Biden approves military airdrops of aid into Gaza

by Tommy Grant

WASHINGTON — The U.S. will begin airdropping emergency humanitarian assistance into Gaza, President Joe Biden said Friday, a day after more than 100 Palestinians were killed during a chaotic encounter with Israeli troops.

The president announced the move after at least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 others were injured, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, on Thursday when witnesses said Israeli troops opened fire as huge crowds raced to pull goods off an aid convoy.

Biden said the airdrops would begin soon and that the United States was looking into additional ways to facilitate getting badly needed aid into the war-battered territory to ease the suffering of Palestinians.

“In the coming days we’re going to join with our friends in Jordan and others who are providing airdrops of additional food and supplies” and will “seek to open up other avenues in, including possibly a marine corridor,” Biden said.

The president twice referred to airdrops to help Ukraine, but White House officials clarified that he was referring to Gaza.

Israel said many of the dead were trampled in a stampede linked to the chaos and that its troops fired at some in the crowd who they believed moved toward them in a threatening way. The Israeli government has said it is investigating the matter.

The head of a Gaza City hospital that treated some of those wounded said Friday that more than 80% had been struck by gunfire.

Biden made his announcement while hosting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the White House.

“Aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough,” Biden said. “Now, it’s nowhere nearly enough. Innocent lives are on the line and children’s lives are on the line. We won’t stand by until we get more aid in there. We should be getting hundreds of trucks in, not just several.”

The White House, State Department and Pentagon had been weighing the merits of U.S. military airdrops of assistance for several months, but had held off due to concerns that the method is inefficient, has no way of ensuring the aid gets to civilians in need and cannot make up for overland aid deliveries.

Administration officials said their preference was to further increase overland aid deliveries through the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border points and to try to get Israel to open the Erez Crossing into northern Gaza.

The incident on Thursday appeared to tip the balance and push Biden to approve airdrops. White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that airdrops are difficult operations, but the acute need for aid in Gaza informed the president’s decision.

He stressed that ground routes will continue to be used to get aid into Gaza, and that the airdrops are a supplemental effort.

“It’s not the kind of thing you want to do in a heartbeat. you want to think it through carefully,” Kirby said. He added, “There’s few military operations that are more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops”

Pressure has been mounting for Biden to move more aggressively to ease Palestinian suffering, including from lawmakers of Biden’s Democratic Party. Even before Thursday’s deaths, Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, wrote Biden this week to urge that the administration deploy a military hospital ship and support units to help treat Gaza’s wounded and open a sea route to Gaza for delivery of humanitarian aid.

“Yesterday’s event, I think, underscores the need to find more creative ways of getting assistance in faster and at greater scale,” Kirby said.

Egypt, France, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have already used airdrops to get aid into Gaza since the conflict started in October.

Biden in his visit with Meloni at the White House also sought to assure European leaders that the U.S. remains behind Ukraine even as he’s been unable to win passage of a supplemental foreign aid package that includes $60 billion for Ukraine in addition to $35 billion for Israel and Taiwan. The legislation has passed the Senate, but Republican Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to put it up for a vote in the House.

Ahead of Meloni’s visit, White House officials said they don’t have good answers for allies about finding an end to the impasse with House Republicans and reopening the American spigot of aid to Kyiv that’s badly needed as Ukraine tries to fend off Russia’s invasion.

Biden, along with top Democrats and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, strongly urged Johnson during a White House meeting this week to take up the foreign aid package, but Johnson responded by saying that Congress “must take care of America’s needs first.”

The leaders also discussed efforts by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar to broker an extended cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Italy’s priorities for a G7 presidency, migrant flows into Italy from North Africa, and their countries’ China policies.

Biden said earlier this week that he was optimistic that a cease-fire deal could be reached by early next week. But he acknowledged that a prospective deal may have been set back after Israeli troops on Thursday fired on a large crowd of Palestinians racing to pull food off the aid convoy.

With Meloni by his side, Biden on Friday expressed cautious optimism that a deal can still be struck.

“We’ve been working and hopefully we’ll know shortly,” Biden said.

Meloni said solving the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was Italy’s top priority.

“We need to coordinate our actions to avoid an escalation, and in this regard we fully support the U.S. mediation efforts,” she said.

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