U.S. Says Israel Didn’t Cause Hospital Blast, as Biden Promises Aid to Gaza

President Biden on Wednesday backed Israel’s contention that a Palestinian group had caused an explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds of people. He also announced that the Israeli government would allow critically needed aid into the besieged Gaza Strip.

It was not clear whether the statements by Mr. Biden, who was in Tel Aviv, would dampen widespread anger over the war and the carnage on Tuesday at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, which have prompted widespread anti-Israel protests from Tehran to Rabat, Morocco. Many civilians had taken shelter from Israel’s bombing campaign on the hospital grounds.

Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza and is battling Israel, blamed an Israeli airstrike without citing evidence — a claim that was widely accepted across the Middle East.

But American officials said evidence from a variety of sources pointed to a failed rocket launch aimed at Israel from within Gaza as the cause of the explosion. That was the conclusion Israeli officials began presenting on Tuesday night.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Mr. Biden said to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sat side by side in a Tel Aviv hotel before a group of journalists. “But there’s a lot of people out there not sure. So we’ve got a lot, we’ve got to overcome a lot of things.”

In response to Hamas’s attack and hostage-taking on Oct. 7, Israel has bombarded Gaza with airstrikes, sealed off the territory to imports of vital supplies and told 1.1 million people in northern Gaza to evacuate south, while apparently preparing for a ground invasion. Gaza’s more than two million people are rapidly running out of water, food, fuel, electricity and medicine, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and many have no shelter.

People seeking help after heavy Israeli bombardment of Kahn Younis, in southern Gaza, on Wednesday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

In a speech in Tel Aviv, Mr. Biden announced $100 million in aid to help civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and said he had secured a commitment from Israel’s government to allow food, water and medicine into Gaza through Egypt.

Such an agreement would be an enormous step toward alleviating the escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but there have been previous reports that a deal was imminent, only for none to materialize.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office said Israel would not block aid from reaching Gaza through the border crossing at Rafah — the only official portal to Egypt — as long as the supplies did not go to Hamas. But Hamas governs the territory, leaving it unclear how Israel’s condition would be met.

Egypt has made clear that it does not want an influx of Gazans, and has kept the Rafah crossing closed since the conflict began, with a growing number of trucks waiting on the Egyptian side to go through.

Mr. Biden later told reporters on Air Force One that he had persuaded the Egyptian government to allow 20 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza as an initial test, but did not say when. He said if Hamas intercepted the aid, it would be cut off, but if not, Egypt would let more in.

The blast on Tuesday at the hospital, which is owned by the diocese of the Episcopal Church based in Jerusalem, centered on a parking lot and courtyard area, according to photos and videos of the aftermath and the Israeli assessment. It ignited multiple fires.

Gazan officials said on Wednesday that 471 people had been killed and hundreds more injured. The figures could not be independently verified.

Images from the scene showed the charred husks of vehicles amid an area littered with tattered and bloodied clothes, blankets and backpacks left by victims. The surrounding buildings were damaged but largely intact.

Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra, a spokesman for the Gazan Health Ministry, said wounded survivors were taken to another hospital, where doctors were performing surgery on floors and in corridors, often without anesthetic.

“The sudden increase of hundreds of victims with complex injuries far exceeded the capabilities of medical crews and ambulances,” he said in a statement.

Amir Ahmed, a paramedic with the Palestinian Red Crescent in Gaza City, said, “There are still lots of bodies they haven’t yet collected.” He added that many bodies were too badly damaged to identify, and that the victims would be buried in a mass grave on Wednesday.

Ahli Arab Hospital was hit by a blast on Tuesday night that killed hundreds of people.Credit…Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock

At a news briefing Wednesday morning, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israeli military, displayed an aerial drone photo that he said showed the damage was not consistent with an Israeli airstrike. Such a strike would have left a significant crater and done structural damage to the surrounding buildings, yet there was no sign of either one.

Israeli officials have also presented what they said was evidence of a barrage of rockets fired nearby toward Israel, moments before Ahli Arab was hit, by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group that operates in Gaza and is aligned with Hamas. The Israelis contend that one of the group’s rockets, which often malfunction, apparently hit the hospital.

