Capping a tumultuous week around the war in Gaza, President Biden proposed a new ceasefire Friday between Israel and Hamas while U.S. officials confirmed that the U.S. Army-built cargo pier on the Gaza beach will need another week of repairs after breaking apart in bad weather.

And as stories circulated of U.S. soldiers drifting onto beaches as the pier broke up, a video of a Jewish American soldier praying with an Israeli soldier illustrated the fine line that U.S. troops deployed to the area literally have to walk each day.  

Ceasefire talks

On Friday, President Biden announced a ceasefire proposal with three stages, each lasting about 42 days. The proposal was accepted by Israel and is being reviewed by Hamas, a senior U.S. official told reporters in a briefing following Biden’s remarks.

The first phase would last for six weeks with a “full and complete” ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from populated areas of Gaza, the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and the return of hostage remains. Palestinian civilians would also be able to return to their homes and there would be a “surge” of humanitarian aid to 600 trucks into the Gaza strip each day.

“I’ll be straight with you – there are a number of details to negotiate to move from phase one to phase two,” Biden said. “But the proposal says if the negotiations take longer than six weeks from phase one, the ceasefire will still continue as long as negotiations continue.”

Phase two would include the release of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers; Israeli forces withdrawing from Gaza; and “a cessation of hostilities permanently.” 

Phase three would include a major reconstruction plan for Gaza and the return of any final remains of dead hostages. 

“I think the reason the Israelis are able to make this offer is because of some of the success they’ve had in degrading Hamas military capacity. I don’t think this offer would have been possible three months ago,” the U.S. official said.

U.S. pier out of service

The announcement comes days after the U.S.-directed Gaza pier project – a signal of U.S. support to the Palestinian civilians affected by the gruesome conflict – hit a roadblock. Pentagon officials announced Tuesday that the Joint Logistics Over The Shore system – consisting of the trident pier and Army vessels broke apart during unexpected weather and heavy sea states. As a result, aid deliveries have been suspended while the U.S. military works to unbeach vessels that floated away and repair broken pieces of the JLOTS system.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, nearly 8,800 metric tons of humanitarian assistance is positioned in Cyprus, awaiting shipment to Gaza as the pier is repaired. The first shipments of U.S. aid arrived in Gaza through JLOTS pier May 17. Pentagon officials said JLOTS repairs will take over a week.

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The stated intention of the pier, according to U.S. officials, is intended to increase aid deliveries to Gaza. But some experts have criticized the use of the American military to fix a problem that requires more carrots than sticks. 

Brian Finucane, a senior adviser for the Crisis Group, and former State Department official specializing in legal and policy issues for U.S. military operations said he views the pier’s purpose for “domestic political consumption” rather than foreign policy objectives. 

“The administration wanted to try to square the circle by showing that it was doing something to address the terrible humanitarian situation in Gaza but without actually involving U.S. troops in another war,” Finucane said.

On the ground, walking a fine line

Also this week, a video circulating on social media shows the fine line U.S. troops are walking to complete their military mission on the pier while keeping the promises made by American diplomats of no U.S. ‘boots on the ground’ in Gaza.

The video circulating on social media shows an Israeli soldier directing an American soldier in a Jewish prayer aboard the makeshift pier on a Gaza beach earlier this month to deliver humanitarian relief to the territory. The Pentagon confirmed that the soldier shown in the video was aboard the U.S. military’s trident pier which was installed on the beach of Gaza until it broke apart earlier this week.

The video’s caption says, “A Chabad soldier met a Jewish American soldier in Gaza (working with the floating pier), so naturally he put tefillim on him.” 

The video shows the two soldiers cheerfully praying with tefillin, a religious ritual involving black leather boxes containing parchment scrolls with Torah inscriptions and leather straps coiled around the arm. The boxes are worn on the bicep and head to symbolize the connection of the religious text to the heart and head.

But while the soldier is standing on a section of ramp that appears firmly seated on the beach — in other words, on Gaza soil — U.S. told Task & Purpose that the soldier was not in violation of any promise to keep U.S. troops out of Gaza.

“Our Soldiers are permitted to operate on the pier—they are functionally operating U.S. equipment (i.e.-the pier itself). This is not considered ‘boots on the ground’ in Gaza,” Col. Christian Devine, spokesperson for the Pentagon told Task & Purpose.

U.S. officials have vehemently backed the notion that U.S. troops would not be involved in distributing aid on the ground to Gazans but instead the “logistics, setting up, coordinating” of aid to the region.

Finucane said that the mere presence of U.S. soldiers anywhere near active combat opens up an array of legal issues.

“Whether the soldiers boots are touching the actual sand, touching the metal pier between the boots and the sand or 10 feet offshore, this doesn’t really matter all that much for the actual legal issues involved in introducing U.S. troops and what is still a war zone,” Finucane said. 

American troops in the Army vessels or on the trident pier could still be at risk “even if U.S. troops aren’t the target,” Finucane said. He also noted that since U.S. armed forces have been “introduced into hostilities” the War Powers resolution could be “triggered,” meaning President Biden would need authorization from Congress to keep troops there or withdraw them after 60 days.

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