President Biden urged the Israeli people on Wednesday not to be consumed by the rage they feel about the Hamas terror attacks, speaking in Tel Aviv during a wartime visit that came just hours after a devastating explosion at a Gaza hospital.
Mr. Biden said earlier Wednesday that evidence shown to him by the American military suggested that the hospital blast “was done by the other team,” not Israel’s forces. Palestinians blame Israel for Tuesday’s explosion and say it killed hundreds of people. The carnage has fueled protests across the Middle East.
Mr. Biden, who met with some Israeli victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks during the first wartime visit to Israel by an American president, said he understood the desire for vengeance. He said the killings of more than 1,300 Israelis by Hamas would be the equivalent of “fifteen 9/11s” in the United States.
“You can’t look at what has happened here to your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents, sons, daughters, children, even babies and not scream out for justice,” the president said. “Justice must be done.”
But he warned against making the same mistakes that the United States did by letting the “all-consuming rage” that Americans felt more than two decades ago drive bad decisions. While he was not specific, he presumably was referring to the invasion of Iraq, which he voted for and later came to regret.
“I know the choices are never clear or easy for the leadership,” Mr. Biden said. “There’s always a cost. But it requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment on whether the path you’re on will achieve those objectives.”
The timing of the president’s visit could hardly have been more precarious politically. After an all-night flight from Washington, Mr. Biden landed in a country traumatized by terrorism and girding for a protracted war against Hamas, putting himself at the center of a volatile conflict as rockets and recriminations volley back and forth with no end in sight.
Mr. Biden was determined to allow no daylight between himself and Israel, even as he pressed privately for the resumption of humanitarian aid to Gaza and stressed the importance of minimizing civilian casualties.
“I want you to know you’re not alone,” he said.
“Hamas committed atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, unleashing pure, unadulterated evil upon the world,” he added. “There’s no rationalizing, no excusing it, period.”
Mr. Biden said he would ask Congress later this week for “an unprecedented support package for Israel’s defense,” citing the need to keep Israel’s air defense systems supplied with ammunition. He did not take note of the Republican failure to select a speaker in the House, a situation that has frozen the institution’s ability to act on any legislation, including more foreign aid.
But even as Mr. Biden pledged ironclad support for Israel, the president’s meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli war cabinet shared a split screen with broken bodies being pulled from the rubble of the decimated hospital. After Mr. Biden’s comments Wednesday morning, American officials issued an initial intelligence assessment of the incident, concluding that the damage was caused by Palestinian fighters.
Israel has said it was an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad, an extremist group aligned with Hamas, that caused the loss of life at the hospital. But with the region convulsing with anger and protests after the blast, it was unclear whether the American endorsement of Israel’s denial would do much to convince many in the Arab world.
“Based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team, not you,” Mr. Biden said unprompted as he sat in a Tel Aviv hotel next to Mr. Netanyahu.
“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure,” Mr. Biden said, referring to skepticism in the Arab world. “So we’ve got a lot, we’ve got to overcome a lot of things.”
Mr. Biden said at another public session later in the day that he relied on a U.S. military evaluation in drawing his conclusion. Asked by a reporter what made him so sure it was not Israel, he said, “The data I was shown by my Defense Department.”
Mr. Biden also said Israeli officials he met with had agreed to his request that they allow food, water and medicine to be delivered to Palestinians in Gaza from Egypt in a humanitarian effort overseen by the United Nations and others.
But he warned Hamas against taking the humanitarian aid for its own survival.
“Let me be clear: If Hamas diverts or steals the assistance, they will have demonstrated once again that they have no concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people and the land,” he said. “As a practical matter, it will stop the international community from being able to provide this aid.”
In addition to the Israeli officials, the president met with survivors and relatives of victims of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, moving around a hotel conference room and listening to each of them tell their story. Several cried as they recounted their stories, and the president gave each of them a hug.
Among them was Rachel Edri, a retired grandmother who was held hostage at gunpoint in her home for 20 hours and used food and conversation to keep her captors calm and stall them until she could be rescued. Her son, Evyatar Edri, is a policeman who helped free his parents.
Another was Amir Tibon, who huddled in the dark with his wife and two daughters for 10 hours as his kibbutz was attacked by Hamas gunmen until his father, Noam Tibon, a retired general, rushed to his rescue armed only with a handgun.
Mr. Netanyahu, who had been at odds with Mr. Biden for much of the year until the Hamas attack, appeared delighted to highlight the president’s visit. “From the moment Israel was attacked, you have rightly drawn a clear line between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism,” he said.
The Israeli prime minister again recounted for Mr. Biden the horrors of the attack, describing women being raped, soldiers being beheaded and children hunted down in hiding places in their homes. “Just imagine, Mr. President, the fear and the panic of those little children in their last moments as the monsters discovered and found out their hiding places,” Mr. Netanyahu said.