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TEL AVIV — President Biden’s visit to Israel on Wednesday raised hopes of a breakthrough in Gaza’s rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis, as the U.S. president announced that Israel had agreed to allow humanitarian assistance to move into embattled enclave from Egypt.
While Biden’s visit was primarily a dramatic and staunch show of solidarity with Israel, the announcement could provide relief to hundreds of thousands of residents in Gaza, who have been cut off from food, water and fuel since Israel imposed a full siege last week in the wake of the unprecedented Hamas attack. Human rights groups have condemned as illegal the siege, which has prompted a mounting wave of rage in the Middle East.
In addition to potentially billions for Israel, Biden announced $100 million in new U.S. funding for humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Protests escalated Tuesday night, as Biden was preparing to leave for Israel, after a deadly blast at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza that Palestinian authorities blamed on an Israeli airstrike.
Fury over Gaza hospital blast surges across Middle East
While Israel denied responsibility for the blast, which killed over 400 according to Palestinian officials, the fallout disrupted Biden’s visit. A scheduled meeting between Biden and the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to discuss the war was canceled, at least temporarily derailing U.S. efforts to de-escalate regional tensions and prevent a broadening of the conflict.
Israel and the United States also were targets of growing public rage on Wednesday, with protesters taking to the streets from Morocco to Iran, even as doubts over Israeli responsibility for the blast at al-Ahli Hospital mounted among the country’s allies.
“While we continue to collect information, our current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open-source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” said a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, Adrienne Watson. Biden had earlier told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”
“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure, so we’ve got a lot — we’ve got to overcome a lot of things,” Biden cautioned.
In Turkey, which only recently resumed normal relations with Israel, demonstrators burned Israeli flags in front of the consulate in Istanbul. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blast the latest example of “Israeli attacks devoid of the most basic human values.”
Protesters gathered near the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon on Oct. 18 after a Gaza hospital was hit by an airstrike. Security forces responded by firing tear gas. (Video: Reuters)
In Lebanon, where demonstrators marched to the U.S. Embassy, the State Department raised its travel advisory to the most severe level, warning U.S. citizens not to visit the country. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said the incident was a “heinous war crime that cannot be ignored” and called on Israel to “stop its aggression against Gaza.”
In remarks while beside visiting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi warned over what he saw was an Israeli attempt to forcibly displace the Palestinians from Gaza and into Egypt and suggested that they be housed in Israel’s Negev Desert instead.
Palestinians search debris, treat wounded after devastating hospital blast
“It’s an attempt to push civilians to take refuge in Egypt,” he said during Wednesday’s news conference, adding that a similar operation to forcibly remove Palestinian civilians in the West Bank into Jordan could be in the works as well.
With the region on edge, questions mounted over the extent to which the United States can arbitrate between Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors, as the Pentagon is surging its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and providing Israel with weapons.
Biden’s visit on Wednesday was the most dramatic show of support for Israel so far, as the country reels from the bloodiest day in its 75-year history. At least 1,400 people in Israel have been killed since the attack on Oct. 7, according to Israeli authorities.
Meeting with Israel’s emergency war cabinet and with Israeli families affected by the Hamas attack, Biden once again condemned the Hamas attack as “almost beyond belief” as he promised sustained U.S. support. “I want you to know you’re not alone.”
But repeatedly on Wednesday, Biden was careful to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people, over whom the militant group rules in the Gaza Strip. “Hamas does not represent all the Palestinian people,” he said.
In its statement on aid for the Palestinians, Israel said while it would not permit any humanitarian supplies from its own territory, it “will not thwart humanitarian supplies arriving from Egypt as long as it is only food, water and medicine for the civilian population,” adding that no supplies should reach Hamas.
Biden concurred, saying, “Let me be clear: If Hamas diverts or steals the assistance, they will have demonstrated once again they have no concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people.”
Over 3,000 people have so far been killed in Gaza, a narrow, 25-mile-long stretch of land squeezed against the sea, according to Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Health Ministry on Wednesday made an “urgent distress call” to all gas station owners Tuesday, asking “anyone who has diesel” to immediately contact the ministry “to save the lives of the wounded and sick.”
Many hospitals in Gaza were operating at a “bare minimum capacity” after days of full electricity blackouts, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
“There is increasing water consumption from unsafe sources, placing the population at risk of death or infectious disease outbreak,” the statement added.
Protests in support of Palestinians erupted in the Middle East and North Africa on Oct. 17 after an explosion at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of people. (Video: Reuters)
Noack reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Fahim from Beirut. Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Dan Lamothe in Washington, Claire Parker in Cairo, and John Hudson in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.