US President Joe Biden has arrived in Israel for a diplomatic scramble to prevent the Gaza war from spiralling into an even larger conflict, a challenge that became more difficult as outrage swept through the Middle East over an explosion that killed hundreds in a Gaza Strip hospital on Tuesday.
Descending from the plane amid a large security contingent on Wednesday, Biden embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.
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“Welcome, Mr President. God bless you for protecting the nation of Israel,” Herzog’s office quoted him as telling Biden.
Hundreds of armed police and troops were stationed around the seafront Tel Aviv hotel where Netanyahu and Biden hold talks, with snipers on the roofs of nearby villas.
US green light
Speaking at a news conference alongside 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.”
In a social media post following the meeting, Biden said he asked “tough questions as a friend of Israel” and would “continue to deter any actor wanting to widen this conflict”.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Tel Aviv, said Biden was giving Israel the green light to act as it sees fit.
“When the Americans said that their national security team would investigate the cause of the Gaza hospital explosion on Tuesday night, many thought there will be an extensive inquiry,” he said.
“But it appears that President Biden has already decided who is behind the deadly attack, expressing, in poorly chosen words, that the ‘other team’ was responsible.”
“This visit is a significant display of support for the Israelis. By asserting that a misfiring rocket caused the hospital carnage, Biden has effectively given Israel the green light to act as it sees fit.”
Biden was originally scheduled to visit Jordan as well, but his meetings with Arab leaders were called off as he was leaving Washington on Tuesday evening, costing him an opportunity for the face-to-face conversations that he views as crucial for navigating this fraught moment.
Israel has been preparing for a potential ground invasion of Gaza in response to the deadly October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, the armed group that rules the Palestinian enclave. The violence in Israel killed at least 1,400 people, mostly Israelis.
About 3,300 Palestinians have been reported killed in Israel’s retaliatory air raids on Gaza. Another 1,200 people are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead, health authorities said.
Those numbers predate the explosion at al-Ahli Arab Hospital on Tuesday. No clear cause has been established for the blast.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said an Israeli air raid caused the destruction. The Israeli military denied involvement and blamed a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another armed group. However, that organisation also rejected responsibility.
Protests swept through the region after the deaths at the hospital, which had been treating wounded Palestinians and sheltering many more who were seeking refuge from the fighting.
Hundreds of protesters flooded the streets of key West Bank cities, including Ramallah. More people joined protests that erupted in Beirut, Lebanon and Amman, Jordan, where an angry crowd gathered outside the Israeli embassy.
Outrage over the hospital explosion scuttled Biden’s plans to visit Jordan, where King Abdullah II had planned to host meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But Abbas withdrew in protest, and the summit was subsequently cancelled outright.
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, told a state-run television network that the Gaza war is “pushing the region to the brink”.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies