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Artillery Row

Doing something can be worse than doing nothing

The Gaza pier and the failings of a “do something” foreign policy

Winston Churchill once argued that “perfection is the enemy of progress” — a statement that certainly does not describe the US pier operation in Gaza. While the publicly stated goal of alleviating the humanitarian suffering of Palestinians trapped in the small coastal enclave is commendable, the reality is that the project was a failure before it broke apart. Rather than opt for additional band-aid fixes, the Biden administration should simplify its approach — namely by pressuring Israel to allow aid into Gaza from land crossings while providing relief workers real security guarantees.

The humanitarian situation has deteriorated in Gaza since Israel’s invasion following the Hamas attacks of October 7. An ongoing Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory — which the Israeli government hardened in October — has most of the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians in Gaza struggling to survive. According to the United Nations, 1.1 million Palestinians face catastrophic levels of food insecurity, or famine conditions, with another 1.7 million displaced.

Washington has pressured Israel to open more land crossings into Gaza, albeit sporadically. The Biden administration also began working with regional partners to conduct airdrops into the enclave. 

Both efforts proved to have serious limitations due to Israeli slow-rolling and the inefficiency of airdrops, leading Biden to announce plans to deploy the temporary pier operation. The administration stressed that no US troops would be on the ground in Gaza for the operation. It also argued the pier would cost roughly $180 million initially, with those costs increasing to $320 million over time.

Unfortunately, the pier project experienced issues from day one. While US officials argued it would take up to two months to complete, delays immediately plagued the operation. Poor weather slowed the effort in late March in the Atlantic and multiple times again in early May along the Gaza coast. Security incidents — including Palestinians rushing an initial aid convoy in desperation for food — plagued the pier for most of May. 

Judging from this series of events, the US should not have conducted this operation

Later that month, high winds and heavy seas damaged the pier, tearing pieces of it into the Mediterranean Sea. Efforts to recover the pieces resulted in four US ships grounding ashore — two in Israel and two in Gaza. Three US service members were injured, including one critically. The pier ultimately provided roughly 1,000 tons of aid to Gaza — a drop in the bucket with respect to need and part of a lower amount of aid reaching the enclave than before the pier was constructed.

Judging from this series of events, the US should not have conducted this operation. The effort put US troops in harm’s way by placing them within firing distance of Gaza, all in the name of unproven technology in one of the most unstable and dangerous places. Congress did not approve the decision — part of a long-running trend of the Hill capitulating more and more power to the executive.

UN agencies and leading humanitarian organisations have repeatedly argued that such efforts fail to address the level of widespread need in Gaza. Like airdrops, the pier operation and naval aid pathways are woefully inefficient and costly relative to ground operations. Airdrops are also extremely dangerous for all involved — including civilians. As such, humanitarians have increasingly called for land crossings to be opened and for aid to be allowed into the enclave alongside Israeli assurances of safety for their staff.

One can be excused for wondering why the Biden administration would not listen to the military and humanitarian experts in this case. Time and again, Washington chooses policies that are perceived as politically safe over logical options that consider humanitarian and security needs first. The pier operation epitomises this reality.

this was always a cosmetic fix designed to relieve pressure on both Israel and the United States

Ultimately, Israel is the main source of humanitarian suffering in Gaza today, according to the United Nations and humanitarian organisations. Its policy of inhibiting or slowing aid as much as possible is designed to pressure Hamas — something the US supports by running cover for its regional partner through politically motivated operations like the pier. No one should be fooled — this was always a cosmetic fix designed to relieve pressure on both Israel and the United States by showing that Washington is “doing something.”

Yet once again, a US administration is “doing something” for the sake of it when it either knows it cannot influence a situation or refuses to do so. This line of thinking produces foreign policy failure after unmitigated failure — as evidenced by the War on Terror and a long-running list of sanctions on US adversaries like Iran without a broader strategy in mind. It stems from a maddening belief that the US must be everywhere, doing everything, all the time.

This policy approach has failed, especially considering the simplest solution to the humanitarian situation in Gaza is to open more land crossings. Rafah is particularly important in this regard. US officials can still pressure Israel to cease its Rafah invasion and re-open this and the Kerem Shalom crossing to ensure the safe flow of aid through southern Gaza. Anything short of this — or beyond in the case of the pier — not only spells disaster for Palestinians but also basic conceptualisations of actual US credibility.

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