President Joe Biden touched down in Israel on Wednesday morning on a visit that was meant to provide reassurance to all sides only to find a regional crisis deepening by the hour.
He hugged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of a trip that is designed to show solidarity with the Israeli people as they mourn the more than 1,300 people killed in a terror attack.
But as if to underline the high stakes involved, the Israeli military said rocket sirens were sounding in a village near Gaza just as Air Force One touched down.
Biden arrives in the aftermath of a strike on a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds, with Israelis and Palestinians blaming each other, triggering street protests around the Middle East.
Plans for a hop to Jordan for meetings with key Arab leaders and the Jordanian king were abandoned before he took off.
And he would have learned aboard Air Force One that his forces in Iraq were targeted by drones in the early hours, an attack reportedly thwarted by U.S. troops.
President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he arrives on Israeli soil on Wednesday morning. He finds himself at the heart of a growing storm
Biden’s visit was designed in part to reduce tensions, but protests around the region only grew while the U.S. president was aboard Air Force One on his way to Israel
Bodies of victims of the al-Ahli hospital strike are seen being lined up in a courtyard on Tuesday
Officials tried to put a brave face on the cancellation of the Jordan leg, which was to include meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
They denied Biden only learned they were pulling out when he was already in the motorcade on his way to Air Force One.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby insisted Biden agreed that it was right to postpone the hop to Jordan in a call with the country’s king.
‘Of course, he would always prefer face-to-face diplomacy. That’s the president’s stock-in-trade,’ he said.
‘But he also understands, in the wake of this explosion at the hospital, that it’s not the appropriate thing to do for — certainly for the leaders that are there.’
He said Abbas had to stay at home for three days of mourning.
Any trip to the Middle East carries risk for an American president. This time Biden finds himself in the middle of a geopolitical maelstrom.
Israel is preparing for an expected ground invasion of Gaza, seeking to wipe out the Hamas militant group which launched terrorist attacks that killed at least 1,300 people.
At the same time Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah arrayed along Israel’s northern border, are making angry noises.
The State Department raised its travel alert for Lebanon to ‘do not travel,’ citing rocket exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel. Protesters gathered around the U.S. embassy in Beirut after news of the hospital strike spread, further increasing tensions.
Palestinian authorities have said 500 people were killed in the strike on the al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday (pictured)
People stand in front of fire that erupted outside the security gate, during clashes between protesters and security forces outside the US embassy in Beirut, Lebanon
The turmoil means that plans for Biden to meet with (from l to r) Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have been abandoned. Biden will not be travelling from Israel to Jordan
White House officials said Biden’s mission was clear: To stand with Israel, while warning other actors to stay out of the conflict and to help ease humanitarian conditions in Gaza, all while working to free hostages.
But the strike on the al-Ahli Hospital, which may have killed as many as 500 people, upended the visit, raising tensions even further.
Biden quickly demanded to know exactly what happened.
‘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,’ he said, in a statement issued by the White House.
‘Immediately upon hearing this news, I spoke with King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and have directed my national security team to continue gathering information about what exactly happened.’
The IDF shared raw footage, revealing the moment a rocket misfired and exploded at the same time the Gaza hospital was hit, killing 500 people
President Joe Biden seen boarding Air Force One on Tuesday evening. He landed in Israel on Wednesday morning amid a worsening crisis
Israel was quickly blamed but denied one of its missiles caused the explosion.
The Israeli Defense Forces shared raw footage, revealing what it said was the moment a rocket misfired and exploded at the same time the Gaza hospital was hit.
‘A rocket aimed at Israel misfired and exploded at 18:59—the same moment a hospital was hit in Gaza,’ the IDF wrote on Twitter.
The video shows a rocket exploding in the air before descending below.
With Arab meetings canceled, the danger for Biden now is his visit looks like it is no more than a chance to make clear that he stands with Israel.
Kirby insisted that Biden would do more than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu how he could help.
‘He’ll be asking some tough questions, he’ll be asking them as a friend, as a true friend of Israel, but he’ll be asking some questions of them,’ Kirby said.
In a sign of what could come next, officials described how U.S. forces thwarted a drone attack in Iraq.
The one-way attack drones were intercepted as they attempted to strike the al Asad air base, which hosts American troops, the officials told Reuters.
They did not say who they believed was behind the attack.