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George Petrolekas is a retired colonel and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and NATO and was an adviser to senior NATO commanders.

The humanitarian needs in Gaza right now are unprecedented in scale. Food is in short supply and clean water is virtually unobtainable. Most hospitals are unable to operate and more than 1.8 million displaced civilians are dealing with injuries and outbreaks of infectious disease. With the brutal conditions of the war, it’s been extremely difficult to distribute aid, set up shelters and provide medical aid, with refugees continually on the move to ever shrinking safe areas.

Yet just off the coast of south Gaza, there may be a potential solution. More attention needs to be given to the idea of using international naval vessels to provide aid relief and medical support. Delivering aid from ships to shore bypasses the border crossing at Rafah, which operates intermittently at best.

France has moved two amphibious ships to the region to provide humanitarian relief in Gaza. Amphibious ships like these were designed to have a humanitarian role alongside their military capabilities and can provide large amounts of aid rapidly. These ships carry multiple helicopters for transport for personnel and patients; hospitals, complete with diagnostic equipment, laboratories, ICUs and surgical suites, are inside them.

The French Mistral-class ships feature a 70-bed hospital that can be potentially expanded to more than 140 beds. I once travelled on one of these ships, which are designed to feed and house up to 900 people and do not need port facilities to unload. All amphibious ships have landing craft, which can be used to load cargo or people on shore. Each landing craft can carry up to 170,000 pounds of cargo to shore every hour.

Between France, Egypt, Italy, Spain and Turkey, there are 10 similar ships available. The U.S. Wasp-class ships are larger and more capable, with six surgical suites and a hospital with 64 beds, which could be expanded to 534 beds. The ship can feed and house 1,600 people. There are 12 landing craft on-board and a large number of helicopters; the U.S. has seven ships of this class.

The complement of people, helicopters and vehicles can be adjusted for different purposes. If fewer aircraft are needed, that space can be converted to carry people, or more cargo, or to expand hospital facilities. In Lebanon in 2006, a French Mistral conducting non-combatant evacuations was able to rescue 5,000 people at a time. Now, in one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has seen in decades, these capabilities lie largely unused.

The humanitarian horror in Gaza must end

As the recent ceasefire demonstrates, providing relief requires negotiations between all parties to permit a greater inflow of aid. The people in Gaza cannot wait for relief until the conflict is over; the immediate need for life-sustaining supplies and medical care in hygienic conditions is urgent.

If there is anywhere that might formally emerge as a real safe zone, it is a sliver of territory in Gaza just north of the Egyptian border along the Mediterranean Sea. It is an area that has seen little or no military activity and represents a possible foothold for international aid to flow unimpeded into Gaza.

IDF and government spokespeople refer to this area as the safest Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser Mark Regev has stated that Israel had set up a “humanitarian safe zone” in this area. He noted that some field hospitals existed there, observing that a French ship just offshore could provide humanitarian support. He added categorically, “this will be the safe area as there is no Hamas military infrastructure, so there’s no need for fighting there.”

If so, a localized truce can reduce threats to beach-landed aid, aiming to produce what militaries call a semipermissive environment. To achieve that requires an elusive combination of humanity, compliance with international laws by the combatants, and a willingness by the U.S. in particular to force the issue.

With growing consternation in the U.S. administration regarding civilian deaths, and American senators now suggesting that humanitarian conditions be attached to supplemental aid to Israel, the U.S. should demand rather than suggest a localized ceasefire for that southern sliver of beach to permit the flow of aid unimpeded.

In war, people die, but it is within our means to mitigate the effects of combat on civilians. Israel’s military aims and the world’s humanitarian concerns do not need to be mutually exclusive. To not act would be to permit an avoidable tragedy. We can do better.

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