Hospital blast looms over Biden's complicated diplomatic mission to Israel


President Joe Biden on Wednesday capped a historic trip to Tel Aviv by sending an emphatic message of support to Israel, promising new aid to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as it prepares fresh action against Hamas.

Following a day of meetings with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, Biden spoke about new agreements over a humanitarian corridor to Gaza, aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the promise of a massive new congressional request for funding for Israel’s defense. He’ll give a primetime speech on Thursday in the wake of the trip “to discuss our response to Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel and Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine,” the White House said.

But looming over the trip was the horrifying blast at Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday that the Palestinian Ministry of Health says killed hundreds.

In his first public remarks on the hospital bombing, Biden explicitly offered Israel – and Netanyahu – his support, with wording that labeled Palestinians as others. The moment, and Biden’s off-the-cuff wording, revealed the complex diplomatic balancing act he must navigate.

“I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at 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 who’re not sure. So we have to overcome a lot of things,” he said, later calling it “the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.”

The president later said that he was led to that conclusion by “the data I was shown by my Defense Department.” Before he left for Israel, according to one US official, the government had not yet drawn a conclusion about the source of the rocket strike on the hospital. Biden had instructed his national security team to continue evaluating incoming information. Officials have not said if the government has collected any intelligence beyond the information provided by the Israelis.

Biden’s historic arrival in wartime Tel Aviv Wednesday – the first trip to Israel by an American president during a time of war – marked his most forceful public show of support for Israel since the October 7 attacks by Hamas that left 1,400 of Israelis and dozens Americans dead. Other Americans, along with many Israelis, are also being held hostage by Hamas. And at least 3,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the fighting began, the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said Tuesday.

“Americans are grieving with you, they really are. And Americans are worried,” Biden told Netanyahu as they began a bilateral meeting, acknowledging the complex dynamic. “Because we know this is not an easy field to navigate, what you have to do.”

Biden said it was important he “personally come,” suggesting the trip was a critical signal to other democratic nations as the world watches the events unfolding in the Middle East.

“I wanted the people of Israel – the people of the world – to know where the United States stands. … The world is looking. Israel has a value set like the United States does, and other democracies. And they’re looking to see what we’re going to do,” he told Netanyahu, who called Biden’s presence as the first American president in Israel at a time of war “deeply, deeply moving.”

Netanyahu thanked Biden for the “unequivocal support” and “unprecedented” cooperation between the two nations.

“From the moment Israel was attacked, you’ve rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” Netanyahu told the president.

The president has been attempting to walk a fine line between supporting Israel and keeping the violence from spiraling into a wider military conflict, a mission made more complicated by the hospital blast. He and other US administration officials have been warning other regional players, namely Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, from expanding the fighting further.

Palestinian officials have said hundreds are dead following the explosion at the center of the city and blamed Israel. The Israelis denied responsibility and pinned blame on a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

CNN has asked the White House if the US government has assessed further the cause of the blast since the president’s departure.

The US via surveillance satellites, ground-based radar and other technology has broad capability to detect launches and determine their origin. For instance in 2014, analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency were able to determine within days that it was a Russian anti-aircraft missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine.

Later Wednesday, Netanyahu signaled that the hospital bombing belied a “different kind of enemy” in Hamas as he detailed the group’s willingness to “(hide) behind their civilians.”

“This will be a different kind of war because Hamas is a different kind of enemy,” he told Biden, adding that Hamas “wants to kill as many Israelis as possible, and has no regard whatsoever to Palestinian lives.”

The hospital explosion caused a scramble of Biden’s plans for the trip as the president walked onto Air Force One. The president was expected 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 during the Jordan leg of the visit, but the summit – and the Jordan leg of the trip – was scrapped. The White House cited a period of mourning announced by Abbas as the reason for the postponement.

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The world, Netanyahu added, was “rightfully outraged” by Tuesday’s events.

“But this outrage should be directed not as Israel, but at the terrorists,” he said, seeking to assure Biden that Israel “will do everything it can to keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

The explosion and subsequent blame game will hang over Biden’s meetings in Israel. He was greeted at the airport by Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, hugging them on the tarmac before embarking for the meeting site in Tel Aviv.

The presence of Biden, who places a premium on personal diplomacy, is meant to show solidarity with the United States’ closest allies and to deter rogue actors in the region from opening up a second front in the war.

While violence such as the hospital blast was always seen as a possible risk of the visit, the president’s team concluded that the merits of the trip outweighed those risks. Multiple sources told CNN that the president’s top advisers did not come close on Tuesday to canceling the Israel portion of the trip.

