By Patsy Widakuswara
Returning from a brief visit to Tel Aviv, U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he’d had candid discussions with Israeli leaders as they conduct military strikes that have taken more than 3,000 lives in Gaza in response to Hamas’ massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis on October 7.
“I was very blunt with the Israelis,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way back to Washington. Biden said that while Israel “has been badly victimized,” they have “an opportunity to relieve the suffering” of innocent civilians in Gaza “who have nowhere to go.”
He added that it’s what the country “should do.”
As his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, traveled extensively in the region to try to secure support for humanitarian aid, Biden said that Egypt had agreed to open its Rafah border with Gaza to allow initially 20 trucks of aid to help Gazans, to be received and managed by U.N. groups. He warned that if Hamas blocked or confiscated the aid, “it’s going to end.”
Biden said the trucks would likely cross on Friday after badly damaged roads near the crossing had been repaired. Dozens more trucks are waiting to follow if the first tranche goes smoothly.
He denied media reports that U.S. troops would join Israeli soldiers in fighting Hezbollah should the Lebanon-based militant group decide to help Hamas and initiate conflict with Israel.
He said he discussed at length with Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister’s plans to invade Gaza to root out Hamas and that the two countries’ militaries have been weighing alternatives. But he declined to provide further details.
Biden will address the nation Thursday night on the Israel-Hamas violence and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House announced Wednesday.
Siding with Israel
Earlier Wednesday in Tel Aviv, Biden backed Israel’s account of who was responsible for a massive explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds and prompted protests across the region.
“Based on the information we’ve seen to date, it appears [to have happened] as a result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza,” Biden said.
Israel, blamed for the Tuesday explosion by officials in Gaza, has denied being at fault and said an errant rocket fired by the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad had hit the hospital site. Islamic Jihad has denied responsibility.
“While we continue to collect information, our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open-source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.
Watson added that the administration was working to corroborate whether it was a failed rocket launched by Islamic Jihad.
Biden’s Israel visit was aimed at showing support for Israel after the October 7 Hamas attack.
In his remarks, Biden said Israel had agreed that humanitarian assistance could begin to move from Egypt into Gaza and announced $100 million in U.S. aid for Palestinians. He vowed to provide Israel what it needed to defend itself but urged restraint in its retaliation.
“You don’t live by the rules of terrorists. You live by the rule of law. When conflict is fair, you live by the rule of – law of wars,” he said.
Referring to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S., Biden said that while the country “saw justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”
“I know the choices are never clear or easy for the leadership. There’s always cost,” Biden said. “But it requires being deliberate; [it] requires asking very hard questions and requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives.”
From Tel Aviv, Biden was originally scheduled to head to Amman to meet King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi 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 Gaza hospital blast.
Hamas claims ‘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.
Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel Defense Forces spokesman, told reporters Wednesday that 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 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 [Biden would] 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 from Washington.
“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 Sissi 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.”
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, where Israel has blocked necessities from arriving. 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 report.