By Patsy Widakuswara
U.S. President Joe Biden is in Israel Wednesday amid a heightened conflict following a massive explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds and prompted competing accusations of blame and protests across the region.
Showing support for its longtime ally, Biden appeared to side with Israel, who denied being at fault and said an errant rocket fired by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad hit the hospital site.
“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 – 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 told Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they began their bilateral meeting.
“Americans are grieving with you, they really are. And Americans are worried,” he added. “Because we know this is not an easy field to navigate, what you have to do.”
The White House did not immediately respond to VOA’s queries on who Biden meant as “the other team” and whether they will provide evidence for the president’s assessment of the blast perpetrator. On Tuesday, Islamic Jihad denied responsibility for the explosion.
From Tel Aviv, Biden was scheduled to head to Amman to meet King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a humanitarian response for Gazans. But the summit – and the Jordan leg of the trip – was scrapped following the blast.
Crime of genocide
Hamas militants blamed Israel for the explosion at Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital, calling it “a crime of genocide that once again reveals the ugly face of this criminal enemy and its fascist and terrorist government.”
It said in a statement that there were “hundreds of casualties, most of them displaced families, patients, children and women.” Palestinian authorities said about 500 people had been killed.
The Israel Defense Forces denied being at fault, saying an errant rocket fired by the paramilitary Palestinian Islamic Jihad hit the hospital site. The militant group denied responsibility.
IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters Wednesday there was no structural damage to buildings, nor a crater, that would be consistent with an Israeli airstrike. He also accused Hamas of inflating the number of casualties.
Speaking alongside Biden at a meeting of Israel’s war cabinet Wednesday, Netanyahu said the world was rightfully outraged by the strike on the hospital, “but this outrage should be directed not at Israel, but at the terrorists.”
The explosion has ignited massive protests in cities across the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and Turkey, where demonstrators laid the blame on Israel.
The U.S. leader pledged to ensure Israel has what it needs to defend itself.
Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour said Tuesday, “Our Jordanian brothers said we cannot have a summit with these conditions. … Only [one] thing would make sense — if he’d [Biden] make a cease-fire and say, ‘I’m coming to force implementation of it.’”
The White House released a statement at roughly the time of Biden’s departure.
“After consulting with King Abdullah II of Jordan and in light of the days of mourning announced by President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, President Biden will postpone his travel to Jordan and the planned meeting with these two leaders and President Sisi of Egypt,” the statement said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to allow for Hamas to release the hostages it is holding and for Israel to allow unrestricted humanitarian aid to reach Gaza.
European Council President Charles Michel said Tuesday that what Israel has done in cutting access to basic services such as water, food and electricity “is not in line with the international law.”
October 7 attack
Hamas, which launched the October 7 terror attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people, has long refused to recognize the Jewish state. Israel imposed a blockade on the movement of goods and people in and out Gaza after Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.
In response to the October 7 attack, Israel has put Gaza under a total siege and subjected it to an intense bombardment. It has vowed to annihilate Hamas. Some 3,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,500 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on a Brazilian-drafted resolution that calls for humanitarian pauses in the conflict between Israel and Hamas to allow humanitarian aid access to the Gaza Strip.
The council is also expected to discuss — at the request of the United Arab Emirates and Russia — the Gaza hospital blast, diplomats said.
Israel in recent days has ordered Palestinian civilians living in the northern half of Gaza to head to the southern reaches of the territory along the Mediterranean Sea. About 600,000 people in cars and on foot have heeded the Israeli demand.
But Israeli forces have continued to launch airstrikes into southern Gaza, including on Tuesday morning, along with attacks on Hamas targets in the north.
The humanitarian crisis has grown increasingly dire in Gaza. Israel has blocked basic necessities from reaching the territory. There is limited electricity and diminishing supplies of food and water, while hospitals say they are hard-pressed to treat the wounded.
Margaret Besheer at the United Nations contributed to this article.