President joe biden’s visit to contain the crisis in the Middle East has been blown up by an explosion at a Gaza hospital in which Palestinian officials say hundreds of civilians were killed. Amid mutual recriminations over who was responsible, Jordan denounced the “heinous war crime” and cancelled a summit it was due to host in Amman with Mr Biden as well as Palestinian and Egyptian leaders.
The president pressed on with the trip nevertheless, visiting Israel only. But the worsening plight of Palestinians in Gaza, and the danger of growing escalation, grimly illustrate the difficulty of the path he is trying to steer: show his love for Israel while protecting civilians in the Gaza Strip; support Israel’s retribution while restraining its excesses; ostracise Hamas while pointing to an alternative path to Palestinian statehood; deter Iran and its proxies while coaxing Arab allies to help.
The blast at the Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza, some time after 7pm on October 17th, was a shock but not a surprise. Thousands of civilians were sheltering in its grounds, alongside the sick, in the hope that the institution would afford them some protection. Israel has bombarded Gaza with unprecedented ferocity ever since Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the territory, slaughtered Israeli communities around Gaza on October 7th, killing more than 1,400 people and kidnapping about 200. More than 3,000 Palestinians have died so far. About 600,000 Gazans have fled their homes, partly in response to Israel’s call for Palestinians to leave the northern half of the territory including the main urban centre, Gaza City. Israel has cut off supplies of food, water, electricity and fuel.
The Israeli armed forces said the explosion at the hospital had been caused by a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a separate militant group. Some open-intelligence analysts posited that it happened when a Palestinian rocket failed in mid-air, causing its motor, rocket and propellent to fall on the grounds of the hospital. Images published on October 18th showed a charred parking lot, but no crater of the sort that would be expected from an Israeli air-dropped bomb. Even so, most of the Arab world quickly blamed Israel.
Chaos is building in cities in the West Bank, where large street protests are threatening the stability of the fragile Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s nationalist rival, and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. He cancelled his meeting with Mr Biden in Amman. Returning to Ramallah, he declared three days of national mourning. Within hours, the Jordanian foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said there was no point talking “now about anything except stopping the war”.
In a statement, Mr Biden said he was “outraged and deeply saddened” by the deaths at the Ahli Arab hospital. By continuing his trip, he is giving Israel the benefit of the doubt, but has directed officials to “continue gathering information about what exactly happened”. A White House official said the president planned to consult in person with Arab leaders “soon” and agreed to be in contact in the coming days.
Mr Biden starts from the position that Israel has suffered “barbarism that is as consequential as the Holocaust”, as he put it in a televised interview on October 15th. It has a right and duty to destroy Hamas, in his view, and America will provide what military equipment it needs. An American aircraft-carrier strike group is already in the eastern Mediterranean, and a second is on its way. Cargo planes are ferrying military supplies.
Large billboards saying “Thank you, Mr President” have appeared on Tel Aviv’s main highway. Israelis have also noticed that the president spoke to the families of American hostages taken by Hamas before the Israeli prime minister got in touch with Israeli ones. By embracing Israel, emotionally and politically, Mr Biden hopes to have a greater ability to restrain its response, reduce civilian casualties and thereby limit the backlash in the Arab world and beyond.
Antony Blinken, his secretary of state, has been shuttling intensely across the Middle East ahead of Mr Biden’s trip, making ten stops in seven countries in five days. According to reports, he refused to confirm Mr Biden’s arrival until he had secured Israel’s agreement to establish a humanitarian corridor between Gaza and Egypt, and possibly to create one or more safe zones for civilians. With fresh water running short, none of these have yet materialised. Mr Biden will be hoping to clear remaining obstacles.
As Arab outrage grows, so does the risk of escalation beyond Gaza. Even before the hospital explosion, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, who has also been touring the region, warned of impending escalation. “Time is running out very fast,” he said on Iranian state television on October 16th. “If the war crimes against the Palestinians are not immediately stopped, other multiple fronts will open and this is inevitable.” He also threatened unspecified “pre-emptive action”. Israel is especially worried about the danger of a northern front opening if Hizbullah, a powerful Lebanese Shia militia closely allied with Iran, joins the fighting.
