Biden is set to visit Israel. But a planned stop in Jordan has been canceled
Updated October 17, 2023 at 7:22 PM ET
President Biden left for a quick trip to Tel Aviv, Israel on Tuesday, a visit meant to signal full U.S. support as Israel responds to the Hamas attacks.
But he canceled a stop planned for Amman, Jordan after an explosion at a busy hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of people. The cause of the explosion — which happened shortly before Biden left Washington — was not immediately confirmed.
Biden's meetings in Jordan were to have been focused on efforts to get humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza, and safe passage out for Americans in the conflict zone.
Biden had planned to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman. But after the explosion, Abbas said he would not travel, and declared days of mourning for the victims.
In a statement, Biden said he directed his national security team to gather information about "what exactly happened" and said he spoke with King Abdullah and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu right after he heard about the tragedy.
"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," Biden said in the statement. "The United States stands unequivocally for the protection of civilian life during conflict and we mourn the patients, medical staff and other innocents killed or wounded in this tragedy."
Biden's trip comes as Israel prepares to launch a ground assault in Gaza
Biden's trip comes as Israel prepares to launch a ground assault on Hamas in Gaza. Shortages of food, water and medicine in Gaza – and a rising civilian death toll from Israeli strikes – mean the situation is volatile.
Biden will meet with Netanyahu for an update on the strategy and pace of military operations, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on a conference call Monday night.
Biden has offered full-throated support for Israel as it still reels from brutal attacks by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians. More than 1,400 Israelis have been killed. The State Department has said 30 U.S. citizens were among them, and more than a dozen Americans remain unaccounted for.
U.S. officials have said they believe at least a few Americans are being held hostage by Hamas, and Biden wants to get an update on the hostage situation while he is in the region, Kirby said.
The Pentagon has moved an aircraft carrier strike group into the region in an attempt at deterrence. There is a significant concern that the conflict could spread, something Biden and his administration want to avoid.
Biden will not put conditions on U.S. military aid to Israel
In an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes that aired Sunday, Biden said he believed it was necessary for Israel to be "taking out the extremists" both in Hamas and Hezbollah. But he said he thinks it would be "a big mistake" for Israel to occupy Gaza.
This week the White House is expected to send a new funding request to Congress that would include additional military aid for Israel as well as a renewed ask for military and economic aid for Ukraine.
Biden is not putting conditions on the military assistance provided to Israel, Kirby said.
"They have a right to defend themselves," he said. "They have a right to go after this terrorist threat. And we're going to continue to do everything we can to help them do that."
But Kirby reiterated that Biden would discuss his concern about civilian casualties. "We have since the very beginning been discussing with our Israeli counterparts the importance of the law of armed conflict and the protection of innocent civilians," he said.
Before the explosion at the Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said that the death toll in Gaza numbered around 3,000.
There are parallels to Biden's trip to Kiev earlier this year
Biden prides himself on his decades of foreign policy experience — and boasts about the coalition he built to support Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia. In February, he made a surprise visit to Kiev, traveling through the night on an armored train through the Ukrainian countryside, to declare that the United States would be there to support Ukraine as long as it takes.
However, he has faced a tough battle getting more funding for Ukraine from Congress, and polling shows American support for that conflict has waned since the early days of the war.
Biden is now sending a similar signal of support with this visit to Israel, another U.S. ally at war over its territorial integrity. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll indicates a majority of Americans want the U.S. to voice strong support for Israel. And Biden has done that, earning praise, even from critics in Israel and the US. But the poll doesn't find Biden getting much credit for it politically.
NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.
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