Updated Oct 18, 2023 - Politics & Policy

As Biden visits Israel chaos rises across Middle East

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets President Biden on the tarmac as he arrives in Israel. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

President Biden landed in Tel Aviv today to show solidarity with Israel in its war against Hamas, and to try to prevent the war from spreading. But the Middle East is already bubbling over with rage — and the war's shockwaves are increasingly tough to contain.

Driving the news: A deadly missile blast Tuesday at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of Palestinians, Gaza officials said — and inspired protests throughout the Arab world. The day felt like a turning point in a war in which signs of escalation and rising tension are all around.

  • Hamas blamed Israel for the strike. Israel said it had evidence that another group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fired the missile.
  • After landing in Israel, Biden said it appeared "the other team" — not Israel — was responsible for the explosion.

By then, anger had already swept through the Arab world as images of those killed or wounded at the hospital hit TV and social media, complicating Biden's push for diplomacy.

  • Reports in Arab media that cast the explosion as a massacre by Israel drove thousands of protesters to the streets of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
  • The protesters clashed with the Palestinian Authority's security forces and called for the resignation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He initially criticized Hamas for starting the war with the terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Those comments later were removed from the authority's website.
  • Abbas canceled his participation in a summit with Biden and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan that had been planned for Wednesday evening in Jordan — and was an in-person opportunity for Biden to press Arab leaders to contain the conflict. Biden now won't go to Jordan.
  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt blamed Israel for the missile strike at the hospital.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in Amman. Photo: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of protesters were reported in the streets of Amman, where Jordan's King Abdullah issued a statement condemning Israel, and canceled the summit that Biden was to have attended. Biden will fly straight back to Washington from Israel.

Between the lines: The explosion at the hospital occurred just hours before Biden left the White House to fly to Tel Aviv. He was briefed by his team and called Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was already in Israel.

  • Before boarding Air Force One, Biden spoke by phone with King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden's plane was about to take off when the White House issued a short statement announcing that the president had canceled the Jordan leg of his one-day trip.
  • Onboard, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the president intended to speak with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by phone on his flight home from Israel.

What we're watching: The conflicting accounts of who fired the missile that struck the Gaza hospital are likely to be an ongoing provocation.

  • Netanyahu's government and the Israel Defense Forces have pushed back hard against the Hamas accusations.
  • The Israeli military said its initial investigation found there were no Israeli airstrikes in the area in the hour before the explosion.
  • The IDF released a recording on Wednesday of a conversation between two people it claimed were Hamas operatives. The two individuals say the shrapnel at the hospital doesn't look like it came from Israeli bombs but rather from rockets used by Islamic Jihad. Axios has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the recording.

Aboard Air Force One, Biden said he directed his national security team to continue gathering information about what happened.

  • Biden plans to meet with Netanyahu and the Israeli War Cabinet on Wednesday to "ask them tough questions as a friend of Israel," about their war plan and their strategy in Gaza, Kirby said.
  • Biden is likely to press Netanyahu to take steps to avoid civilian casualties and allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.

Context: The vast majority of Palestinians are not members of Hamas.

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.

  • "The United States stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life during conflict and we mourn the patients, medical staff and other innocents killed or wounded in this tragedy."

The latest: Biden and Netanyahu met for over an hour in Tel Aviv before moving into a larger meeting that also included the Israeli war cabinet.

  • In remarks at the top of the meeting, Biden said he was happy to see the Israeli cabinet united, with members of the opposition having joined since the war began. "I want you to know you are not alone," Biden said.
  • Netanyahu told Biden this is going to be a "different kind of war" because Hamas is a "different kind of enemy." The Israeli prime minister said Israel will do everything to avoid hitting civilians in Gaza.

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

Go deeper: Biden says "other team," not Israel, likely responsible for Gaza hospital explosion

Go deeper