Biden's high stakes trip to Israel amid tensions after fatal blast

Joe Biden flies to Israel to signal support for its war against Hamas after a deadly blast at a Gaza City hospital inflamed tensions and led to the cancellation of his planned summit with Arab leaders
An injured person is assisted at Shifa Hospital after hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023.
An injured person is assisted at Shifa Hospital after hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Al-Masri

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Steve Holland

GAZA (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden flies to Israel on Wednesday to signal support for its war against Hamas after a deadly blast at a Gaza City hospital inflamed tensions and led to the cancellation of his planned summit with Arab leaders.

A Gaza health ministry spokesperson said hundreds died at the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital after what Palestinian officials said was an Israeli air strike.

Israel blamed the blast on a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which denied responsibility.

Reuters could not immediately verify the claims nor the death toll.

The health ministry spokesperson, Ashraf Al-Qudra, said hundreds were killed and rescuers were still pulling bodies from the rubble. Earlier, a Gaza civil defence chief gave a death toll of 300, while health ministry sources put it at 500.

Regardless of who was responsible or how many may have died, the incident has inflamed a region already in crisis since Hamas carried out an Oct. 7 cross-border rampage against communities in southern Israel in which at least 1,300 people died.

Al Jazeera carried footage showing a frantic scene as rescue workers scoured blood-stained rubble for survivors. Rescuers and civilians were shown carrying away at least four victims in body bags.

Before Tuesday's blast, health authorities in Gaza said at least 3,000 people had died in Israel's 11-day bombardment that began after the Oct. 7 assault, which caught Israel by surprise and led to nearly 200 people being taken to Gaza as hostages.

In one sign of the fraught situation facing Biden, Jordan canceled a planned summit with the U.S. president, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Abbas canceled plans to meet Biden after the hospital blast.

In another, Palestinian security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah who were throwing rocks and chanting against Abbas as popular anger boiled.

Protests also took place at Israel's embassies in Turkey and Jordan and near the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, where security forces fired tear gas toward demonstrators.

HUMANITARIAN AID

Speaking to reporters as Biden flew to Tel Aviv, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Biden would put "tough questions" to Israeli leaders but did not give details.

Biden will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet seeking to get a sense of Israel's plans and aims, Kirby said.

"He'll be asking some tough questions, he'll be asking them as a friend, as a true friend of Israel, but he'll be asking some questions of them," Kirby said.

Biden has previously said the United States does not want the conflict to metastasize into a wider war, and that it wants humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza despite an Israeli "siege" that has blocked food, fuel and water supplies.

"We feel optimistic that that kind of assistance will start to flow," Kirby said.

Biden will also meet with Israeli first responders and families of those who lost loved ones or whose family members are hostages of Hamas. An estimated 200 people were taken back to Gaza as hostages after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Biden left Washington on Tuesday on what was supposed to be a complex diplomatic mission, aimed at showing support for long-time U.S. ally Israel, calming the region and shoring up humanitarian efforts for Gaza.

It was unclear what he could accomplish in the wake of the hospital strike, conflicting reports about responsibility, and the cancellation of the summit in Jordan. Kirby said Biden planned to speak with Abbas and Sisi on his way back to Washington.

"This sort of murky but horrific event makes diplomacy harder and increases escalation risks," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at International Crisis Group.

(Reporting By Nidal Mughrabi in Gaza and by Steve Holland aboard Air Force One; Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Rami Ayyub and Jeff Mason; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Stephen Coates)

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