Gaza aid airdrops start soon, Biden says

Delivery by sea also gets look after dozens left dead in scramble for food

President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2024, to travel to Camp David, Md., for the weekend. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2024, to travel to Camp David, Md., for the weekend. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)


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 over 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.

Thursday's deaths appeared to tip the balance and push Biden to approve airdrops. White House national security spokesperson 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, D-R.I., 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 of Louisiana 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 of Kentucky, 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 a cease-fire deal could be reached by Monday, before tempering his optimism after Thursday's deaths. But on Friday, Biden said he still held hope that a deal can be struck, possibly before Muslims around the globe begin observing the holy month of Ramadan that is expected to begin on March 10.

"I'm still hoping so," Biden told reporters on Friday evening before departing the White House for the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md. "We're still working real hard at it. We're not there yet."

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.

EU, U.N. MAKE DEAL

The European Union said Friday that it will pay $54 million to the main provider of aid in Gaza next week after the cash-strapped U.N. agency agreed to allow EU-appointed experts to audit the way it screens staff to identify extremists.

The UNRWA agency is reeling from allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff members participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel. The agency fired the employees, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for 2024.

The Israel-Hamas war has driven 80% of Gaza's population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and U.N. officials say a quarter of the population is starving. The agency is the main supplier of food, water and shelter, but it is also on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Commission had been due to disburse $89 million to UNRWA on Thursday, but wanted the agency to accept its terms for an audit. The EU's powerful executive branch is the third-biggest donor to UNRWA after the United States and Germany.

The commission said the agency has now "indicated that it stands ready to ensure that a review of its staff is carried out to confirm they did not participate in the attacks and that further controls are put in place to mitigate such risks in the future."

The commission said the funds will be dispatched next week once UNRWA has confirmed in writing that it accepts the EU's conditions. Two further tranches worth $17.3 million each will be given to UNRWA as it complies with their agreement.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini welcomed the EU's announcement and said that the commitment to provide money next week "comes at a critical time."

"The full disbursement of the EU contribution is key to the agency's ability to maintain its operations in a very volatile area," he tweeted.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of tolerating or even collaborating with Hamas activities in or around U.N. facilities, but no one -- in Israel or abroad -- has offered an alternative for delivering aid to Gaza's besieged population.

UNRWA took the unusual step of immediately firing its staffers based on Israel's allegations against them, but with no hard evidence being provided. Each year, UNRWA gives a list of its staff to the Israeli authorities for vetting, and the agency said it has received no complaints.

Two U.N. investigations into Israel's allegations against the agency are already underway.

Even as the commission was negotiating the terms of its audit, Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told EU lawmakers this week that "we have not received any evidence supporting the allegations by Israel that [UNRWA]'s staff were involved in the terrible events on 7 October."

"To our knowledge, none of the donors -- other donors -- have received any evidence," he added.

Belgian Development Minister Caroline Gennez, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, tweeted on Friday that UNRWA "is the only organization that can structurally get humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Defunding would mean a death sentence for tens of thousands."

The war's death toll since October stands at more than 30,000, according to health officials.

The Hamas attack into Israel that ignited the war killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and the militants seized around 250 hostages. Hamas and other militants are still holding around 100 hostages and the remains of about 30 more, after releasing most other captives during a November cease-fire.

Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller, Aamer Madhani, Matthew Lee, Lorne Cook, Colleen Barry, Seung Min Kim, Ellen Knickmeyer and Will Weissert of The Associated Press.

  photo  Palestinians line up for free food in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. An estimated 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the war took refuge in Rafahor, which is likely Israel's next focus in its war against Hamas.(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
 
 
  photo  White House national security communications adviser John Kirby speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
 
 
  photo  Palestinians walk through the destruction from the Israeli offensive in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Essa)
 
 
  photo  President Joe Biden meets Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
 
 
  photo  Israelis demonstrate to demand the release of the hostages from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, during a protest outside of the U.S. Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
 
 



Upcoming Events