In Historic Visit, Biden Embraces Israel, Raises Hope for Gaza Aid

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Palestinian residents search for survivors in the Abu Sahaq family home in Bani Suhaila, east of Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday.

TEL AVIV – President Biden visited Israel on Wednesday in a historic show of solidarity with an ally during wartime and promised to redouble American military assistance to the country, even as he urged Israelis not to surrender to “all-consuming rage” following this month’s unprecedented attacks by Hamas.

Biden announced that a deal had been struck with Israel to allow humanitarian aid to flow from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, where more than 2 million people face relentless airstrikes and an Israeli siege. Supplies of food, drinking water and fuel are dwindling by the hour. Despite the apparent breakthrough, Biden said the aid would not start arriving until Friday at the earliest.

The president’s visit unfolded at a moment of extraordinary anger across the Middle East. Hours before he left Washington, a devastating blast hit outside a hospital in Gaza, killing nearly 500 people, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, most of them displaced families who had sought shelter there. Palestinian officials were quick to cite an Israeli airstrike; Israel blamed local militants.

Speaking in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Biden came down firmly on the Israeli side, saying the blast appeared to be “the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza. He said he was “outraged and saddened by the enormous loss of life.”

But Arab leaders horrified by the hospital strike had already canceled a meeting planned with Biden. On Wednesday, furious protesters flooded the streets from Morocco to Iran, while deadly clashes erupted in the West Bank.

Biden has stood steadfastly behind Israel since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, who killed at least 1,400 people and captured nearly 200 hostages, including a number of Americans. But the president’s rhetoric has shifted in recent days as he has sought to draw a distinction between militants and Palestinian civilians.

Concerned that the war between Israel and Hamas could escalate into a broader regional conflict, the White House has tried to assure Arab partners that it will use its influence to protect innocent Gazans. Conditions in the enclave – already one of the poorest and most densely populated places in the world – are deteriorating rapidly. More than 3,000 people have been killed by airstrikes. Local hospitals are collapsing.

On Wednesday, Biden likened the Hamas attacks on Israel to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He said Americans understand the shock, pain and anger that Israelis are feeling. But he also counseled caution.

“After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States” Biden said. “While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.” He urged Israel to be clear and honest about its objectives. “The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” he said. “Palestinian people are suffering greatly as well.”

Biden spent a little over seven hours in Israel, where he was greeted on the tarmac by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two men – whose decades-long relationship has been tested this year – shared a brief hug. Biden spent more than two hours at a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet before speaking with survivors of the attacks and families of victims and hostages.

Biden plans to make a televised address to the nation on Thursday evening to discuss the U.S. response to the Hamas attacks on Israel, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The president also announced $100 million in new U.S. humanitarian assistance for Gaza and the West Bank, where dozens of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces over the last 10 days and the American-backed Palestinian Authority is struggling to maintain its hold on power.

During a refueling stop on the flight back to Washington, Biden said Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi had agreed to open the Rafah crossing between his country and Gaza, allowing up to 20 trucks of humanitarian aid to enter the enclave, possibly as early as Friday.

“If Hamas confiscates them or doesn’t let it get through . . . then it’s going to end,” Biden told reporters on Air Force One.

Netanyahu emphasized Wednesday that Israel would not permit the transfer of any humanitarian aid to Gaza from its own territory, but said it would not thwart the delivery of supplies from Egypt, provided it was limited to “food, water and medicine for the civilian population” – and so long as none of it reached Hamas.

The Rafah crossing, the last remaining land route for relief convoys between Gaza and Egypt, has been effectively shut for more than a week after Israeli airstrikes in the area. Earlier this week, trucks filled with undelivered aid lined the road in Arish, the nearest Egyptian city. Foreign nationals desperate to escape Gaza crowded the shuttered gates on the Palestinian side.

In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths said that key details on the delivery of aid remain unresolved including, most critically, the process for verifying that trucks going into Gaza contain only humanitarian supplies.

Griffiths said he hoped that Israel, Egypt and the United Nations could come to a “quick agreement” on a “light but effective verification process” that would allow supplies to begin moving later this week.

Biden told reporters he was also hoping for progress on another front: The fate of the estimated 500 to 600 U.S. citizens trapped in Gaza. “I’m hopeful we can get some Americans out,” he said, without providing further detail.

For their families, the lack of assurances was a bitter disappointment.

“It’s just unbelievable for him to get on a plane without striking a deal to get them out,” said Sammy Nabulsi, a lawyer in Boston whose friends Abood Okal and Wafaa Abuzayda are caught in Gaza. The couple’s 1-year-old son has a fever and they’re running out of drinking water and cooking fuel.

“It’s incredibly dangerous and dire right now,” he said.

Many hospitals in Gaza are operating at a “bare minimum capacity” as the enclave faced its seventh day of a full electricity blackout, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an update late Tuesday.

The organization also warned that many people had been forced to drink unsafe water, risking death and disease.

Israeli airstrikes on the territory continued Wednesday, including on a three-story building in Gaza City that killed 40 people, survivors told the Associated Press.

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday called on residents of northern Gaza to evacuate to a designated humanitarian area in the town of al-Mawasi, the latest in a series of recent directives urging Gazans to move south, even though most have nowhere to stay. The United Nations has warned that the evacuation orders may violate international law.

On Wednesday, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a pause in all attacks to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians and a withdrawal of Israel’s evacuation directives.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the resolution failed to mention “Israel’s right to self-defense” and said that the diplomatic process, including Biden’s visit to Israel, should be allowed to “play out.”

At U.S. and Israeli diplomatic missions across the Middle East, demonstrators seethed over the hospital blast.

In Turkey, which only recently resumed diplomatic relations with Israel, protesters burned Israeli flags in front of the consulate in Istanbul. In the Jordanian capital of Amman, demonstrators clashed with riot police near the Israeli Embassy.

In Iraq, militia groups backed by Iran claimed responsibility for a string of attempted drone attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces, linking the assaults to Washington’s support for Israel.

Palestinians across the occupied West Bank clashed with Israeli and Palestinian security forces, leaving several dead. About 1,000 people gathered Wednesday for a protest in Ramallah, carrying the flags of Fatah, the ruling party, as well as Hamas, its longtime rival.

“There is no difference between the factions,” said Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank. “Our goal should be focused on Gaza, Jerusalem and the resistance.”

There was little acknowledgment in the region of Israel’s denial of responsibility for the hospital strike, or of Biden’s agreement that Palestinian militants were responsible. Saudi Arabia – which in recent months had been exploring normalizing ties with Israel – immediately condemned what it said was a “heinous crime committed by the Israeli occupation forces.”

H.A. Hellyer, an international security studies expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said governments were responding to the anger on the streets. “The public mood is hotter than it’s been in a very, very long time,” he said.