How Biden's port in Gaza will outsource Israel's occupation

How Biden's port in Gaza will help Israel outsource its occupation
6 min read

Emad Moussa

18 March, 2024
Behind the humanitarian facade, Biden's port plan is about appeasing voters while helping Israel occupy and forcibly displace Gaza, writes Emad Moussa.
Palestinians fear that behind Biden's humanitarian concerns is a plan to facilitate the forced expulsion of Gaza by sea, writes Emad Moussa. [Getty]

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Biden announced that the US military will install a temporary port off Gaza’s shore to deliver large shipments of humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave’s 2.2 million people, as Israel continues to block aid.

He promised there would be no boots on the ground in Gaza, adding that Israel, “must also do its part.”

After 164 days of Israel’s relentless war on Gaza, which has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, the UN warned of an unfolding famine, especially in the north, where people have turned to animal feed to survive. More than half a million Gazans are facing starvation, and at least 27 people have already died of hunger.

US officials hinted that Biden’s decision had come out of frustration with Netanyahu’s intransigence, amid the White House’s failure to pressure Israel into allowing aid to enter Gaza by land, mainly via the Rafah Crossing with Egypt.

“We are not waiting on the Israelis. This is a moment for American leadership. And we are building a coalition of countries to address this urgent need,” a White House senior official stated.

Israel did not oppose the plan. But reports have emerged revealing that Biden may well be implementing a plan by Netanyahu, not in spite of him.

Two weeks into the Gaza onslaught, Netanyahu discussed with Biden delivering aid to Gaza via a maritime route, provided Israel can inspect the shipments in Cyprus. The Israeli plan was brought up again in late January in a phone call between the two leaders.

What adds to the air of suspicion is that the maritime route seems like a revival of a 2017 plan by Yisrael Katz, now Israel’s Foreign Minister, to establish a seaport island off the Gaza coast to move goods in and out.

Advertised as a way for Israel to sever ties with Gaza, the plan still preserved Israeli control over the Strip’s flow of goods.

Gazans remain sceptical. They are not positive that the port and sea corridor for aid, if at all useful, would be installed in time to curb the tightening famine.

Building the port will take 60 days. With Israel continuing to block aid into mostly northern Gaza, this means no immediate relief for the starving people there. The situation is particularly dire for the few remaining hospitals that escaped the Israeli bombing, where children are dying of malnutrition.

The location of the port remains unknown. Gaza City already has a fishing port, and a smaller jetty also exists in the sea near Khan Younis in the south. The suitable locations are limited. And because Israel has now severed northern Gaza from the south, the distribution of aid will be completely at its mercy.

Even when fully operational, the port may still lack the capacity to deliver sufficient quantities of aid equal to those normally transited by land via the Rafah Crossing with Egypt and Kerem Shalom with Israel. The UN aid coordinator Sigrid Kaag emphasised that aid delivered by air or sea are “not a substitute for land.”

Another question persists: Once delivered, how will the aid be distributed?

Israel’s army has regularly opened fire on aid-seekers who ventured outside the besieged Gaza City, massacring hundreds.

Israel has been targeting Gaza’s police force and waging war on aid agencies, especially UNRWA. This has resulted in a security vacuum and crippled most efforts to get the already minimalistic aid to those most in need.

To bypass international organisations, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the Israeli government reportedly floated the idea of dividing Gaza into areas governed by clans, who would be responsible for distributing the aid.

Gaza’s clans swiftly rejected the Israeli plan, emphasising they were not an alternative government nor were they willing to cooperate with the occupying force.

Israel tried to implement this antiquated clan-based self-rule first with the establishment of a so-called Palestinian Village Leagues in 1978 in the West Bank and, again, during the First Intifada in 1987 in the Gaza Strip.

Tel Aviv wanted to hand over the Palestinian civil affairs to local clan chieftains, occasionally thugs, and provide them with funds and weapons. The goal was to outsource the occupation and diffuse the growing PLO support amongst the population. The plan was unsuccessful.

Even then, the scepticism goes beyond logistics. Palestinians are expectedly distrustful of the US, with the general feeling that the port is more about Biden’s self-interest and less about Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.

The US President is running for re-election in November and the port is an attempt to pacify the growing anger within his Democratic Party over his unrelenting support for Israel, particularly given the success of the ‘abandon Biden’ movement in primary elections.

This also comes amid reports of a widening rift between Biden and Netanyahu. US officials spoke of a possible shift in policy that could include putting conditions on military aid if Israel launches an offensive on Rafah in southern Gaza.

Many Palestinians would shrug off their shoulders at such reports. Neither the Biden-Netanyahu kerfuffles nor the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s warning to Netanyahu will change the US decades-long support of Israel.

The reality is that a humanitarian maritime route could lessen the Gaza crisis, but it will also help compensate for Israel’s two failed war objectives: destroying Hamas and the mass expulsions of Palestinians to Egypt. It is to save Israel from a looming strategic defeat.

Hamas is currently showing no signs of collapse. US intel stated that Israel may have degraded Hamas’ capabilities, but it is nowhere near defeating the group. A similar conclusion is slowly being reached within the Israeli security apparatus, despite what Netanyahu says about destroying Hamas.

The alternative to the unattainable destruction of Hamas now is to weaken it by making its rule of the Strip irrelevant. One way to do it is by finding and consolidating a third party who can distribute the aid from the sea, and then slowly establish it as a de facto law-enforcement entity.

Still, this is not Palestinians’ core concern.

What Palestinians fear most is that the temporary port will be turned into Gaza’s permanent and only outlet to the outside world. It will be made particularly critical if Israel invades Rafah and occupies the Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt, thus eliminating the role of the Rafah Crossing - its only gate to the world.

When Israel’s war ends, displaced Gazans who survive will be faced with a bleak choice: either return to their homes turned to rubble and uninhabitable communities to wait for reconstruction that may take years, or give in to possible US-Israeli incentives to encourage them to leave.

That is, the forced expulsion that Israel has failed to achieve via military means may be partly achieved by severely reducing Palestinians’ options of survival in post-war Gaza, so many of them will seek to leave voluntarily.

The US will have facilitated Israel ethnic cleansing of Gaza by sea.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.