Admiral Hagari said much of the damage had been caused not by an explosive warhead, but by the flammable rocket propellant, most of it still inside the rocket when it hit because it had not traveled far.

Mr. Biden, when asked by a reporter what his basis was for blaming “the other team,” said, “The data I was shown by my Defense Department.”

Other U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information cited multiple strands of intelligence, including infrared satellite data showing a rocket launch from Palestinian positions in Gaza and open-source video showing that it did not come from the direction of Israeli positions. In addition, they said, Israel shared with the United States what Israel said were intercepted communications among Hamas members saying the strike came from Palestinian fighters.

But the officials also cautioned that the analysis was preliminary and that they were still collecting and analyzing evidence.

Families and their supporters near a military base in Tel Aviv hold pictures of kidnapped people on Wednesday.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Israel and Egypt have partly blockaded Gaza since Hamas, backed by Iran and dedicated to the destruction of Israel, took over the strip in 2007. The territory’s economy has deteriorated steadily, worsened by frequent armed conflicts with Israel, though none of those clashes have been as terrible as the current one.

Thousands of Hamas members from Gaza broke through the border fence with Israel on Oct. 7, catching Israel’s military and security services by surprise, and overran dozens of villages, military bases and a music festival. They killed some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, Israeli officials say, and took about 200 hostages back to Gaza.

Israel has retaliated with airstrikes, which it says are aimed at wiping out Hamas and its military infrastructure. The Gazan Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 3,478 people had been killed in Gaza, including those in the hospital strike, most of them civilians, with as many as 1,300 others still buried under rubble.

U.N. officials and international rights and aid groups, while condemning the Hamas attack, have criticized Israel’s response, including the killing of civilians, the destruction of homes, schools and mosques, and a directive for mass evacuation that they have described as inhumane and infeasible.

In an emotional speech in Tel Aviv, Mr. Biden, who has not publicly taken issue with Israel’s conduct of the war, spoke forcefully about its suffering in the Hamas attack. He cited echoes of the Holocaust and the Islamic State, the courage of rescuers and the pain of missing loved ones.

“Children slaughtered. Babies slaughtered. Entire families massacred. Rape, beheadings, bodies burned alive,” he said. “Hamas committed atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, unleashing pure unadulterated evil upon the world. There is no rationalizing it, no excusing it. Period. The brutality we saw would have cut deep anywhere in the world, but it cuts deeper here in Israel.”

Yet he urged Israelis not to let anger cloud their judgment and seemed to counsel restraint. They naturally “scream out of justice,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it.”

Smoke rising after airstrikes in the city of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

He drew a parallel to the United States after 9/11, when, he said, “we also made mistakes,” an apparent reference to the invasion of Iraq, which Mr. Biden voted for as a senator but later regretted.

“The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” Mr. Biden said, accusing the group of using the civilians of Gaza as human shields. “The Palestinian people are suffering greatly, as well,” he added. “We mourn the loss of innocent Palestinian lives. Like the entire world, I was outraged and saddened by the enormous loss of life yesterday in the hospital in Gaza.”

Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the Middle East regional director of the World Health Organization, said on Wednesday that the Israeli military had recently told 20 hospitals in northern Gaza, including Ahli Arab, to evacuate. He described the instruction as wholly unrealistic, “given the current insecurity, critical condition of many patients and lack of ambulances, staff, health system bed capacity, and of alternative shelter for those displaced.”

The Israeli military acknowledged calling Ahli Arab in recent days, not because of a planned strike, it said, but as part of the wider push to evacuate the north.

Mr. Biden had planned to continue from Israel to Jordan, to meet with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, but that gathering was called off on Tuesday after the hospital strike. Mr. Biden flew back to the United States on Wednesday.

Patrick Kingsley and Peter Baker reported from Tel Aviv, and Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes, Adam Entous, Helene Cooper, Aaron Boxerman, David E. Sanger, Hiba Yazbek, Raja Abdulrahim, Yousur Al-Hlou, Christoph Koettl, Nadav Gavrielov, Monika Pronczuk, Farnaz Fassihi, Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Vivian Yee and Mourad Hijazy.

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