American naval deployments—and Mr Biden’s own presence—are intended as a strong signal of deterrence to Iran and its proxies. Mr Blinken said that among Mr Biden’s other objectives would be helping secure the release of the roughly 200 people taken hostage by Hamas, and receiving “a comprehensive brief on Israel’s war aims and strategy”.
“Nothing substitutes for direct face-to-face convos when you’re in a crisis,” says Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Beyond talking to the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and other leaders, Mr Biden will want to connect emotionally with the Israeli public, says Mr Miller. “Biden is more popular in Israel than at home. The Israeli public has lost a good deal of faith in their own leadership, even before this crisis, and they’re looking to Biden for reassurance.”
Intentionally or not, Mr Biden’s visit means that Israel’s ground operation will probably not start for some days, lest the American president be seen as giving the green light for what could be an especially destructive phase of the war. An unspoken aim will be to talk to Israeli leaders about the “day after”, says David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, another think-tank. This includes reinforcing the Palestinian Authority (pa), dominated by Hamas’s nationalist rival, Fatah. It was evicted from Gaza in 2007 but still runs autonomous parts of the West Bank. “You will need an interim administration by Arab governments that ultimately hands off to the Palestinian Authority,” argues Mr Makovsky. “It will not be easy for them.”
The cancellation of the Amman summit compounds the difficulties. Most Arab leaders detest Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but dare not be seen to act against Palestinians—especially at a time of bloodshed. Mr Biden will also want to signal his commitment to a “two-state solution”, ie, the creation of a Palestinian state. In his interview, Mr Biden gave few details of his vision for the future of the region, but he traced some outlines. He said “it’d be a big mistake” for Israel to remain in occupation in Gaza after the fighting. He also made clear there had to be “a path to a Palestinian state”, even if one would not be established soon.
The president faces conflicting political pressures at home. Whereas the centre of the Democratic party supports Israel, the left is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Republicans denounce his various attempts to improve relations with Iran, a sponsor of Hamas, and will be ready to pounce on any hesitation in the administration’s support for Israel.
Whether bipartisan sympathy for Israel extends to being ready to fight militarily alongside it is more open to doubt. Asked whether American forces in the region would be ordered into action, Mr Biden replied: “I don’t think that’s necessary. Israel has one of the finest fighting forces” in the world. He also insisted there was “no clear evidence” that Iran planned or authorised Hamas’s murderous onslaught.
Israeli leaders like to say they do not expect other countries’ troops to fight on its behalf. And Mr Biden, for his part, has sought to end America’s “endless wars” in the Muslim world, not start a new one. Nevertheless, if the fighting spreads beyond Gaza, he may yet feel more direct American intervention is necessary. Scenarios for American military involvement have been discussed between American and Israeli officials, Axios reports, adding that one legal justification might be the need to protect American citizens in Israel. “President Biden [...] made it clear to our enemies that if they think of joining the attack against Israel there will be American involvement and Israel will not be on its own,” said Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi.
Mr Biden will also be managing the crisis with an eye on America’s big-power rivals: Russia, a traditional ally of several Arab regimes; and China, a newer partner that buys much of the region’s oil and likes to portray itself as a friend of the non-Western world. Both hope to exploit popular Arab anger at Israel and America.
To compete, Mr Biden will need Congress to return to some semblance of normality before long. The legislature has been paralysed by infighting among Republicans in the House of Representatives, who have yet to agree on a replacement for Kevin McCarthy, the ousted speaker. Until then, they will probably not be able to pass any spending bills—including aid for Ukraine and Israel.
Mr Biden is confident that America can support its friends in both wars, and beyond. “We’re the United States of America, for God’s sake—the most powerful nation in the history of the world [...] We can take care of both of these and still maintain our overall international defence.”