Reporters get rare glimpse of the U.S. military's troubled pier system in Gaza

OFF THE COAST OF GAZA — The wooden pallets sit idle under a scorching sun – packages of rice, flour and other basic essentials going unused as Palestinians face a looming famine.

The items were delivered to the bombed-out Gaza coastline via an American-built pier system. But for more than two weeks, the aid has remained on the beach because the fighting between Israel and Hamas has made it too dangerous for the U.N. groups delivering it.

NBC News was among a group of journalists granted access to the pier for the first time. It's tight quarters and tough conditions for the troops working on it. Even mild waves throw around the service members as the jigsaw-like pieces of the pier smash into one another, making a loud, creaking noise.

President Joe Biden announced the fixed pier and floating dock system in his State of the Union address in early March. Completed in mid-May, it was a central piece in a makeshift effort to feed the starving population in Gaza, where Israel’s military assault has intermittently shut off crossings that are crucial for supplies of food, fuel and other aid.

But since its completion, it has been beset by bad weather and rough seas, forcing repairs and delaying the delivery of aid. The pier was operational for only a week before heavy winds and large waves broke a large section of the causeway apart on May 25.

"There's constant challenges, and those can run the gamut," said Army Col. Samuel Miller.

Before and after pictures of damage to Trident pier in Gaza (Maxar)
Before and after pictures of damage to Trident pier in Gaza (Maxar)

The U.S. military has delivered aid via the $220 million pier system on only 17 of the last 40 days. That amounts to nearly 14 million pounds of food, officials said, but the vast majority has not left the beach.

For Palestinians like the 25-member Asila family, food remains scarce.

“We live in a tent and eat canned food, and our children stand in line to get water," said Safiya Hamdan Asila. "The aid is not always available."

Even when the seas are calm, the transfer of aid from water to land presents a logistical challenge. In the nearby country of Cyprus, the supplies are loaded onto U.S. military ships and ferried to the floating dock offshore. Then they are transferred to the fixed pier, where they are placed into trucks and driven across a U.S.-constructed causeway to the beach.

A U.S. Army soldier gestures as trucks loaded with humanitarian aid arrive at the U.S.-built floating pier Trident before reaching the beach on the coast of the Gaza Strip, Tuesday, June 25, 2024.  (Leo Correa / AP)
A U.S. Army soldier gestures as trucks loaded with humanitarian aid arrive at the U.S.-built floating pier Trident before reaching the beach on the coast of the Gaza Strip, Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (Leo Correa / AP)

Even when aid trucks have been able to pick up the packages of food, they have sometimes run into problems. Some aid has failed to reach its intended destinations as civilians desperate for food stormed and ransacked the trucks.

While Gaza remains an active combat zone, the pier has not been targeted.

"We have learned so much from this mission," Miller said. "This has never been done before. We’re right up against the combat zone, technically in a combat zone."

“The soldiers are proud to do this,” he said. “They feel like they have purpose and meaning out here on the water, moving humanitarian assistance for the people of Gaza.”

Army Sgt. Ibrahim Barry is among the 1,100 troops involved in the effort. He said he drew personal satisfaction from being a part of an effort to feed people in crisis, especially in the month of Ramadan.

“Being able to deliver that aid definitely helps me and also gives me that feeling like I am helping those in need,” said Barry, who is Muslim.

It remains unclear how much longer the pier can operate in Gaza, but it will most likely have to be dismantled in the next month or so, according to U.S. officials.

There are potential options to replace it.

The U.S. is working on plans to deliver humanitarian aid through the Israeli port at Ashdod. And Fogbow, a private company made up of retired U.S. military and U.N. officials, says it can replace the temporary pier system with a more stable and reliable one in just a few weeks.

Fogbow's plan, which it calls Blue Beach, relies on a movable pier that anchors into the beach in Gaza and has a crane attached to lift the aid directly onto the beach, negating the need for trucks.

“The maritime corridor is a vital component in alleviating suffering,” said Mick Mulroy, vice president of Fogbow. “While aid can certainly arrive via Ashdod and then be trucked to Gaza, doing so presents additional challenges, as we have already seen. This route underscores the need for continued access to multiple land and maritime channels.”

Once it is operational, Blue Beach could deliver up to 9,000 pallets of aid per week. The plan would be funded by donations, largely from the Maritime Humanitarian Aid Foundation, which is run by Cameron Hume, a former U.S. ambassador to several countries.

White House officials and members of the Israeli government have been briefed on the plan, but officials said they have not made any plans to use it.

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