Arriving in Israel on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed support for Israel’s fight against Hamas and confirmed its claim that militants were responsible for a blast that claimed a large number of Palestinian lives at a hospital in Gaza.
In addition to destroying White House preparations for Biden’s emergency diplomatic mission to the Middle East, the firestorm that destroyed the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital produced some of the most horrific images yet from the 12-day battle. Arab leaders also cancelled their scheduled summit with the U.S. president.
Palestinian officials blamed an Israeli air strike for the blast, which it said had killed as many as 500 people. Israel said the blast was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, which denied blame.
Speaking alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said: “I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion of the hospital in Gaza yesterday, and based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”
“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure, so we’ve got a lot, we’ve got to overcome a lot of things,” Biden added.
“The world is looking. Israel has a value set like the United States does, and other democracies, and they are looking to see what we are going to do.”
As he showed support for Israel, an ally of the United States, which has sworn to destroy the Hamas movement whose fighters killed 1,400 Israelis in a rampage on October 7, Biden’s visit to the Middle East was expected to defuse tensions in the area.
But after the hospital blast, Jordan cancelled the second half of Biden’s itinerary: a planned summit in Amman with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu thanked Biden for his “unequivocal support”. President Isaac Herzog’s office said the head of state had told Biden: “God bless you for protecting the nation of Israel.”
‘HELP US, HELP US!’
Even by the standards of the last twelve days, when the world was subjected to ceaseless images of Israelis being killed in their homes and Palestinian families being buried beneath debris as a result of Israel’s retaliatory strikes, the scenes of devastation from the hospital were horrifying.
Searchers searching through bloody wreckage looked for survivors. Although Israel contested such numbers, a Gaza civil defence chief reported 300 deaths, while sources from the health ministry estimated 500 deaths. Rescuers were still finding bodies, according to Ashraf Al-Qudra, a spokesman for the Palestinian ministry.
“People came running into the surgery department screaming, ‘Help us, help us, there are people killed and wounded inside the hospital!'” said Dr Fadel Naim, Head of the hospital’s Orthopedic Surgery Department.
“The hospital was full of dead and wounded, dismembered bodies, and dead,” he told Reuters. “We tried to save whoever can be saved but the number was too big for the hospital team to be able to save… We saw them alive but we couldn’t help them and they were martyred.”
Later, Israel made public drone footage of the hospital explosion, claiming it demonstrated its lack of responsibility due to the absence of an impact crater left by a missile or bomb.
An audio tape of “communication between terrorists talking about rockets misfiring” was released by the Israeli military.
With no notice for residents to evacuate a hospital that was serving as a shelter for thousands of Gazans who had already been forced to flee their homes due to Israeli shelling, Palestinians were certain that the explosion was an Israeli attack.
“This place created a safe haven for women and children, those who escaped the Israeli bombing,” another doctor at the hospital, Ibrahim Al-Naqa, told Reuters. “We don’t know what the shell is called but we saw the results of it when it targeted children and ripped their bodies into pieces.”
After Biden backed the Israeli account, other Western leaders also called for caution.
“Last night, too many jumped to conclusions around the tragic loss of life at Al Ahli hospital,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly posted on X. “Getting this wrong would put even more lives at risk. Wait for the facts, report them clearly and accurately. Cool heads must prevail.”
Even as Biden attempted to defuse tensions and stop the fighting from spilling over international borders, the explosion ignited fresh rage on streets around the Middle East.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the home of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—one of the Arab leaders who postponed his meeting with Biden—Palestinian security forces used tear gas and stun grenades to scatter anti-government demonstrators.
The border confrontations between Israel and the Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Iran, have been the deadliest since the last all-out war in 2006, prompting the U.S. State Department to issue a fresh caution to Americans against travelling to Lebanon.
In the wake of the attacks on October 7, Biden has firmly supported Israel. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is facing tremendous pressure to secure an unequivocal Israeli promise to improve the lot of ordinary citizens in the Gaza Strip, where 2.3 million Palestinians are completely besieged and lack access to food, gasoline, water, or medical services.
The Israeli military announced on Wednesday that humanitarian aid would be made available in a “humanitarian zone” in Al-Mawasi on the south of the Gaza Strip coast near the Egyptian border. It did not spell out how aid would get there.