Biden, in Tel Aviv, Backs Israel’s Claim of Innocence on Hospital Blast

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023.

TEL AVIV – President Biden on Wednesday firmly backed Israel’s position that it was not responsible for the recent blast at a Gaza hospital site that killed numerous people, making his comments during a risky trip here while the region is still engulfed in turmoil.

“Based on the information we’ve seen today, it appears as a result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza,” Biden said after meeting with victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and relatives of those being held hostage by the militant group.

“The United States unequivocally stands for the protection of civilian life during the conflict. And I grieve. I truly grieve for the families who were killed or wounded by this tragedy,” Biden said. Earlier in the day, the president said his assessment of responsibility was based on data shown to him by the U.S. Defense Department.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement Wednesday evening that the U.S. government assessment was based on “available reporting, including intelligence, missile activity, overhead imagery, and open source video and images of the incident.” The intelligence, she said, indicates that some Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip believed the explosion was caused by a rocket or missile launched by a militant group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. She said U.S. officials are working to corroborate whether that is the case.

Biden’s assessment was based on multiple pieces of information, including intelligence provided by the Israelis, according to officials familiar with the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

The president may address the hospital blast again Thursday evening. The White House announced that Biden will deliver an Oval Office address at 8 p.m. Thursday on Russia’s war against Ukraine as well as the Hamas attacks in Israel.

White House officials are considering asking Congress for an aid package for Israel and Ukraine that could cost as much as $100 billion, although the exact amount is still in flux. Assistance for Israel is broadly popular in Congress, but some Republicans have shown resistance to providing further aid to Ukraine.

The blast at the Gaza hospital derailed Biden’s trip even before he left Washington.

Since the hospital was devastated Tuesday by a strike that Palestinian authorities said killed hundreds of people, Israel and the United States have been the targets of rage, condemnation and protest that have surged across the Middle East. Wednesday’s statements by Israel and the United States that a Palestinian militant group was responsible for the blast may carry little weight with Arab protesters.

Later Wednesday, Biden told reporters he understands why some in the region are skeptical of the assessment. “I don’t say things like that unless I have faith in the source I’ve got,” he said. “Our Defense Department says it’s highly unlikely it’s the Israelis.”

Biden had planned to travel to Jordan to meet with Arab leaders Wednesday after visiting Israel, but as Air Force One started rolling down the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington the previous night, White House officials alerted reporters that the Jordan visit was being scrapped amid the angry reaction in the Arab world to the hospital blast.

Among the most useful pieces of information in identifying who may be responsible for a strike are infrared signatures from satellites, which may have detected a rocket launch as opposed to an aerial bombing, one U.S. official said. Images of the impact site, as well as any fragments recovered, could also help identify who was responsible, the official said.

The Pentagon on Wednesday declined to release any information detailing how it came to its assessment.

Despite Biden’s statements Wednesday, senior officials at the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday called for an independent investigation, without acknowledging U.S.-backed Israeli conclusions that the strike was caused by an errant rocket fired by militants inside Gaza.

Representatives from Russia and China at the Security Council referred to the blast as an “airstrike,” with Russia calling for a stop to “indiscriminate attacks on the Gaza strip . . . including an airstrike on a hospital.”

The U.S. conclusion appeared to do little to assuage anger in Arab and Muslim countries, where people generally harbor deep distrust of Israel and the United States. Israel’s army in the past has blamed Palestinian militants for strikes and civilian deaths and then later acknowledged it was probably at fault, such as in the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Such skepticism could make it harder for Arab leaders to accept Biden’s conclusion – and harder to help him prevent the Israel-Gaza conflict from widening into a regional conflagration.

Since the hospital blast, protesters have taken to the streets from Morocco to Iran, often in marches held in front of Israeli or Western diplomatic missions and sometimes including the burning of the Israeli flag. Several governments, including those of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, directly condemned Israel after the strike.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military personnel in the Middle East, said its forces had shot down three drones in Iraq over the past day, with minor injuries to one coalition member. Military officials said that “in this moment of heightened alert,” they are “vigilantly monitoring the situation in Iraq and the region.”

