By Reuters and published by CNA
Tel Aviv/ Gaza – US President Joe Biden pledged solidarity with Israel on Wednesday (Oct. 18) and said a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital seemed to have been caused by a rocket misfired by militants as he ended a Middle East peace mission that was curtailed by the explosion.
Raising fears of wider instability, protesters staged anti-Israeli demonstrations around the Middle East over the fireball that engulfed the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital late on Tuesday, which Palestinian officials said killed 471 people.
They blamed an Israeli air strike, while Israel said it was caused by a failed rocket launch by the Gaza Strip’s Islamic Jihad militant group, which denied blame.
Biden promised more aid to Israel at the end of his impromptu one-day visit to the country, which is bombarding Gaza to try to root out militants from its ruling Hamas group after they killed 1,400 Israelis in a cross-border assault on Oct. 7.
He said of the hospital blast: “Based on the information we have seen today, it appears the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group in Gaza.”
In Washington, the White House National Security Council echoed Biden, saying the US assessment was based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information.
Arab leaders responded to the loss of life at the hospital, which they blamed on Israel, by cancelling a summit with Biden in Jordan. This had been intended as the second half of his carefully choreographed itinerary for emergency meetings with allies to avert a wider Middle East war.
Don’t be consumed by rage, Biden says
Biden said the United States would do everything it could to ensure Israel was safe while also urging Israelis not to be consumed by rage, reiterating that the vast majority of Palestinians were not affiliated with Hamas.
The Gaza health ministry said 3,478 Palestinians have been killed and 12,065 injured in Israeli air strikes on the besieged enclave since Oct. 7.
Biden said the US would provide US$100 million in new funding for humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“What sets us apart from the terrorists is we believe in the fundamental dignity of every human life,” Biden said. If that was not respected, “then the terrorists win.”
He also said he would ask Congress for an “unprecedented” aid package this week, before flying out of Israel after what ended up being a less than eight-hour visit.
Biden faced intense pressure to secure a clear Israeli commitment to let aid into Gaza from Egypt, to ease the plight of civilians in the small, densely populated coastal enclave.
At the end of his visit, Netanyahu’s office put out a statement saying Israel would let food, water and medicines reach southern Gaza via Egypt. It reiterated that it would not let aid in from Israel until Hamas released Israeli hostages.
Biden summit with Arabs cancelled
Biden’s Middle East trip was designed to calm the region, but Jordan called off his planned summit there with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority after the hospital blast. Instead, he was expected to hold phone calls with Jordan and Egypt from Air Force One on his way home.
After talks with Netanyahu’s war cabinet, Biden held an emotional meeting with Israeli survivors of the Oct. 7 slaughter. He hugged retired grandmother Rachel Edri, who was held hostage at gunpoint in her home for 20 hours by Hamas and used food and conversation to stall them until their capture.
“Please keep supporting us in eliminating Hamas once and for all,” a soldier told Biden.
Hamas and witnesses later said Israel was bombarding Gaza City’s Zeitoun district, where the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital is located, and the group’s armed wing said it fired more rockets towards Israel’s biggest city Tel Aviv on Wednesday over what it called Israeli attacks on Gaza civilians.
Sirens sounded in central Israel but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
‘Help us, help us!’
The accounts of destruction at the hospital were horrific even by the standards of the past 12 days, which have confronted the world with relentless images, first of Israelis murdered by Hamas gunmen in their homes and then of Palestinian families buried under rubble from Israel’s retaliatory strikes.
Rescue workers scoured blood-stained debris for survivors. The Gaza health ministry put the death toll at 471, though Israel disputed the figure. Palestinian ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qudra said rescuers were still recovering bodies.
“We don’t know what it was, but we found out what it could do, after it targeted children, who were cut into pieces,” said Mohammad Al-Naqa, a doctor at the hospital who said 3,000 people were sheltering there when it was hit.
Palestinians were convinced the explosion was an Israeli attack, with no warning for patients, staff or the Gazans already made homeless by bombing to leave.
Israel later released drone footage which it said showed it was not responsible because there was no impact crater from any missile or bomb and no structural damage to surrounding buildings.
Fury across Middle East
The blast unleashed anger across the Middle East.
In Lebanon, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at protesters throwing projectiles near the US embassy north of Beirut. State-sponsored marches were held across Iran, backer of Hamas and Israel’s sworn foe, with demonstrators carrying banners that read “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.
Palestinian officials said Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinian teenagers near Ramallah in the West Bank during widespread protests.
There were new clashes on Israel’s border with Lebanon, part of the deadliest violence between the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement and Israel since the last all-out war in 2006.
The UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland told the Security Council the hospital blast needed more investigation.
“I fear that we are at the brink of a deep and dangerous abyss that could change the trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if not of the Middle East as a whole,” he said.
Top: People inspect the area of Al-Ahli hospital where hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other in Gaza City, on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Reuters/Mohammed Al-Masri and published by CNA
First insert: US President Joe Biden and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo:Avi Ohayon/Israel Gpo via ZUMA Press Wire and published by Yahoo!News
Second insert: Protesters clash with Lebanese security forces on Oct. 18, 2023, outside the US Embassy during a demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza in Awkar, East of Beirut. Photo: AFP/Joseph Eid and published by CNA
Third insert: Wounded Palestinians sit in al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, after arriving from al-Ahli hospital following an explosion there on on Oct. 17, 2023. Photo: AP/Abed Khaled and published by CNA
Fourth insert: People react at the area of Al-Ahli hospital, where hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other, in Gaza City, on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Reuters/Mohammed Al-Masri and published by CNA
Front Page: Palestinians, who fled their houses amid Israeli strikes, shelter at a United Nations-run school, after Israel’s call for more than 1 million civilians in northern Gaza to move south, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on Oct. 16, 2023. File Photo: Reuters/Mohammed Salem and published by CNA