At Israel's side after 'deadliest day for Jews since Holocaust'

Biden to Israelis: ‘Justice must be done,’ but don’t let rage guide wartime decisions

In address capping off half-day wartime visit, US president announces new humanitarian measures for Palestinians, while again blaming terrorists for hospital strike

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/ Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

Firmly backing Israel’s right to go to war against Hamas, President Joe Biden on Wednesday urged Israelis to learn the lessons from US campaigns after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Justice must be done,” said Biden, speaking in Tel Aviv after a six-hour visit to Israel, the first by a US president during a war.

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

Betraying an unease with the possibility that Israel’s campaign against Hamas could get derailed by civilian losses, Biden warned that wartime leadership “requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives.”

Earlier in the day, Biden on Wednesday backed Israel’s assertion that a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital the night before was the result of a misfired rocket by Palestinian terrorists.

He repeated that conclusion in his parting speech: “Based on the information we’ve seen to date, it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.”

Palestinians check the place of the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital, in Gaza City, October 18, 2023. (AP/Abed Khaled)

At the same time, Biden announced measures to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gazan civilians.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced at the same time that it would allow water, medicine, and food to reach southern Gaza from Egypt, but would interfere if any of it reached Hamas. He also vowed not to let any aid into the Strip through Israel’s crossings.

Biden announced $100 million in new funds for Gaza and the West Bank. The US president also said that he planned this week to “ask the United States Congress for an unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense. We are going to keep Iron Dome fully supplied so it can continue standing sentinel over Israeli skies, saving Israeli lives.”

Couching a warning about its conduct of war in a velvet glove, Biden said that Israel is “a Jewish state, but you’re also a democracy. Like the United States, you don’t live by the rules of terrorists. You live by the rule of law. When conflicts flare, you live by the law of wars.”

US President Joe Biden with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, (Haim Zach / GPO)

“What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life: Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian, everyone. You can’t give up what makes you who you are. If you give that up, then the terrorists win.”

Israel is waging war in Gaza against Hamas after the terror group’s murderous assault on the country on October 7, in which some 1,400 people were massacred and some 200-250 were kidnapped and taken to the Strip.

Biden opened his address with a poignant acknowledgement of Israelis’ pain, which he tied to the Holocaust.

The October 7 attacks by Hamas “became 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,” Biden pledged.

He told families of those who are missing or have been kidnapped that the US is “pursuing every avenue to bring home those who are being held captive by Hamas.

“I can’t speak publicly about all the details, but let me assure you, for me, as the American president, there’s no higher priority than the release and safe return of all these hostages,” he insisted.

Biden, who lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, as well as a son from his second marriage in 2015, spoke at length about feelings of loss and grief.

Keren Schem, mother of Mia, held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, at a press conference with Mia’s brother and a photo of Mia, on October 17, 2023. (Facebook Live screen shot)

“To those who are grieving a child, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, I know, you feel like there’s that black hole in the middle of your chest,” he said. “You feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul, staring at that empty chair, sitting shiva, the first sabbath without them. There are the everyday things, the small things, that you miss the most.”

“For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: they’ll never be truly gone,” said Biden. “There’s something that’s never fully lost — your love for them and their love for you.”

Biden also underscored the message that the US is offering Israel its full backing during the war.

“You’re not alone,” said Biden. “You are not alone. For as long as the United States stands, and we will stand forever, we will not let you ever be alone.”

“The world will know that Israel is stronger than ever,” he promised. “My message to any state or any other hostile actor thinking about attacking Israel remains the same as it was a week ago. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”

Biden met with Netanyahu earlier in the day. During their joint statements in Tel Aviv shortly after landing, Biden compared Hamas to the Islamic State group, saying, “They have committed evils and atrocities that make ISIS look somewhat more rational.”

Reading off of notes, Netanyahu spoke before Biden, calling the first-ever US presidential visit Israel in a time of war “deeply, deeply moving.”

US President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“Just as the civilized world united to defeat the Nazis, and united to defeat ISIS, the civilized world must unite to defeat Hamas,” added Netanyahu, stressing that Israel is united and will defeat Hamas “and remove this terrible threat from our lives. The forces of civilization will prevail — for our sake, for your sake, for peace and security in our region and in the world.”

Netanyahu praised Biden’s “moral clarity that you have demonstrated from the moment Israel was attacked,” and said the president has “rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism.”

Netanyahu did not mention the humanitarian situation in Gaza or the hospital explosion in Gaza City.

Later, Biden and Netanyahu led a meeting of the narrow Israeli war cabinet in Tel Aviv, each bringing their own staffers and advisers. In brief public comments before the meeting, Biden stressed that the US “will continue to have your back.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes the hand of newly appointed minister Benny Gantz at a special plenum session presenting the new emergency government in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, October 12, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The US president praised the members of the cabinet — which was created when the National Unity party joined the coalition last week —  for “standing strong, standing united.”

Later, Biden met in Tel Aviv with a group of first responders and doctors, including United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer, who treated victims of the Hamas onslaught, as well as with families of those killed or missing, before also sitting down for a closed-door meeting with President Isaac Herzog.

Also among the Israelis he met was Rachel Edri, who charmed her and her husband’s five armed terrorist captors in her Ofakim home for 15 hours as she conveyed information secretly to a SWAT team she knew was watching.

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

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 said that some 450 rockets launched by Gazan terror groups have misfired and landed inside the Strip since October 7, causing an unknown number of Palestinian fatalities. Israel also says its forces killed about 1,500 terrorists in its territory following the mass infiltration on October 7.

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