A new sea route for Gaza aid is on track, USAID says. Treating starving children is a priority

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States expects to have on-the-ground arrangements in Gaza ready for humanitarian workers to start delivering food, treatment for starving children and other urgent assistance by early to mid-month when the American military expects to complete a floating pier for the aid, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development said.

But aid coming through the new U.S.-led maritime route still will serve only a fraction — half a million people — of those who need help in Gaza, the USAID official stressed to The Associated Press. They are some of the agency’s first comments on the status of preparations for the Biden administration’s $320 million Gaza pier project, for which USAID is helping coordinate on-the-ground security and distribution.

Meanwhile, at a factory in southern Georgia, USAID Administrator Samantha Power is due later Friday to announce a $200 million investment to ramp up U.S. production of emergency nutritional treatment for starving children under 5, as conflicts in Gaza, Sudan, Haiti and elsewhere drive up the need.

USAID made the official working on humanitarian operations in Gaza available for an interview ahead of Power’s announcement on the condition the official not be identified, citing security concerns given the person’s work in conflicts.

With the Israel-Hamas war stretching close to seven months and Israel restricting humanitarian aid, half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are at imminent risk of famine, international health officials say. Under pressure from the U.S. and others, Israeli officials in recent weeks have begun slowly reopening some border crossings for relief shipments.

Children under 5 are among the first to die when wars, droughts or other disasters curtail food. Hospital officials in northern Gaza reported the first deaths from hunger in early March and said most of the dead were children.

USAID is coordinating with the U.N. World Food Program, Israel and many others on security and distribution for the pier project, while U.S. military forces finish building it for the aid deliveries by ship. President Joe Biden, under pressure to do more to ease the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza as the U.S. provides military support for Israel, announced the pier project in early March.

U.S. Central Command said in a statement Friday that the offshore assembly of the floating pier has been temporarily paused due to high winds and sea swells, which caused unsafe conditions for the soldiers. The partially built pier and the military vessels involved have gone to the Port of Ashdod and will continue the work there.

A U.S. official said the high seas will delay the installation for several days, possibly until later next week. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operation details, said the pause could last longer if the bad weather continues because military personnel and divers have to get into the water to do some of the final installation.

The United Nations has been muted about its role in the aid deliveries.

“We want to see more land operations. This is a sea operation,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday. “We are working with them, but obviously we have certain parameters that need to be respected, notably the basic humanitarian principles that we have of independence and being free from all sorts of military.”

The struggles with the first aid delivery through a newly reopened land corridor into north Gaza on Wednesday underscored the uncertainty about security and the danger still facing relief workers. Israeli settlers blocked the convoy before it crossed, and then Hamas militants diverted a World Food Program truck inside Gaza before it made it to its destination.

Power was at a factory in Fitzgerald, Georgia, one of only two in the U.S. making a nutrient-packed paste. The ready-to-use therapeutic food, known as RUTF, is designed as a life-saving treatment to be given in a controlled clinical setting for starving children under 5.

In Gaza, the paste is most urgently needed in the northern part of the Palestinian territory. Civilians have been cut off from most aid supplies, bombarded by Israeli airstrikes and driven into hiding by fighting.

Acute malnutrition rates among children under 5 have surged from 1% before the war to 30% five months later, the USAID official said. The official called it the fastest such climb in hunger in recent history, more than in grave conflicts and food shortages in Somalia or South Sudan.

One of the few medical facilities still operating in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan hospital, is besieged by parents bringing in thousands of children with malnutrition for treatment, the official said. Aid officials believe many more starving children remain unseen and in need, with families unable to bring them through fighting and checkpoints for care.

Saving the gravely malnourished children in particular requires both greatly increased deliveries of aid and sustained calm in fighting, the official said, so that aid workers can set up treatment facilities around the territory and families can safely bring children in for the sustained treatment needed.

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