Biden to ask ‘tough questions as a friend’ on Israel visit overshadowed by Gaza blast

Forced to nix Jordan leg of tour as Arab states express fury at Israel over disputed hospital explosion, US president set to meet Netanyahu, press for more humanitarian aid to Gaza

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden plans to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some “tough questions as a friend of Israel” regarding Jerusalem’s strategy in the Gaza war, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One early Wednesday, with the president en route to the Jewish state.

He was slated to land at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv at 10 a.m. for meetings with Israeli officials.

Biden’s visit builds off of a passionate speech last week in which he expressed his horror over the brutal Hamas assault, winning over Israelis across the political spectrum.

But the trip faltered before it began following an explosion on Tuesday evening at a Gaza hospital that Hamas said killed 500 people — later updating the figure to 200-300 — and has blamed on Israeli airstrikes.

Israel said it was not involved and said a rocket misfired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad caused the blast. PIJ denied that allegation, but videos and  initial analyses appeared to support Israel’s version.

Biden said in a statement that he was “outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza, and the terrible loss of life that resulted.” He also said he “directed my national security team to continue gathering information about what exactly happened.”

The Jordan leg of Biden’s trip — where he was supposed to meet in a four-way summit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — was called off following the explosion, amid widespread condemnation of Israel in the Arab world.

Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in the front yard of the al-Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. Israel said the explosion was caused by a rocket misfire by Palestinian terrorists, denying Hamas claims of an Israeli airstrike. (AP/Abed Khaled)

Always a believer in the power of personal diplomacy, Biden will be testing the limits of US influence in the Middle East at a volatile time. It’s his second trip to a conflict zone this year, after visiting Ukraine in February to show solidarity with the country as it battles a Russian invasion.

Kirby said, that while in Israel, Biden was expected to meet with the families of people killed in Hamas’s brutal massacre in Israel on October 7, and of people who were abducted by the terror group. The shock Hamas onslaught killed some 1,300 people, mostly civilians slaughtered in their homes or at an outdoor music festival, and some 200 people of all ages were taken captive.

Kirby said that in his discussions with Israeli leaders, Biden would also discuss humanitarian aid to Gaza, which Washington has been pushing. Israel has cut off the flow of food and fuel, and mediators have been struggling to break a deadlock over providing supplies to civilians, aid groups and hospitals.

Israel has largely held off on allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, as it seeks to pressure Hamas to release hostages first.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv after talks on October 16, 2023 ((Haim Zach / GPO)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, bouncing back and forth between Arab and Israeli leadership ahead of Biden’s visit, spent seven and a half hours meeting Monday in Tel Aviv in an effort to broker some kind of aid agreement and emerged with a green light to develop a plan on how aid can enter Gaza and be distributed to civilians.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to get some humanitarian assistance in,” Kirby said.

Although only a modest accomplishment on the surface, US officials stressed that Blinken’s talks led to a significant change in Israel’s position going in — that Gaza would remain cut off from fuel, electricity, water and other essential supplies.

Washington has also been pressing Israel to flesh out its strategy for the day after it completes its stated war goal of toppling Hamas’s rule in Gaza.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, roughly 3,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza, and another 1,200 people are believed to be buried under the rubble, alive or dead. Those numbers predate the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday. Israel has charged that some 450 rockets launched by Gazan terror groups have misfired and landed inside the Strip since October 7, causing an unknown number of the Palestinian fatalities. Israel has also said its forces killed about 1,500 terrorists in its territory following the mass infiltration on October 7.

Most Popular
read more: