Satellite photos show new port construction in Gaza Strip for US-led aid operation

JERUSALEM (AP) — The building of a new port in the Gaza Strip ahead of a U.S. military-led operation to bring more desperately needed food and other aid into the besieged enclave as Israel’s war on Hamas grinds on is well underway, according to satellite images analyzed Thursday by The Associated Press.

The construction appears to have been moving quickly over the last two weeks, judging from the images, and some officials say the port could become ready as early as a week from now.

The port sits just southwest of Gaza City, which once was the territory’s most-populous area before the Israeli ground offensive rolled through, pushing over 1 million people south toward the town of Rafah on the Egyptian border. Its construction comes as Israel faces widespread international criticism over the slow trickle of aid into the area, where the United Nations says at least a quarter of the population sits on the brink of starvation.

However, the site has already been targeted by a militant mortar attack, according to the Israeli military. An official from the Hamas militant group that has run Gaza since 2007 has warned that any foreign military presence at the pier would be target for attack — potentially complicating the aid efforts even further.

The satellite pictures, taken by Planet Labs PBC, show that heavy construction at the site started over two weeks ago. The area sits just north of a road bisecting Gaza that the Israeli military built during the fighting.

A U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations, said the port “is directly at the end of the new road the IDF has put in place.” The official used an acronym for the Israeli military.

Heavy trucks and machinery could be seen in an image taken a week ago by Planet Labs, with the cleared area appearing even larger in an image taken Wednesday. A dirt berm separates the area from nearby buildings. Other details correspond to an on-the-ground image of the aid pier seen by the AP.

The port will likely have three zones — one controlled by the Israelis where aid from the pier is dropped off, another where the aid will be transferred, and a third where Palestinian drivers contracted by the U.N. will wait to pick up the aid before bringing it to distribution points, the U.N. official said.

Still, the official said several sticking points remain around how the Israelis would handle the port’s security. The military is reportedly seeking to install remote-controlled gun positions, which the U.N. opposes.

Israeli officials have told the AP that Israel will play a part in security of the pier and moving some of the aid from the pier ashore, though the extent of the planned Israeli involvement remains unclear. Multiple Israeli government agencies did not respond to requests to comment about the port.

A top Cyprus government official, who spoke to the AP on the customary condition of anonymity, said the pier “will be ready by (end of) next week and we will begin (aid shipments) again.” The official didn’t specify when exactly shipments will begin.

Navy officials confirmed to the AP what vessel tracking sites show: the USNS Benavidez, the American cargo ship that is carrying a lot of the larger equipment to build the pier, is now off the Gaza coast. Other army ships are either there or moving toward that area.

Concerns still loom large — the pier was attacked Wednesday, the U.N. official said, as four high-ranking U.N. officials were visiting the site. The military said the mortar fire from Gaza militants forced the officials to take shelter, but no one was killed or harmed.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault.

However, high-ranking Hamas political official Khalil al-Hayya has said the group would consider Israeli forces — or forces from any other country — stationed by the pier to guard it as “an occupying force and aggression.”

The port could be a game-changer as ramping up aid into Gaza through land crossings has proven challenging, with long backups of trucks awaiting Israeli inspections. Past efforts to get land in by sea faltered after an attack on a World Central Kitchen convoy carrying aid from a port to a warehouse in central Gaza left seven aid workers dead.

Countries have even tried airdropping aid from the sky — a tactic which aid groups say is a last-ditch resort because it can’t deliver aid in large quantities and also has led to deaths.


Associated Press writers Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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