Biden Vows Aid for Gaza, Backs Israel Over Hospital Blast

President Joe Biden said Israel agreed to allow the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza and cited US intelligence to support claims that Palestinian militants were to blame for a deadly hospital blast as he concluded a high-stakes visit to the region Wednesday.

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden said Israel agreed to allow the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza and cited US intelligence to support claims that Palestinian militants were to blame for a deadly hospital blast as he concluded a high-stakes visit to the region Wednesday. 

“We believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life,” Biden said, which he said “sets us apart from the terrorists.”

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Biden said Israel’s war cabinet had agreed “to the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza” and that trucks would begin carrying aid from Egypt across the border. 

The US president also announced $100 million in aid for both Gaza and the West Bank and said there would be checks to ensure that aid went to civilians in need and not to Hamas, which controls Gaza and has been categorized as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

Biden had hoped his trip — which originally included a separate summit with Arab leaders — would offer both a chance to express solidarity with Israel and liaise with other nations crucial to his effort to limit the scope of the conflict and deliver additional aid to Palestinian civilians.

Instead, the blast in Gaza City prompted one of the biggest tests of Biden’s presidency, threatening to ignite chaos while he was on the ground in the Middle East. 

Palestinian and Israeli leaders have blamed each other for the deadly explosion, which sparked protests throughout the region and the cancellation of the planned summit. Biden risked further inflaming the situation by publicly siding with the Israeli account. Even before the explosion, Arab leaders had decried as excessive an Israeli bombing campaign in Gaza that has killed thousands.

In a meeting earlier with Netanyahu, Biden used a sports colloquialism to describe the American assessment of the hospital blast, telling the Israeli leader it “appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.” He later told reporters that he based the assertion on data provided by the Defense Department. 

But the remark, and Biden’s repeated promises of additional aid for Israel’s military, were likely to further frustrate regional leaders the US needs to help facilitate civilian evacuations from Gaza and contain the conflict from widening.

“Biden’s comments about the hospital bombing reinforced the perception in the Arab and Muslim world that he backs Israel unconditionally,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution. “Instead of promising a thorough investigation of the bombing, he sided with the Israelis without sharing any information on the situation.”

Still, the trip offered domestic political advantages for the US president.

Biden repeatedly and vociferously offered support for Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 incursion by Hamas. The assault saw an estimated 1,400 people killed and at least around 200 taken hostage, drawing bipartisan outrage in the US.

Biden in his speech Wednesday said he would ask Congress this week for an “unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense.” The White House has been eying a $100 billion package including aid for Israel and Ukraine as well as border security measures sought by Republicans.

“The world will know that Israel is stronger than ever,” Biden said. “We’re going to make sure we have what you need to protect your people and to defend your nation.”

Israel-Hamas war & its foreign policy implications

The embrace of Israel, including literal hugs with Netanyahu and Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the airport upon arriving in Tel Aviv, provides a clear political opportunity for the 80-year-old president, who has sought to combat concern over his age and competence by wielding US influence abroad. 

“For the people of Israel, there’s only one thing better than having a true friend like you standing with Israel, and that is having you standing in Israel,” Netanyahu said.

Biden also met with Israeli victims’ families, including relatives of those being held hostage in Gaza, and vowed US assistance to return them home. He said the US was “working with partners throughout the region, pursuing every avenue” and called for allowing Red Cross access to the hostages.

Still, Biden will ultimately be judged on whether he proves able to successfully balance that show of support with growing anger over the hospital explosion. 

Biden’s Mideast Mission Unraveling as Arab Leaders Shun Summit

In response to the incident, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, called off a meeting with Biden that was meant to take place later on Wednesday in Amman.

US officials said Biden would speak by telephone with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi after leaving Israel. Those conversations will be crucial as the US president seeks to ease the flow of refugees and supplies across Gaza’s borders ahead of an expected ground assault by Israel.

The US has pressed Egypt, without success, to allow some civilians, including US citizens, to pass from Gaza into Egypt via the Rafah border crossing. Egypt has responded by saying Israel should take in any people allowed to leave Gaza.

Diplomacy could prove more difficult with leaders at odds over who is to blame for the hospital explosion. Arab leaders, Turkey and Hamas blamed the blast on Israel. Israel’s military said Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad were responsible because a missile they fired malfunctioned and landed on Gazan territory. 

In a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, the White House’s National Security Council said that it continues to collect information, and its “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.”

Netanyahu at a meeting with Biden and Israel’s war cabinet said Hamas was responsible for the conflict and “should be held accountable for all civilian casualties.” 

The war cabinet, created last week, comprises Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli military who now heads an opposition party.

“The entire world was rightfully outraged,” Netanyahu said of the hospital blast. “This outrage should be directed not at Israel, but at the terrorists.”

–With assistance from Adveith Nair and Jordan Fabian.

(Updates with background on Israel’s war cabinet in penultimate paragraph)

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