Biden touts aid negotiations for Gaza; US assesses Israel ‘not responsible’ for hospital blast
Biden arrives in Israel for high-stakes trip
(CNN) — The United States, Egypt and Israel have all signaled readiness for aid to begin moving into Gaza, following a high-profile visit to Israel by U.S. President Joe Biden.
The glimmer of hope for civilian relief in Gaza comes one day after a devastating hospital blast in the enclave that likely killed hundreds and infuriated the region.
Palestinian officials have blamed Israeli airstrikes for the massive loss of life at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in the middle of Gaza City, but on Wednesday, U.S. intelligence analysis echoed Israel’s claims it was “not responsible.”
The U.S. National Security Council said it had analyzed overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information. It found that “Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza yesterday,” council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
Initial evidence gathered by the American intelligence community suggested that the hospital strike came from a rocket launched by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group – a rival Islamist militant group to Hamas in Gaza – officials told CNN separately.
The Israel Defense Forces had previously accused Palestinian Islamic Jihad of causing the explosion when one of its rockets launched at Israel misfired. In a televised news conference, the Israel Defense Forces said it had intelligence of “communications between terrorists” of rockets misfiring, which included mention of the hospital.
Islamic Jihad denied Israel’s assertions describing them as “false and baseless,” according to a statement Wednesday. CNN cannot independently confirm what caused the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital.
The Palestinian Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, said in a statement on Wednesday that at least 471 people died and more than 300 were injured after the blast.
Biden’s wartime visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday was his most forceful public show of support for Israel since the brutal Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, in which the Islamist militant group killed at least 1,400 people and took more than 150 hostages, including children and the elderly.
Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting that the hospital attack “appears as though it was done by the other team, not you.”
The competing narratives on what caused the blast come at a dangerous new phase in Israel’s war with Hamas, which threatens to spill over regionally as growing anger saw protests erupt across the Middle East on Wednesday.
Fears are also growing that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is spiraling “out of control.”
Diplomatic efforts to bring supplies into Gaza have ramped up in recent days as humanitarian aid piles up on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, the only entry point in and out of Gaza that Israel does not control.
Negotiations on how, when and what aid will be delivered are continuing.
“We’re negotiating with the parties to make sure that we can get humanitarian goods going in and right now we’re in the process of those negotiations. We’re trying to get them in as soon as we can,” United Nations deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told CNN on Wednesday.
There have been reports of multiple airstrikes around the border with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry telling CNN on Tuesday that the crossing was unsafe as it was bombed four times in the past few days.
Following Biden’s remarks in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu’s office said Israel would not block humanitarian aid going into Gaza from Egypt but it would not allow supplies in from its own territory until Hamas releases all hostages.
“In light of President Biden’s demand, Israel will not block humanitarian aid deliveries, as long as they consist of water, food, and drugs for the civilian population in the southern Gaza Strip … and as long as the aid doesn’t reach Hamas,” Israel’s prime minister’s office said in a statement.
Israel cut off food, fuel and electricity to the enclave after the Oct. 7 attacks. More than a week of Israeli bombardment has killed at least 3,478 people and injured 12,500 in Gaza, according to Palestinian authorities.
During a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the way home from Israel, Biden told reporters that Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi agreed to open the Rafah crossing into Gaza only for aid, not for evacuations, adding that only 20 trucks will be allowed through “to begin with.”
Biden said he spoke to Al-Sisi for more than an hour on a call from Air Force One, including a “very blunt negotiation” over opening the crossing.
A statement from the Egyptian President’s office said the two leaders focused on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and ways to facilitate aid.
“The call between President Al-Sisi and the American President witnessed the agreement to enter humanitarian aid to the Strip through Rafah crossing in a sustainable manner,” the statement said.
Egypt, which already hosts millions of migrants, is uneasy about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees crossing into its territory. More than 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza.
Healthcare on the brink
Tuesday’s hospital tragedy came as health services in Gaza were already on the brink, with no fuel to run electricity or pump water for life-saving critical functions.
While the Israel Defense Forces has said it does not target hospitals, the United Nations and Doctors Without Borders say Israeli airstrikes have struck medical facilities, including hospitals and ambulances.
Conditions are dire for the 2.2 million people caught in the escalating crisis and now trapped in Gaza and those on the ground warn that nowhere is safe from relentless Israeli airstrikes and the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.
More than one million people have been displaced in the Gaza Strip, including 600,000 people in northern Gaza, according to a statement from the Hamas-run government there.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said on Wednesday that Israeli airstrikes hit less than 100 meters from Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City. It added that the strikes “targeted multiple residential buildings and main streets in the area” of Al-Quds Hospital and the main headquarters of the organization in the Tal Al-Hawa neighborhood in western Gaza City.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society also released a video showing the impact from one of the strikes near the hospital.
Gazan authorities have called for the return of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which ended its services in the northern part of the enclave, according to a statement. On Tuesday, the agency released a status report stating that “an unknown number” of displaced people “remain in UNRWA schools in the north” but said it was “no longer able to assist or protect” them.
The report added that nearly 400,000 displaced people were sheltering in U.N. Relief and Works Agency installations “in the Middle Area, Khan Younis and Rafah.” The organization’s logistics base in Rafah was hosting nearly 8,000 people and, “the numbers continue to increase,” the report said.
Anger and protest spread
The blast at the hospital added fuel to rising anger in the region over the situation in Gaza, complicating diplomatic efforts.
Protests condemning the hospital explosion have erupted in multiple cities across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Tunisia. And in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, demonstrators clashed with Palestinian security forces.
In Lebanon, hundreds of protesters gathered in the square that leads to the U.S. Embassy in Awkar, which is just north of the capital Beirut, and tried to break through security barriers, according to a CNN team there.
Protests continued on Wednesday when pro-Palestinian demonstrators had skirmishes with police near the U.S. Embassy. Police fired tear gas and used water cannons against the protesters, according to local media and video footage released by Agence France-Presse.
The U.S. Embassy in Beirut advised Americans to avoid the Awkar area due to the protests, in a security alert on Wednesday.
Antisemitic attacks have also been on the rise. In Germany, security services are investigating after two Molotov cocktails were thrown in the direction of a Berlin synagogue in the early hours of Wednesday.