US Army Colonel Sam Miller, Commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade
US Army Colonel Sam Miller, Commander of the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) speaks to members of the press near four US Army ships before they depart to Gaza from the Joint Base Langley-Eustis during a media preview of the 7th Transportation Brigade deployment in Hampton, Virginia, on March 12, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Joint Base Langley-Eustis: Four US Army vessels departed a base in Virginia on Tuesday carrying about 100 soldiers and equipment needed to build a temporary port on Gaza's coast for urgently needed aid deliveries.

The first - a hulking gray-painted watercraft known as a Logistics Support Vessel - slowly churned away from the pier at Joint Base Langley-Eustis as "The Imperial March" from "Star Wars" played over its loudspeaker system.

It was followed by three smaller vessels that will also make the roughly 30-day trip to the eastern Mediterranean for the port mission - part of US efforts to boost assistance for Gaza as Israel delays deliveries of aid by ground.

The new facility - which will consist of an offshore platform for transshipment of aid from larger to smaller vessels and a pier to bring it ashore - is expected to be up and running "at the 60-day mark," US Army Brigadier General Brad Hinson told journalists.

"Once we get fully mission-capable, we will be able to push up to two million meals, or two million bottles of water, ashore each day," he said.

US officials have said the effort will not involve "boots on the ground" in Gaza, but American troops will come close to the beleaguered coastal territory as they construct the pier, which has to be anchored to the shore.

No ceasefire yet

"I'm not going to go into the specifics of who we're working with in order to anchor the pier, but we will have some assistance," said Hinson, who also declined to discuss security measures.

Asked if the planned deployment will still take place in the absence of a ceasefire in Gaza - which Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas have yet to agree to - Hinson said: "We have every intent to set this capability up over the next 60 days."

However, a senior US administration official cautioned last week that a ceasefire is needed "to really address the urgent needs of the civilian population in Gaza and to enable humanitarian partners to safely distribute life-saving aid throughout Gaza at the scale that is needed."

A total of some 500 troops from the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) will take part in the operation, Hinson said, describing it as "the premier watercraft unit in our Army."

"They can provide sustainment support over the water in austere environments. They are trained to do this, and they've gone on many exercises to be ready to provide this capability," he said.

Gaza in crisis

The amount of aid brought into Gaza by truck has plummeted during five months of war, and Gazans are facing dire shortages of food, water and medicine.

The United States has carried out a series of airdrops to deliver aid this month, but the number of people in need of assistance in Gaza is much greater than can be fed by drops alone.

US President Joe Biden announced the plan for the temporary port during his State of the Union address last week, in which he pleaded with Israel to let more assistance into the blockaded territory even as he defended its right to strike back at Hamas.

Another Logistics Support Vessel has already departed, leaving "less than 36 hours after President Biden announced the US would provide humanitarian assistance to Gaza by sea," the US Central Command said over the weekend.