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Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the deadly explosion in a Gaza hospital appeared to have been caused by Palestinians, not the Israeli military, as outrage and mutual accusations fanned across the Middle East.
Appearing with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, the US president sided with accounts that blamed the blast on a misfired rocket by Palestinian militants, rather than an Israeli air strike.
“Based on what I have seen, it was done by the other team, not you,” Biden said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who are not sure, so we’ve got to overcome a lot of things.”
It has not been possible to independently verify the death toll or the cause of the explosion, one of the bloodiest events so far in the war, which began with a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.
The US president’s trip is intended as a show of solidarity for Israel, to prevent the country’s war with Hamas from spreading throughout the region and to help facilitate humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip.
But it has been overshadowed by the blast at Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City, which prompted Arab leaders to cancel a summit with the US president that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Biden said he was “deeply saddened and outraged” by the hospital explosion. Ahead of a meeting with the Israeli government’s security cabinet, he called for “life-saving capacity to help the Palestinians who are innocent, caught in the middle of this”.
While noting that 31 Americans had been among the people killed by Hamas’s attack, he added: “We also need to bear in mind Hamas does not represent all the Palestinian people and has brought them only suffering.”
Netanyahu praised Biden for his “moral clarity” and “steadfast commitment to provide Israel with the tools we need to defend ourselves”, as he compared the Hamas attack that precipitated the war to “20 9/11s”.
The Israeli prime minister added: “The civilised world must unite to defeat Hamas.”
While Israel has blamed the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group for the explosion, Palestinian officials say the cause was an Israeli air strike that killed hundreds of people.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said the hospital was packed with women, children, healthcare professionals and internally displaced people seeking shelter.
The Israel Defense Forces said on Wednesday that an internal probe had concluded that a rocket launched from a cemetery near the hospital just before the explosion had misfired and crashed into a car park adjacent to the hospital.
It said the rocket warhead, coupled with its propellant fuel, then ignited, causing the explosion. The IDF also released mobile phone audio purportedly containing a conversation between “Hamas operatives” that acknowledged the failed rocket launch.
By contrast, Arab leaders throughout the region have blamed Israel.
After news of the explosion broke late on Tuesday, Jordan cancelled the summit that King Abdullah had planned to host for Biden, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas pulled out of the summit and announced a three-day mourning period for what he called “a great calamity and a heinous war crime”, in remarks quoted by the Palestinian Wafa news agency. Protests broke out in Ramallah and other parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday evening.
The United Arab Emirates condemned what it called “the Israeli attack”. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan also blamed Israel for the explosion, which King Abdullah labelled a “massacre” and war crime.
The hospital is in the northern part of Gaza, which Israel has been bombarding heavily ahead of a widely expected ground incursion.
Israel has laid siege to Gaza and told people to evacuate the territory’s north last week, in a mass displacement order that affected about 1mn people, or nearly half the territory’s population. Aid agencies have raised alarm about what they say is a major humanitarian crisis as Palestinians flee south.
On Wednesday, Sisi alleged that the Israeli siege was intended to push Palestinians into Egypt — the only other only country with a country with Gaza — and warned that such an outflow of people risked turning the war into a regional conflict.
He said that if Palestinians fled to Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai peninsula it would become “a base for operations against Israel. He added: “In this case Israel would have the right to defend itself and its national security so it would direct strikes against Egyptian territory.”
Appearing with Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz, Sisi said that if Israel wanted to move Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way during military operations it could relocate them to the country’s Negev desert.
So far Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed 3,300 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Israel says its goal is to eliminate Hamas’s leadership from Gaza.
The country declared war after the Hamas attack, which killed more than 1,400 people according to Israeli authorities, mostly civilians in communities bordering the territory.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh