Is President Biden’s pier plan for Gaza aid theater? 

Last month the U.S. military dispatched a flotilla of transports to fulfill President Biden’s commitment to establish a port for aid in Gaza. As they set sail, congressional leaders began expressing reservations about his plan. 

Congress and the American public are understandably concerned about the plight faced by the coastal strip’s 2 million residents. Trapped by the ongoing conflict, they are essentially hostages to Hamas’s desperate bid to hold onto power and avoid destruction by the Israeli military. However, Congress is also worried about the prospect of a looming debacle once the ships arrive. 

They are right to be. Even when aid makes it to Gaza, distribution workers face enormous risk due to the ongoing fighting and Palestinians’ desperation. Aid has also reportedly been stolen by Hamas, which is more interested in resupplying its fighters and profiting from the black market than feeding starving Palestinians in Gaza.

This should not surprise us. Despite governing Gaza for more than a decade and a half, Hamas has made it clear through their actions that they do not view the well-being of its civilians as their responsibility. They’ve even told us this explicitly. Increasingly, even Palestinians are starting to acknowledge this fact. Which makes it all the more surprising that this gets almost no mention from the administration or other world leaders clamoring for more aid. To hear them tell it, one would think that the only obstacle is simply delivering it to Gaza, after which all will be solved. But this ignores the “last mile” problem of how to get the aid to its intended recipients. Call it a fixation on “getting aid to Gaza” vs. actually aiding Palestinians in Gaza. 

This problem does not go away just because aid is delivered from the sea. If anything, it adds to the difficulty. As Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) pointed out, there seems to be no plan for how operations will be conducted — or who will even conduct them — once the pier is ready. Moreover, how will it be ensured that the aid is not simply handed over to Hamas, or stolen by them minutes after the recipients walk off? 

Coons also highlighted the elephant in the room — security. It is impossible to predict how the distribution effort will go. But it would be the height of negligence to assume that there is no risk of rioting, disorder or even deliberate attacks. And as we’ve seen in the Red Sea, ships make attractive targets.

We should also be prepared for Hamas to attempt to engineer a friendly fire incident between Israeli forces and aid distribution personnel. Baiting Israel into creating civilian casualties and negative news coverage by launching attacks from sensitive or heavily populated locations such as hospitals, UNRWA facilities and schools is core to Hamas’s strategy. And they excel at it, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve successfully convinced most of the world’s democracies to implicitly take their side by calling for a cease-fire.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. But they do entail accepting significant risk and necessitate planning for likely outcomes and responses. Unfortunately, the administration’s approach to the conflict has increasingly trended toward emphasizing short-term measures that please the progressive base, but ignore the consequences. Warning Israel not to attack Rafah. Pressing for a cease-fire. These may sound great, until you scratch one level deeper and realize that they all mean leaving Hamas as a viable force in Gaza. 

Vague assurances that there are plans for all of this are unconvincing, particularly given the administration’s track record. As he rushes into another complex military operation, Biden would do well to reflect on Kabul. His presidency began with a disastrous exit from Afghanistan. He should be wary of ending it with an equally tragic entry into Gaza.

As our ships and the troops on them make their way across the Atlantic, Biden needs to ensure that there are answers to the questions that Congress is raising. Palestinians in Gaza need aid that actually reaches them. Without a solution for distribution, this risks becoming a reckless PR stunt that ends up resupplying Hamas. Moreover, he is sending American forces into a chaotic and crowded battlefield. There must be a robust plan for what will happen when they get there. Because one thing is certain — Hamas will have one.

Dan Nidess served as a Marine officer from 2005 – 2012 with two deployments to Iraq. He has published several other articles on national security. 

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