ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Biden: The world is looking

In Tel Aviv, Biden pins blame for Gaza hospital blast on ‘the other team’

Visiting president says Hamas makes ISIS look ‘more rational,’ praises Israelis for ‘their courage, their commitment, their bravery’ before meeting with first responders

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
US President Joe Biden (L) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023, (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

In a major boost for Jerusalem, US President Joe 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, as he arrived in Israel for an unprecedented wartime visit by a US president.

“I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” said Biden, sitting alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tel Aviv hotel. “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears it was done by the other team, and not you.”

At the same time, he added, “there’s a lot of people out there who are not sure. So we’ve gotta overcome a lot of things.”

Later Wednesday, Biden appeared to be asked by a loud group of reporters what information he used to make his assessment about the source of the Gaza hospital blast. He responded: “Data I was shown by my Defense Department.”

Aboard Air Force One on the flight over, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby had told reporters that Biden was going to ask Netanyahu some “tough questions as a friend of Israel” regarding Jerusalem’s strategy in the Gaza war.

The blast occurred on Tuesday evening in the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital parking lot. Palestinians and much of the Arab world blamed Israel, saying it had struck the medical facility and that hundreds had been killed. Jerusalem was swiftly condemned by Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others.

Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari shows the press a graphic of alleged rocket launches near al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza at a press conference in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

But the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday night said it was not behind the blast, and that a misfired rocket launched by Gaza terrorists caused the explosion. Netanyahu and other senior officials pointed at Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Israel presented additional evidence on Wednesday morning indicating that PIJ was responsible for the blast.

Biden landed at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv at shortly before 11 a.m. for meetings with Israeli officials, almost an hour behind schedule.

During their joint statements in Tel Aviv shortly after landing, Biden compared Hamas to ISIS, saying, “They have committed evils and atrocities that make ISIS look somewhat more rational.”

“Americans are grieving with you, they really are. Americans are worried… because they know this is not an easy field to navigate what you have to do,” the president said. As Israel responds, “it seems to me that you have to continue to ensure that you have what you need to defend yourselves. And we’re going to make sure that occurs.”

At the same time, Biden repeated oblique warnings to Israel about its conduct of the war: “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.”

“I am looking forward to having a thorough discussion about where everyone goes from here,” Biden said.

He concluded with a message to Israelis, saying “their courage, their commitment, their bravery is stunning. I’m proud to be here.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18, 2023 (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

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

“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.”

“Hamas murdered children in front of their parents, and parents in front of their children,” Netanyahu said, detailing Hamas’s crimes during the October 7 attacks.

“They burned people alive. They raped and murdered women. They beheaded soldiers. They searched for the secret hiding places where parents hid their children. And just imagine, Mr. President, the fear and panic of those little children as the monsters discovered, found out, their hiding places.”

“Hamas kidnapped women and children, elderly, Holocaust survivors. I know you share our outrage on this. And I know you share our determination to bring these people back,” Netanyahu said.

An IDF soldier stands amid destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza border, October 15, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israeli officials have said that Hamas beheaded babies, but Netanyahu only mentioned soldiers.

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.”

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.”

Biden recalled that Israel’s founders said that the nation would be based on “freedom, justice, and peace. The United States stands with you in defense of that freedom, in pursuit of that justice, and in support of that peace, today, tomorrow, and always, we promise you.”

US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lead a meeting of Israel’s war cabinet in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

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.

The US president told the group of medical professionals that “none of your hearts have turned to stone,” and expressed his admiration for how the medical professionals expressed pride in having treated victims regardless of whether they were Jewish or Muslim.

Biden said he is “convinced” that the more people know of these stories about the conduct of the medical professionals, “the more they’ll embrace Israel.”

Separately, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas late Tuesday to offer condolences and voice support for Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations,” the State Department said.

Blinken, who is on a regional crisis tour, spoke by telephone with Abbas hours after meeting him in person in Amman.

Blinken called Abbas “to express profound condolences for the civilian lives lost in the explosion” at the hospital, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Blinken “expressed continuing US support for the Palestinian people, stressing that Hamas terrorists do not represent Palestinians or their legitimate aspirations for self-determination and equal measures of dignity, freedom, security and justice,” Miller said.

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 hospital blast threatened to shift the focus of Biden’s trip.

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 explosion.

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 1,400 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.

At their joint public appearance, Biden spoke to Netanyahu about “encouraging life-saving capacity to help the Palestinians who are innocent, caught in the middle of this.”

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 USbSecretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv after talks on October 16, 2023 ((Haim Zach / GPO)

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.

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 Palestinian fatalities. Israel has also said its forces killed about 1,500 terrorists in its territory following the mass infiltration on October 7.

Jacob Magid and AFP contributed to this report. 

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