WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will announce Thursday that he is directing the U.S. military to help set up a temporary port off the Gaza coast to establish a sea route for food and other direly needed aid for Palestinian civilians trapped in the Israel-Hamas war, senior U.S. administration officials said.

The announcement signals further deepening U.S. involvement in the war and the escalating conflicts and tensions in the region. The move also shows the Biden administration resorting to a highly unusual workaround to deliver aid to Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians, in the face of restrictions that U.S. ally Israel has placed on overland aid deliveries.

Meanwhile, hopes for reaching a cease-fire before the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in the coming days, stalled Thursday when Hamas said its delegation had left Cairo, where talks were being held. The outline for the cease-fire would have including a wide infusion of aid into Gaza.

A widening humanitarian crisis across Gaza during five months of war and tight Israeli control of land borders has forced many people to scramble for food to survive and begun leading to deaths from malnutrition. In a meeting on the aid delivery crisis with Israel’s ambassador Michael Herzog, the U.S. international development director, Samantha Power, warned that blockaded Gaza “faced a real risk of famine,” her office said Thursday.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview Biden’s announcement before his State of the Union speech, said the planned operation will not require American troops on the ground to build the pier that is intended to allow more shipments of food, medicine and other essential items from a port in the Mediterranean island country of Cyprus. They gave few other details, including on how many U.S. troops would take part.

One of the U.S. officials noted that the U.S. military has “unique capabilities” and can do things from “just offshore.” They said it would likely take weeks before the pier was operational.

One of the options under consideration is for the military to provide a floating pier called a JLOTS, or Joint Logistics-Over-the-Shore, one U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss the options before a decision has been made. The large floating pier allows supplies to be delivered without having a fixed port in place, alleviating the need to have troops on a dock on shore. Ships can sail to the pier, which is secured by anchors, and dock there.

Aid moving into the pier would likely be by commercial ship or contracted vessel, the official said.

Defense Department spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Thursday that U.S. officials and international partners were looking at options for the sea route, including using commercial companies and contractors.

Officials from the U.S., Europe, Israel and the Middle East have already been deep in discussions and preparations on the possibility of opening a maritime sea route for months.

Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides in November offered use of his country’s port in Larnaca for aid deliveries to the Palestinian enclave, a 230-mile (370-kilometer) journey from Cyprus.

European Union Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen planned to visit Larnaca on Friday to inspect installations.

Cyprus early on invited authorities from Israel, the U.S. and other European countries to join Cypriot agents in vetting all shipments so nothing could be used by Hamas against Israel.

Aid groups have said their efforts to deliver desperately needed supplies to Gaza have been badly hampered because of the difficulty of coordinating with the Israeli military, the ongoing hostilities and the breakdown of public order. It is even more difficult to get aid to the isolated north.

The Biden administration’s latest move provides one more layer to the extraordinary dynamic that’s emerged as the United States has had to go around Israel, its main Mideast ally, and find ways to get aid into Gaza, including through airdrops that started last week.

Biden has been a vital partner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military offensive following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. That includes providing vital arms to Israel and fending off efforts to censure Israel for the soaring deaths among Gaza civilians. But administration officials have grown increasingly frustrated at Netanyahu for seeming to shrug off much of the U.S. pressure for Israel to do more to reduce civilian deaths and to allow in humanitarian aid.

“This is an expensive, inefficient workaround to a problem that has other ready solutions,” Brian Finucane, a former State Department official now with the International Crisis Group, said of the U.S. announcement on a temporary port and wartime sea route.

“It’s another symptom of the pathology of the overall approach to the war in Gaza … which is that the Biden administration is unwilling to use U.S. leverage either unilaterally or multilaterally” to try to influence conduct of the war by Netanyahu, Finucane said.

Pressure on the Biden administration surged last week after Gaza health officials reported more than 100 people killed at an attempted aid delivery to the isolated north. Israel said its forces fired warning shots when the crowd began moving toward them. Witnesses and medical workers told The Associated Press that most of those injured were shot when Israeli forces fired into the crowds of hungry people.

International mediators had hoped to alleviate some of the immediate crisis with a six-week cease-fire, which would have seen Hamas release some of the Israeli hostages it is holding, Israel release some Palestinian prisoners and aid groups be given access to to get a major influx of assistance into Gaza.

Palestinian militants are believed to be holding around 100 hostages and the remains of 30 others captured during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Egyptian officials said Hamas has agreed to the main terms of such an agreement as a first stage but wants commitments that it will lead to an eventual more permanent cease-fire. They say Israel wants to confine the negotiations to the more limited agreement.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with media. Both officials said mediators are still pressing the two parties to soften their positions.

Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said Israel “refuses to commit to and give guarantees regarding the cease-fire, the return of the displaced, and withdrawal from the areas of its incursion.” But he said the talks were still ongoing and would resume next week. There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Mediators had looked to Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Sunday, as an informal deadline for a deal because the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting often sees Israeli-Palestinian violence linked to access to a major Jerusalem holy site. The war already has the wider region on edge, with Iran-backed groups trading fire with Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu has publicly ruled out Hamas’ demands for an end to the war, saying Israel intends to resume the offensive after any cease-fire, expand it to the crowded southern city of Rafah and battle on until “total victory.” He has said military pressure will help bring about the release of the hostages.

Israel launched a massive air, land and sea campaign in Gaza that has driven some 80% of the population from their homes.

Gaza’s Health Ministry says at least 30,717 Palestinians have been killed. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its tallies but says women and children make up two-thirds of those killed. The ministry, which is part of the Hamas-run government, maintains detailed records and its casualty figures from previous wars have largely matched those of the U.N. and independent experts.

Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is particularly dire in the north, where many of the estimated 300,000 people still living there have been reduced to eating animal fodder to survive. The U.N. says one in six children younger than 2 in the north suffers from acute malnutrition.

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Sewell reported from Beirut and Magdy from Cairo. Copp, Madhani and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington.

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Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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