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US-led Gaza humanitarian aid pier comes under fire, UN officials say

JERUSALEM — An under-construction pier for a U.S.-led project to bring aid into the Gaza Strip came under fire Wednesday, forcing U.N. officials to take shelter there, Israeli and U.N. officials said.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault, which the Israelis described as a mortar shell attack.

Authorities said that no one was wounded.

The attack marks a shaky start to the construction of the pier, a project that the U.S. is spearheading to surge humanitarian aid into Gaza. A Hamas official told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the militant group will resist any foreign military presence involved with the port project.

While satellite photos show major port construction along the shore near Gaza City, aid groups are making it clear that they have broad concerns about their safety and reservations about how Israeli forces will handle security.

Sonali Korde, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, said key agreements for security and handling the aid deliveries are still being negotiated. Those include how Israeli forces will operate in Gaza to ensure that aid workers are not harmed.

“We need to see steps implemented. And the humanitarian community and IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) continue to talk and engage and iterate and improve the system so that everyone feels safe and secure in this very difficult operating environment,” Korde said.

Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that U.S. military vessels stationed offshore have begun to construct the temporary pier and causeway at sea. He said the attack at the port “in no way delays” the ongoing mission and said aid deliveries could be up and running by early May.

Aid groups have been shaken by the deaths of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in an Israeli airstrike on April 1 as they traveled in clearly marked vehicles on a delivery mission authorized by Israel. The killings have hardened sentiment among some aid groups that the international community should focus instead on pushing Israel to ease obstacles to the delivery of aid on land routes by truck.

The World Central Kitchen staff, who were honored at a memorial service Thursday in Washington, are among more than 200 humanitarian workers killed in Gaza, a toll the U.N. says is three times higher than any previous number for aid workers in a single year of any war.

Development of the port and pier comes as Israel faces widespread international criticism over the slow trickle of aid into the Palestinian territory, where the United Nations says at least a quarter of the population sits on the brink of starvation.

The construction of the new port in the Gaza Strip appears to have been moving quickly over the last two weeks, according to satellite images analyzed Thursday by The Associated Press. The port sits just southwest of Gaza City, a bit north of a road bisecting Gaza that the Israeli military built during the fighting.

The area once was the territory’s most-populous region, before the Israeli ground offensive rolled through, pushing over 1 million people south toward the town of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

A U.N. official said the port will likely have three zones — one controlled by the Israelis where aid from the pier is dropped off, another where the aid will be transferred, and a third where Palestinian drivers contracted by the U.N. will wait to pick up the aid before bringing it to distribution points.

Offshore, U.S. Navy and Army vessels have started the construction of the large pier or floating platform that will sit a couple miles out. And they will also build the wide causeway that will eventually be anchored to the shoreline, where workers will unload and distribute the aid.

But it reflected ongoing threats from Hamas, which has said it would reject the presence of any non-Palestinians in Gaza. High-ranking Hamas political official Khalil al-Hayya said the group would consider Israeli forces — or forces from any other country — stationed by the pier to guard it as “an occupying force and aggression,” and that they would resist it.

The U.N.’s World Food Program has agreed to lead the aid delivery effort.

Carl Skau, WFP’s deputy executive director, said Thursday that it’s “necessary for us to be able to operate, reach communities, have access to needs, and to do so in a safe and secure way.” Speaking at the U.N., he also said the port mission must be just one part of a broader Israeli effort to improve sustainable, land-based deliveries of aid to avert a famine.

But, he noted, “let’s be honest, when you’re operating a humanitarian operation in a combat zone, security is pretty high on the list.”

The U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes deliberations, said several sticking points remain around how the Israelis would handle the port’s security. The military is reportedly seeking to install remote-controlled gun positions, which the U.N. opposes, said the official, although it was not clear what weapons were being described.

In a statement Thursday, the IDF said it “will act to provide security and logistical support for the initiative,” including the construction of the dock and the transfer of aid from the sea to the Gaza Strip.

A top Cyprus government official, who spoke to the AP on the customary condition of anonymity, said the pier “will be ready by (end of) next week and we will begin (aid shipments) again.” The official didn’t specify when exactly shipments will begin.

The port will provide critical extra aid as getting more supplies into Gaza through land crossings has proven challenging, with long backups of trucks awaiting Israeli inspections. Past efforts to get land in by sea faltered after the World Central Kitchen attack.

Countries have even tried airdropping aid from the sky — a tactic that aid groups say is a last-ditch resort because it can’t deliver aid in large quantities and also has led to deaths.

Baldor reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.

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