UPDATE 4-US carries out first airdrop of aid into Gaza

(Adds details from U.S. officials in paragraphs 5-6, 13-14)

By Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON, March 2 (Reuters) - The U.S. military on Saturday carried out its first airdrop of aid into Gaza, after the deaths of Palestinians queuing for food underlined the growing humanitarian catastrophe in the crowded coastal enclave after months of Israeli military operations.

Other countries including Jordan and France have already conducted airdrops of aid into Gaza, where the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says a quarter of the population - 576,000 people - are one step from famine.

The U.S. airdrop used C-130 transport aircraft which dropped more than 38,000 meals along Gaza's Mediterranean coastline, the U.S. military said in a statement. Jordanian forces also took part in the operation.

"We are conducting planning for potential follow-on airborne aid delivery missions," the statement said.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the drop had not been coordinated with any groups on the ground in Gaza but U.S. officials had seen civilians approaching the aid and distributing it among themselves.

"We've been monitoring the location where the assistance was dropped," the official said.

A second U.S. official told Reuters the airdrops took place over southwestern Gaza and the town of Mawasi.

The White House said on Friday the airdrops will be a sustained effort, and that Israel supported the measure.

Under pressure at home and abroad, the Biden administration is also considering shipping aid by sea from Cyprus, some 210 nautical miles off Gaza's coast, according to a U.S. official.

The U.S. for months has been calling for Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, something Israel has resisted.

Some experts said being forced to resort to costly, inefficient airdrops was the latest demonstration of Washington's limited influence over Israel as it pursues its war with Hamas. Washington is arming Israel and considers it one of its closest allies in the region.

Critics of airdrops say they have only a limited impact on the suffering, and that it is nearly impossible to ensure supplies do not end up in the hands of militants.

Another U.S. official said distributing aid has been a significant challenge in Gaza because lawlessness has escalated, with criminal gangs taking aid and reselling it.

"There's a way that you resolve this problem. And the way is you flood the market. You bring in assistance from every point you can - air, sea, land," the official told reporters. "The president's intent is to see that flooding of the zone."

Before the conflict, Gaza relied on 500 trucks with supplies entering daily.

The U.N. Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA said on Friday that during February an average of nearly 97 trucks were able to enter Gaza each day, compared with about 150 a day in January.

Deliveries through the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and Gaza have been almost halted. While trucks have sometimes passed through Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing, they have been disrupted by Israeli protesters seeking to block deliveries. UNRWA says the crossing was closed from Feb. 8-10 and Feb. 15-17.

With people eating animal feed to survive and medics saying children are dying from malnutrition and dehydration, the U.N. has said it faces "overwhelming obstacles" getting in aid.

Gaza health authorities said Israeli forces killed more than 100 people trying to reach a relief convoy near Gaza City on Thursday. Palestinians face an increasingly desperate situation nearly five months into the war.

Israel blamed most of the deaths on crowds that swarmed around aid trucks, saying victims had been trampled or run over. An Israeli official also said troops had "in a limited response" later fired on crowds they felt had posed a threat.

Israel says it is committed to improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and accuses Hamas militants of endangering Palestinian civilians by using them as human shields.

Thursday's incident near Gaza City was the biggest loss of civilian lives in weeks. Hamas said it could jeopardize talks in Qatar aimed at securing a ceasefire and the release of Israeli hostages. Hopes had been growing of a truce before the March 10 start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. (Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Jeff Mason and Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Idrees Ali; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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