Tel Aviv, Israel — President Joe Biden On Wednesday, Israel landed in a diplomatic scramble to prevent its war with Hamas from escalating into a larger conflict. This challenge became even more difficult as outrage raged across the Middle East over a hospital explosion in the Gaza Strip that killed hundreds of people.
Biden was also originally scheduled to visit Jordan, but his meetings with Arab leaders were canceled as he left Washington, costing him the opportunity for face-to-face talks that he sees as crucial to navigating this difficult time.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Biden at Ben-Gurion Airport and they hugged before he rushed off to hours-long meetings where the US president is expected to push for crucial humanitarian aid to be allowed to be delivered to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
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In response to Hamas attacks on October 7 that killed 1,400 Israelis, Israel is preparing for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One that Biden “wants to get a sense of the situation on the ground from the Israelis” and will “ask some tough questions.”
“He’ll ask her as a friend,” Kirby added.
The president also planned to meet with Israeli first responders and the families of victims killed and taken hostage during Hamas’ invasion of Israel.
Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip reportedly killed around 2,800 Palestinians. According to health authorities, another 1,200 people are believed to be buried alive or dead under the rubble.
These figures are from the period before the explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital on Tuesday. No clear cause was known for the explosion, but Biden said Wednesday that the blast at a hospital in the Gaza Strip did not appear to have been caused by Israel.
“Based on what I saw, it looks like the other team did it, 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 explosion.
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The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said an Israeli airstrike caused the destruction. The Israeli military denied involvement and blamed a misfired rocket from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group. However, this organization also denied responsibility.
Biden said in a statement that he was “outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza and the terrible loss of life that resulted.” He also said he had “instructed my national security team to continue gathering information about exactly what happened.”
Protests erupted in the region following the deaths at the hospital, which was treating wounded Palestinians and sheltering many others seeking refuge from the fighting.
Hundreds of Palestinians flooded the streets of major West Bank cities, including Ramallah. More people joined the protests that broke out in Beirut, Lebanon, and Amman, Jordan, where angry crowds gathered outside the Israeli embassy.
Outrage over the hospital explosion scuppered Biden’s plans to visit Jordan, where King Abdullah II had planned meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. But Abbas withdrew in protest and the summit was then canceled completely.
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Kirby said Jordan declared three days of mourning after the hospital explosion and that Biden understood the move and was part of a “mutual” decision to cancel the Jordan portion of his trip. He said Biden would have an opportunity to speak by telephone with Arab leaders when he returns to Washington.
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, told a state television channel that the war was “bringing the region to the brink.”
There are also fears that a new front could break out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah operates. The Iranian-backed organization fought battles 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 is his second trip to a conflict zone this year, after visiting Ukraine in February to show solidarity with the country battling a Russian invasion.
The visit to Israel coincides with increasing humanitarian concerns in Gaza, where Israel has cut off the flow of food, fuel and water. Mediators have struggled to break a logjam in supplies to desperate civilians, aid groups and hospitals.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has been bouncing back and forth between Arab and Israeli leadership in the run-up to Biden’s visit, met in Tel Aviv for seven and a half hours on Monday to negotiate some kind of aid deal and was given the green light to develop a plan such as aid reach Gaza and be distributed to civilians.
“We are optimistic that we will get humanitarian assistance,” Kirby said.
Although on the surface it was a modest achievement, US officials stressed that Blinken’s talks resulted in a significant change in Israel’s position – that Gaza would remain cut off from fuel, electricity, water and other vital supplies.
U.S. officials said it had become clear that already limited Arab tolerance of Israel’s military operations would completely disappear if conditions in Gaza worsened.
Their analysis assumed that an outright condemnation of Israel by Arab leaders would not only be a boon for Hamas, but would also likely encourage Iran to step up its anti-Israel activities, heightening fears that a regional conflagration could break out said four officials spoken to by The Associated Press
Pressed on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administrative thoughts.