U.S. Army mariners construct a floating pier off the coast of Bowen, Australia, in July 2023. The pier is similar to one being constructed to move humanitarian aid into Gaza.

U.S. Army mariners construct a floating pier off the coast of Bowen, Australia, in July 2023. The pier is similar to one being constructed to move humanitarian aid into Gaza. (Ashunteia’ Smith/U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON — U.S. ships have begun constructing the initial stages of the temporary floating pier off Gaza’s coast, and defense officials expect it will be ready to flow aid into the war-torn Palestinian enclave by early May, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Thursday.

“I can confirm that U.S. military vessels, to include the USNS Benavidez, have begun to construct the initial stages of the temporary pier and causeway at sea,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.

He also confirmed there was a mortar attack in Gaza in the area where the pier will connect with the shore. But the strike, which happened Wednesday, caused “minimal damage.”

“This occurred before U.S. forces started moving anything. The incident in no way delays our efforts to establish the maritime port,” Ryder said.

The pier, known as Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore, or JLOTS, is meant to provide a new way to deliver badly needed aid into Gaza. The World Health Organization has warned some 2.3 million Gaza inhabitants face extreme hunger that could become a full-blown famine by next month as Israel continues its war against Hamas militants who launched a surprise assault in October from the enclave.

President Joe Biden first announced the JLOTS operation on March 7 during his State of the Union speech. One day later, Ryder said the temporary pier would be operational within about 60 days.

The operation is expected to include about 1,000 American troops.

The Army last month sent four ships from the 7th Transportation Brigade at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., toward the Mediterranean to spearhead the operation. The Navy, in addition to the Benavidez, deployed two more ships to help in the construction of the pier. One of those ships, the USNS 2nd Lt. John P. Bobo was forced to return to the United States last week after suffering an engine room fire.

A senior military official, who spoke Thursday to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the Air Force has airdropped more than 1 million meals into Gaza. Upon receiving orders to assist with the temporary pier, U.S. ships sailed from the East Coast within 36 hours.

The official explained the aid for Gaza will move into Cyprus by air or sea where it will be screened and prepared for delivery. Pallets will be loaded onto predominantly commercial vessels that will travel about 200 miles to a floating platform anchored miles off the coast of Gaza. This is part of the JLOTS system where pallets will be transferred from commercial vessels onto smaller Army ones. These vessels will transport the humanitarian assistance, including trucks, from the floating platform to the temporary pier fixed to the shore in Gaza.

Trucks will drive off the vessels and onto the causeway to drop off assistance in a secure area. The senior military official could not provide more specifics but said a third-party group would be driving the trucks, not the U.S. military.

“We believe we have developed a comprehensive integrated security plan with the Israeli Defense Forces to address force protection of American troops and everything is in place — the people, procedures, ships and coordination protocols. Our plan to deliver lifesaving aid from the sea is on track for delivery in early May,” the military official said.

The official added the U.S. is prepared to execute this mission for several months.

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement Thursday referred to the mortar attack as “unfortunate but predictable.”

“This has been an ill-conceived mission from the start. President Biden should never have put our men and women in this position, and he should abandon this project immediately before any U.S. troops are injured,” Wicker said.

The senior military official said the U.S. has “full confidence” in the plan developed with the Israelis in the last month. It is comprehensive and addresses all issues from the air, land and sea.

“We have rehearsed defensive and protective measures on multiple occasions and feel very competent in that,” the official said.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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