazans: Hamas’s determination to ensure such efforts fail.

Biden unveiled his initiative to aid Gaza by sea in his March State of the Union address. As Gaza has no port, Biden directed $320 million and two months of efforts by 1000 U.S. troops to build a temporary pier.

Less than two weeks after the pier became operational, large ocean surges common to the area broke it apart. Viral videos captured the flotsam washing ashore miles away in Israel.

That embarrassment diverted attention from the even tougher problem: only a fraction of the aid the pier briefly handled reached innocent Palestinians. Once loaded onto international aid agency trucks and sent forth into Gaza’s badlands, much of the supplies have been looted.

Hamas steals aid to supply its troops, fill its coffers, and maintain its political control. Recent reporting by one of Israel’s top journalists suggests the scale of the problem: Hamas may have earned $120 to $200 million taxing aid or selling it on the black market.

Gaza’s treacherous streets, like its treacherous waters, were known well in advance of Biden’s State of the Union address. The long pole in the humanitarian tent was never about ensuring that adequate amounts of aid entered Gaza but rather that aid was actually reaching needy Gazans. Without first answering the question of how supplies will be securely delivered, any effort to surge assistance will founder.

Many have proposed that the Palestinian Authority, friendly Arab countries, or an international coalition take control and secure aid shipments into Gaza. While in theory desirable, there’s one problem: no capable outside force seems ready to put its troops and prestige on the line for such a dangerous and politically charged mission. History also cautions that such coalitions, when formed, commonly suffer from inadequate contributions and crippling and shifting patchworks of donor-nation limitations on their troops’ activities, problems especially likely in Gaza.

Saddling Israeli or American forces with the primary tasks would inflame problems further. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority remains incapable of confronting Hamas and, absent significant revamping, unacceptable to Israel, whose cooperation would be essential.

As for troops from Arab states, the downside risks are enormous. Imagine the geopolitical implications of an errant Israeli attack on Hamas that kills troops from an Abraham Accords country deployed to secure an aid convoy. The prospect of jeopardizing the Accords—the greatest advance in regional peace in decades—would spur Hamas and its Iranian sponsors to even greater provocations.

In the months following October 7, we participated in a bipartisan task force of former U.S. officials that closely studied the challenges of addressing Gaza’s humanitarian crisis while working to defeat Hamas and get to a better “day after.” Starting in early January, we proposed an interim solution to top U.S., Israeli, Saudi, and UAE officials: the creation of a private, internationally-supported foundation, which we called the “Trust for Gaza Relief and Reconstruction.” Friendly states would help fund the foundation and select its leaders.

The approach was designed to give willing countries, including friendly Arab states, a way to deepen their engagement in addressing the urgent needs of innocent Palestinians without putting their own national prestige and militaries directly into the line of fire alongside Israeli troops.

The Trust would provide prominent roles for Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and the diaspora who seek a post-Hamas future. The Trust would be prepared to support a revamped Palestinian Authority once it proved capable of taking on greater responsibility in Gaza.

On the vital question of securing the Trust’s humanitarian operations, our approach was intensely practical. If there is a lack of sufficient Palestinian or international forces, the Trust could temporarily augment security by hiring private security companies (PSCs) with proven records of responsible operations under the supervision of Western armies.

After a disastrous incident involving PSCs in Iraq in 2007, U.S. military leaders imposed much stricter requirements on contractors—including tighter rules of engagement, extensive monitoring, and harsh consequences for wrongdoing. According to U.S. officials we interviewed who developed this more rigorous system of accountability, PSCs subsequently operated with significant success over years of stressful missions. These officials were confident that PSCs so supervised could responsibly secure convoys, guard humanitarian encampments, and protect VIPs in Gaza, especially as they would have the support of Israeli forces eager to help foil Hamas attacks.

The Trust would similarly retain experienced former flag officers to oversee PSC behavior and promptly discipline or fire transgressors. While no force is likely to perform perfectly in Gaza’s extremely challenging conditions, ignoring security entails even greater risks. Allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good jeopardizes both important humanitarian aid efforts and U.S. national security concerns.

Whether or not Biden’s pier has reached its final act, the saga only underscores the need for the administration and Congress to get serious about ensuring that humanitarian operations deliver success rather than empower Hamas and warm the reputed heart of the Ayatollah.

John Hannah, Randi & Charles Wax Senior Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, including as national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Lewis Libby, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, previously served as an Assistant to the President, Principal Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Director of Special Projects in the State Department. 

Hannah chaired and Libby was a member of the Gaza Futures Study Group.

Originally published in The National Interest.