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US president Joe Biden landed in Israel on Wednesday amid a storm of recriminations over an explosion at a hospital in Gaza that, according to Palestinian officials, killed hundreds of people and inflamed tensions in the region during one of its worst wars in years.
Outrage and accusations over the explosion at Al-Ahli Arab hospital on Tuesday evening have overshadowed Biden’s visit. The president’s trip is meant to serve as a show of solidarity for Israel by its closest ally during its war against Hamas in Gaza and shore up regional support during what many believe will be a long military campaign.
After being met at Ben Gurion Airport by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog, Biden was to attend a meeting of Israel’s war cabinet, Israeli media reported.
After news of the explosion broke late on Tuesday, Jordan, a patron of the Palestinian cause, cancelled plans for a summit in Amman due to be attended by King Abdullah, Biden, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas pulled out of the summit and announced a three-day mourning period for what he called “a great calamity and a heinous war crime”, in remarks quoted by the Palestinian Wafa news agency. Protests broke out in Ramallah and other parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday evening.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of being responsible for the explosion at the hospital, which killed hundreds in what is thought to be one of the deadliest incidents of the war that began on October 7 after Hamas launched a deadly attack in southern Israel. The Palestine Red Crescent Society said the hospital was packed with women, children, healthcare professionals, and internally displaced people seeking shelter.
Israel’s military and Netanyahu have blamed the incident on a rocket fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group from Gaza that misfired and exploded. Netanyahu late on Tuesday said it was “barbaric terrorists in Gaza that attacked the hospital in Gaza, and not the IDF”.
The hospital is in the northern part of Gaza, which Israel has been bombarding heavily ahead of a widely expected ground incursion. Israel laid siege to Gaza and told people to evacuate the territory’s north last week, in a mass displacement order that affected about 1mn people, or nearly half Gaza’s population, causing what aid agencies said was a major humanitarian crisis as Palestinians fled south.
The United Arab Emirates, a key regional ally with which Israel made peace in the 2020 Abraham Accords, condemned what it called “the Israeli attack that targeted Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in the Gaza Strip, resulting in the death and injury of hundreds of people”. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan also blamed Israel for the explosion, and King Abdullah called it a “massacre” and a war crime.
UN secretary-general António Guterres condemned what he called a “strike” on the hospital, and deplored an attack earlier in the day at a school run by its Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA in al-Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge in schools and hospitals and Guterres stressed that “hospitals, clinics, medical personnel, and UN premises are explicitly protected under international law”.
Israel’s bombardment of the densely populated and heavily urbanised coastal enclave has already killed many civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. As in Israel’s past military operations against Hamas, the war has brought accusations that it has targeted civilians. Israel denies this and says the goal of its current war is to eliminate Hamas’s leadership from Gaza.
Israel declared war after the Hamas raids into southern Israel, which killed more than 1,400 people according to Israeli authorities, mostly civilians, in communities bordering the territory.
Netanyahu said on Monday that Hamas was “part of the axis of evil that also included Iran and Hizbollah”, a reference to the Lebanon-based militant group, with which it has exchanged fire over its northern border over the past week.
“This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle,” Netanyahu said.