President Joe Biden delivered unequivocal US backing for Israel in person on Wednesday, supporting his ally’s stance that Palestinian militants were behind a deadly rocket strike on a Gaza hospital that has inflamed anger across the Middle East and beyond.
Arab countries blamed Israel, which has rained bombs on Gaza since the bloody October 7 attack by Hamas fighters, with protests in Muslim countries from Egypt to Pakistan after Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah vowed a “day of rage”.
But Biden, on a solidarity visit to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voiced support for Israel’s position that a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket caused the carnage at Gaza’s Christian-run Ahli Arab Hospital.
“I was deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” Biden said about the strike that Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry said killed 471 people.
“And, based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” said the US president, referring to the armed movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which Washington and other Western governments deem “terrorist” groups.
“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure, so we have to overcome a lot of things,” Biden added, as protests also erupted against Israel and the United States in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Asked later by reporters what made him sure Israel was not responsible for the strike, Biden replied: “The data I was shown by my defence department.”
At a news conference later, Biden went further: “Based on the information we have seen today it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.”
But he gave Israel a warning, despite saying he understood the urge to hit back at those responsible for the worst attack in Israel’s history on October 7, when some 1,400 people were shot, mutilated or burnt to death.
“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 we also made mistakes,” he said.
Israel said afterwards it had agreed to Biden’s request to allow aid into the besieged Gaza Strip via Egypt after mounting concern about dwindling supplies and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.
But it said it was limited to “food, water and medicine” and conditional on it not being used by Hamas, Netanyahu’s office added.
Biden also announced plans for “unprecedented” aid for Israel and the Palestinians, as part of a wider $100 billion package that includes support for Ukraine.
Moments after Biden took off in Air Force One, rocket alerts were activated in central Israel, east of Tel Aviv. Police said rockets fell near the Lebanese border, causing damage but no casualties.
– ‘Bloodshed must stop’ –
The horror of the hospital deaths overshadowed Biden’s high-stakes regional visit, with Jordan cancelling a summit between King Abdullah II, Biden, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Israel’s military campaign to destroy Hamas, which is holding 199 hostages in the besieged territory, has now claimed the lives of 3,478 people, according to health officials.
Arab countries have almost universally blamed Israel for the hospital strike, either directly or through state media — including Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which are among the region’s few countries which have diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — a 57-member bloc of Muslim-majority countries — denounced Israel’s backers for granting the country “impunity” in its war with Gaza.
In the besieged enclave, the hospital blast brought new horrors after 12 days of sustained bombardment that Israel says targets Hamas and which has destroyed entire city blocks.
More than a million people have been displaced ahead of an anticipated Israeli ground offensive, according to the UN.
Overnight, after the explosion, AFP reporters saw scores of bodies cloaked in blood-stained sheets and white plastic lined the floors at the nearby the Al-Shifa hospital, where bereaved relatives tried to identify loved ones.
“As I entered the hospital, I heard the explosion. I saw a massive fire,” said Gaza resident Adnan al-Naqa. “The entire square was on fire. There were bodies everywhere, children, women and elderly people.”
“Hospitals are not a target,” said Ghassan Abu Sittah of the charity Doctors Without Borders, who was inside the building when the compound was hit. “This bloodshed must stop. Enough is enough.”
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said hundreds died including “internally displaced people seeking safe shelter”.
Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said the hospital was hit by a rocket that misfired after it was launched by Islamic Jihad — an ally of Hamas, Gaza’s rulers, who have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since October 7.
“Our radar system tracked missiles fired by terrorists in Gaza at the time of the explosion and the trajectory analysis of the rockets shows the rockets were fired in close proximity to the hospital.”
Hamas replied that Israel’s “outrageous lies do not deceive anyone”.
The group also slammed the United States on Wednesday, accusing Israel’s long-time ally of being complicit in the ongoing strikes on Gaza.
“The continued endorsement of the Zionist narrative by the US administration makes it complicit in the occupation’s massacres and the Baptist hospital massacre in Gaza,” it said.
– ‘Spiralling out of control’ –
Entire Gaza neighbourhoods have been razed and survivors are left with dwindling supplies of food, water and fuel, unable to flee the 40-kilometre (25-mile) long strip blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007.
“The situation in Gaza is spiralling out of control,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
“We need violence on all sides to stop.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and warned Israel against “the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.
Biden said he was encouraging Netanyahu to ensure “life-saving capacity to help the Palestinians who are innocent and caught in the middle of this”.
Inside Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians who hold US or other foreign passports have desperately hoped to escape through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the only way in or out of Gaza not controlled by Israel.
The Rafah crossing has remained closed during the war as Israel has struck the Palestinian side, preventing the delivery of aid piled up in long convoys of trucks waiting in Egypt.
Sisi, in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, denied Egypt was keeping the border closed and warned against any potential Israeli plan to permanently drive Palestinians out of Gaza.
Such a “forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt” would set a precedent for also pushing West Bank Palestinians into Jordan, Sisi said.
The effect, the Egyptian president warned, would be “eradicating the Palestinian cause” and making a future Palestinian state “impossible”.