The protests in part reflected the pent-up anger at the mounting civilian toll in Gaza. For Arab leaders, the popular outrage threatened to halt any movement toward rapprochement with Israel that had been underway.

Shortly after landing in Israel, Biden, while meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was “deeply saddened and outraged” by the event. “Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden told the Israeli leader, referring to the hospital strike.

Biden arrived in an active war zone at a tense and unpredictable moment as Israel prepares for an expected ground incursion into Gaza in response to a brutal surprise attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,300 Israelis. Israel has launched an aerial counterattack that has killed roughly 3,000 people in Gaza.

Palestinian and Israeli officials have traded blame for the blast at al-Ahli Hospital, which potentially includes the deadliest single toll on civilians in the strip since the conflict began.

In Amman, Jordan, Biden had been scheduled to meet with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to discuss the conflict and the need for humanitarian assistance in Gaza. The White House said Biden would continue to be in touch with those leaders, but the meeting’s cancellation was a setback to the president’s diplomatic efforts.

Administration officials on Wednesday briefed members of Congress about the hospital strike, and they largely appeared convinced by the White House’s conclusion that Israel was not responsible. House and Senate intelligence committee leaders said after reviewing intelligence that they were confident in the assessment.

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that they believe “the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike,” matching Israel’s explanation.

Warner also told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he thinks it is important for “the administration and frankly the Israelis” to release “as much evidence as possible, to make sure that the origins of this horrific attack on the hospital” are made clear.

Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he was “very comfortable” with the administration’s assessment and the “rigor” behind it.

Israel announced a full siege of Gaza, a densely populated enclave of more than 2 million people, in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, cutting off food, fuel, water and electricity. It also ordered the evacuation of more than 1 million Gaza civilians in 24 hours, a task the United Nations called impossible.

Conditions in Gaza, which are already difficult, are rapidly deteriorating and have set off a humanitarian crisis. White House officials have said in recent days they were working to secure a humanitarian corridor and aid into the territory.

Biden’s trip to Israel marked his second visit to an active war zone this year, after he made a secretive trip to Kyiv in February. Before Biden’s visit to Ukraine, no U.S. president had traveled to a war zone in which U.S. troops were not actively involved and could not provide security on the ground.

In Israel, rocket sirens throughout the country have been ringing, warning citizens to seek shelter. After Biden landed in the country, at least two sirens sounded close to the border with Gaza. Another set of alarms sounded in Tel Aviv and central Israel just minutes after he departed the country Wednesday afternoon.

“Of course these types of trips have risks,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during the flight to Israel. “So we understand that, but also the president understands how important it is to have these diplomatic conversations to get things done.”

Before his meeting with Israel’s war cabinet, Biden condemned Hamas’s attack as “almost beyond belief” and promised sustained U.S. support. “I want you to know you’re not alone,” he said, adding, “We will continue to have Israel’s back as you work to defend your people.”

Netanyahu, who has a long but complicated relationship with Biden, heaped praise on the president for making the trip to his country.

“For the people of Israel, there’s only one thing better than having a true friend like you standing with Israel, and that is having you standing in Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Your visit here is the first visit of an American president in Israel at a time of war, and it is deeply, deeply moving. It speaks to the depth of your personal commitment to Israel.”

Several English-language billboards in Tel Aviv welcomed Biden upon his arrival.

Later, Netanyahu said that Hamas perpetrates a “double war crime” every day, reiterating accusations by Israeli officials that the militant group targets Israeli citizens while hiding behind Palestinian civilians. Hamas is “embedding themselves in the civilian population and using them as human shields,” Netanyahu said.

“This will be a different kind of war because Hamas is a different kind of enemy,” he added. “While Israel seeks to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas seeks to maximize civilian casualties. Hamas wants to kill as many Israelis as possible and has no regard whatsoever for Palestinian lives.”

Before Biden arrived in Tel Aviv, John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said the president planned to ask his Israeli counterparts “tough questions” about their objectives in the coming weeks, during the expected ground incursion into Gaza and beyond.

“This is not about directing operations for the Israeli defense forces, and by tough questions, I don’t mean menacing or in any way adversarial,” Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One. “Just hard questions a good friend of Israel would ask about sort of where they think they’re going, what their plans are going forward.”