Gaza hospital blast

Video shows aftermath of deadly Gaza hospital blast

Israel has been signaling it is preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza, even as a humanitarian crisis grows inside the coastal Palestinian enclave. Biden has called for the protection of civilians, and the United States has been working to alleviate shortages of food, water, and gas.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. Biden landed in Israel on October 18, on a solidarity visit following Hamas attacks that have led to major Israeli reprisals. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden announced a new agreement toward providing Gaza with humanitarian assistance through Egypt upon the conclusion of his meetings Wednesday.

“The people of Gaza need food, water, medicine, shelter. Today I asked the Israeli cabinet, who I met with for some time this morning, to agree to the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance of civilians in Gaza based on the understanding that there will be inspections and that the aid should go to civilians, not to Hamas. Israel agreed that humanitarian assistance can begin to move from Egypt to Gaza,” Biden said in remarks from Tel Aviv.

But he warned that if Hamas “diverts or steals the assistance, they will have demonstrated, once again, that they have no concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people” and that such action will stop the international community’s provision of aid.

He also announced $100 million in new US funding for humanitarian assistance in both Gaza and the West Bank. That will support displaced Palestinians and other emergency needs in Gaza. And he vowed to ask Congress for an “unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense,” expected later this week.

And while he noted that the attacks were proportionally “like 15 9/11s” to Israel’s population, he acknowledged the “shock, pain, and all-consuming rage” as he warned Israel’s leaders to be “deliberate.”

“I caution this: while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes,” Biden said.

He continued, “I’m the first US president to visit Israel in time of war. I’ve made wartime decisions. I know that choices are never clear or easy for the leadership. There’s always cost, but it requires being deliberate – requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives, and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives,” calling for the protection of civilians as humanitarian conditions deteriorate in Gaza.

He also offered a warning to other states or hostile actors thinking about attacking Israel: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” vowing continued US support in the region.

While many Americans feel deep sympathy for Israelis in the wake of the attacks, according to a CNN poll released Sunday, Biden also faces political pressure at home over how he responds to the attacks and how much support he offers Netanyahu’s government. Americans are split on whether the Israeli government’s response to the attacks are fully justified, including just 38% of Democrats, according to CNN’s poll.

The same poll shows the public is mixed over how much trust it has in Biden to make the right decisions on the fighting between Israel and Hamas – 47% have at least a moderate amount of trust. And about half of Democrats are also feeling a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian people who are feeling the brunt of Israel’s response to the attack, the poll shows, which could further complicate Biden’s decision-making on how much support to provide the Israelis.

The decision to travel to Israel so soon after the Hamas attack signals just how affected Biden has been by the violence in the region.

Advisers to the president told CNN that the days after the attack were a deeply emotional time for him, as he grappled with the second major outbreak of a war during his presidency and as the images and stories of Hamas’ reprehensive actions poured in.

In his remarks from Tel Aviv, Biden compared the Hamas attacks of October 7 to the Holocaust and the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, offering sympathy to the Israeli people.

Recounting the horrors against Israeli civilians Biden said, “There’s no rationalizing – no excusing, period. The brutality we saw would have cut deep anywhere in the world. But it cuts deeper here in Israel,” he said, noting that October 7 was the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

“It has brought to the surface painful memories and scars left by millennia of antisemitism and the genocide of the Jewish people,” he said. “The world watched then, it knew, and the world did nothing. We will not stand by and do nothing again. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever,” he said.

Biden met with some families affected by the violence of the past week during his trip. He offered embraces and a listening ear to community leaders and first responders as he heard emotional stories from those on the front lines.

But despite ongoing discussions with Israel and other partners, sources downplayed the expectation that the visit would result immediately in a refugee deal or the release of American hostages in Hamas custody.

The president spoke forcefully throughout the week about his horror at Hamas’ actions, frequently comparing the violence to some of the things European Jews experienced during the Holocaust. Biden has taken family members on trips to the Dachau concentration camp to learn about horrors of the Holocaust, and he emphasized in the “60 Minutes” interview how important it is for the world to learn about past persecution of the Jewish people.

“The Jews have been subject to abuse, prejudice and attempts to wipe them out for, oh, God, over a thousand years,” Biden told interviewer Scott Pelley. “For me, it’s about decency, respect, honor. It’s just simply wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It violates every religious principle I have and … every single principle my father taught me.”

This story is breaking and being updated.

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