US President Joe Biden vowed to show the world that the U.S. stands in solidarity with Israelis during his visit there Wednesday, and offered an assessment that the deadly explosion at a Gaza Strip hospital apparently was not carried out by the Israeli military.
“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting. But Biden said there were “a lot of people out there” who weren’t sure what caused the blast.
Biden didn’t offer details on why he believed the blast was not caused by the Israelis. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry said an Israeli airstrike caused the destruction and hundreds of deaths. The Israeli military denied involvement and blamed a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group. However, that organization also rejected responsibility.
Biden had been scheduled to visit Jordan to meet with Arab leaders after the stop in Israel, but the summit was called off after the hospital explosion. And his remarks spoke both of the horrors the Israelis had endured, but also the growing humanitarian crisis for Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
He told Netanyahu he was “deeply saddened and outraged” by the hospital explosion. He stressed that “Hamas does not represent all the Palestinian people. and it has brought them only suffering.”
Biden spoke of the need to find ways of “encouraging life-saving capacity to help the Palestinians who are innocent, caught in the middle of this.”
But he also said Hamas had “slaughtered” Israelis in the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,400 people. Biden described at length the horror of the killing of innocent Israelis, including children.
“Americans are grieving, they really are,” Biden said. “Americans are worried.”
Netanyahu thanked Biden for coming to Israel, telling him the visit was “deeply, deeply moving.”
“I know I speak for all the people of Israel when I say thank you Mr. President, thank you for standing with Israel today, tomorrow and always.”
Netanyahu said Biden had rightly drawn a clear line between the “forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” saying Israel was united in its resolve to defeat Hamas.
“The civilized world must unite to defeat Hamas,” he said.
Biden also planned to meet Israeli first responders and the families of victims and hostages. Netanyahu met Biden at Ben Gurion Airport and the two embraced. It was almost exactly a month ago that they sat together at the United Nations General Assembly, where Netanyahu marveled that a “historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia” seemed within reach.
The possibility of improved relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors appears to be dimming; Israel has been preparing for a potential ground invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’ attacks.
Roughly 2,800 Palestinians have been reported killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza. Another 1,200 people are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead, health authorities said.
Those numbers predate the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday. No clear cause has been established for the blast.
Protests swept through the region after the blast at the hospital, which had been treating wounded Palestinians and sheltering many more who were seeking a refuge from the fighting.
Hundreds of Palestinians flooded the streets of major West Bank cities including Ramallah. More people joined protests that erupted in Beirut, Lebanon and Amman, Jordan, where an angry crowd gathered outside the Israeli Embassy.
Outrage scuttled Biden’s plans to visit Jordan, where King Abdullah II was to host meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. But Abbas withdrew in protest, and the summit was subsequently canceled outright.
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, told a state-run television network that the war is “pushing the region to the brink.”
Jordan declared three days of mourning after the hospital explosion and Safadi said the summit was canceled after speaking with all leaders. He said they had wanted the meeting to produce an end to the war, which seems unlikely now, and to give Palestinians the respect they deserve. Kirby said Biden understood the move was part of a “mutual” decision to call off the Jordan portion of his trip. He said Biden would speak to the Arab leaders by phone as he returned to Washington.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, said Tuesday that Biden was “capable of telling Israel, Enough is enough.”
“You have to stop this carnage against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. Let this stop. Let humanitarian assistance take place,” he said. “Do not displace two million Palestinians and push them in the direction of Jordan and then let’s begin a political horizon.”
There are also fears that a new front could erupt along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah operates. The Iran-backed organization has been skirmishing with Israeli forces.
Always a believer in the power of personal diplomacy, Biden’s trip will test the limits of U.S. influence in the Middle East at a volatile time. It’s his second trip to a conflict zone this year, after visiting Ukraine in February to show solidarity with the country as it battles a Russian invasion.
The visit to Israel coincides with rising humanitarian concerns in Gaza, where Israel has cut off the flow of food, fuel and water. Mediators have been struggling to break a deadlock over providing supplies to desperate civilians, aid groups and hospitals.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, bouncing back and forth between Arab and Israeli leadership ahead of Biden’s visit, spent seven and a half hours meeting Monday in Tel Aviv in an effort to broker some kind of aid agreement and emerged with a green light to develop a plan on how aid can enter Gaza and be distributed to civilians.
Although only a modest accomplishment on the surface, U.S. officials stressed that Blinken’s talks led to a significant change in Israel’s position going in — that Gaza would remain cut off from fuel, electricity, water and other essential supplies.
U.S. officials said it has become clear that already limited Arab tolerance of Israel’s military operations would evaporate entirely if conditions in Gaza worsened.
Their analysis projected that outright condemnation of Israel by Arab leaders would not only be a boon to Hamas but would likely encourage Iran to step up its anti-Israel activity, adding to fears that a regional conflagration might erupt, according to four officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.