TEL AVIV, Oct 18 (AP) — President Joe Biden vowed to show the world that the U.S. stands in solidarity with Israel during his visit there Wednesday, and offered an assessment that the deadly explosion at a Gaza Strip hospital that prompted mass protests in Arab nations 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 he said there were “a lot of people out there” who weren’t sure what caused the blast, which sparked protests throughout the Middle East.
Biden later said he based his conclusion on “the data I was shown by my Defense Department.”
Israel said Wednesday its radar as well as independent video showed a rocket in a barrage fired by Palestinian militants misfired and caused a large explosion just as the blast hit the hospital. It said there was no crater, which would have been present with an airstrike, and it released a recording it said was between two Hamas militants who said the blast was believed to be an Islamic Jihad misfire.
Islamic Jihad dismissed Israel’s claims, pointing to Israel’s order that the hospital be evacuated in recent days and reports of a previous strike at the hospital that wounded four people as proof that it was an Israeli target.
Biden had also been scheduled to visit Jordan to meet with Arab leaders Wednesday, but the summit was called off after the hospital explosion. His remarks in Tel Aviv spoke both to the horrors that 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. But he also stressed that “Hamas does not represent all the Palestinian people, and it has brought them only suffering.” And he 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.”
Biden’s overarching messge was that the U.S. was firmly behind Israel following the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed 1,400 people.
“I want you to know you’re not alone. We will continue to have Israel’s back as you work to defend your people,” Biden said. “We’ll continue to work with you and partners across the region to prevent more tragedy to innocent civilians.”
Netanyahu again said Israel was not to blame for the hospital attack. “The entire world was rightfully outraged but this outrage should be directed not at Israel but at the terrorists,” Netanyahu said during a subsequent meeting with Biden and Israel’s war cabinet.
He called the president’s visit “deeply, deeply moving,” adding, “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 those being held hostage by Hamas.
The grim tone of Wednesday’s meetings between Biden and Netanyahu stood in stark contrast to their optimistic meeting just a month ago on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, 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 has dimmed considerably with the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. 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 Abbas and el-Sissi by phone Wednesday as he returned to Washington.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. ambassador, on Tuesday urged Biden to use the visit to tell Israel that ” 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.”
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 before Biden’s visit, worked 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.