Updated Oct 17, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Hospital blast, fears of escalation raise stakes of Biden's Israel visit

People stand over bodies of Palestinians killed by a blast at the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza. Photo: Dawood Nemer/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's arrival in Israel on Wednesday comes against the backdrop of a dramatic escalation of the war in Gaza, raising the stakes of an unprecedented wartime visit that the world will be closely watching.

Why it matters: The visit — intended as a show of solidarity with Israel and a warning to Iran and Hezbollah — will be clouded by the bombing of a hospital in Gaza Tuesday, which the Hamas-run Health Ministry says killed at least 500 people.

  • The Israeli Defense Forces have denied involvement in the blast, saying intelligence points to a failed rocket launch by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group.
  • Hamas and PIJ have blamed an Israeli airstrike for the massacre, triggering condemnations from Arab leaders and mass protests in the occupied West Bank, Jordan and across the region.

What they're saying: "I am outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion at the Al Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza, and the terrible loss of life that resulted," Biden said in a statement from Air Force One.

  • "Immediately upon hearing this news, I spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and have directed my national security team to continue gathering information about what exactly happened."

State of play: Biden has so far expressed unequivocal support for Israel and condemnation for Hamas, describing the terrorist attack earlier this month as "pure, unadulterated evil."

  • Top Biden officials have responded to concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza by stressing the importance of Israel adhering to the "laws of war."

The big picture: Biden's trip has already been impacted by the political fallout from the blast, which is still rapidly unfurling.

  • Meetings in Amman with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab leaders were canceled after the bombing — scuttling one of the two stops Biden was planning to make along with Tel Aviv.
  • Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) blamed Israel for the attack and demanded Biden call for a ceasefire, which he is unlikely to do before Israel begins its expected ground operation into Gaza.
  • "Your war and destruction only approach has opened my eyes and many Palestinian Americans and Muslims [sic] Americans like me. We will remember where you stood," Tlaib tweeted.

What to watch: Lebanon-based Hezbollah called for a "day of unprecedented anger" against Israel and Biden's visit Wednesday, as fears rise of regional escalation.

  • The White House has been discussing the possibility of using military force if Hezbollah attacks Israel with its huge arsenal of rockets, Axios' Barak Ravid scooped.
  • The Pentagon has ordered about 2,000 U.S. troops to be prepared to deploy to the Middle East in support of Israel, though likely not in combat roles.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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