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CNN International: U.S. President Biden Arrives in Israel; Hundreds Believed Dead in Gaza Hospital Blast; Biden Arrives in Israel After Gaza Hospital Blast. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2023 - 04:00   ET



ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You'll remember he traveled into Ukraine on that secret trip earlier in the year, and now he will be doing so as Israel is waging its war against Hamas.

But this already complicated and difficult mission that the President was embarking on became even more complicated just yesterday afternoon, amid that blast at that hospital in Gaza. The second portion of the president's trip ultimately was cancelled. He was set to travel to Jordan to meet with Arab leaders, in part to talk about establishing humanitarian aid, establishing a corridor to get that aid into Gaza, but that trip was upended in the aftermath of that blast.

Now, White House officials have really downplayed the expectations for concrete deliverables from this trip. Of course, the President is heading in there hoping to press both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as others on trying to alleviate some of those humanitarian concerns. But it's unclear what specific announcements the president might leave Israel with.

But part of his agenda while he is on the ground there today is try to ascertain what exactly the Israelis needs as they continue to try to root out Hamas. The U.S., of course, has said that Israel has the right to defend itself, but we have also seen the White House in recent days really trying to warn about trying to minimize the risk to civilian casualties. That is expected to be something that President Biden will also bring up in his conversations with Netanyahu.

As you see there, he is now descending the stairs of Air Force One, making this historic visit to Israel as he's not only trying to affirm U.S. support for the country. But also trying to send a message to potentially rogue actors in the region, not to get involved and trying to prevent this from escalating into a wider situation. And so, you see the President right there greeting the Israelis as he is there for this historic trip.

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. And President Biden, now on the tarmac in Tel Aviv and Israel, being greeted by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, and by the President, Isaac Herzog. And as you rightly point out, Arlette, this is an extremely delicate journey now and its objectives we can only assume may have changed somewhat in the hours that he has been in flight. You speak about the fact that these regional meetings, the regional

summit that he was supposed to attend once he's finished here in Israel, which was supposed to be in Jordan, is now being cancelled. You know, he's not going to get that opportunity to speak to his very close regional allies who are absolutely catatonic about what they see going on in Gaza at present. We've had really very, very specific statements from Jordan, from Egypt, from the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas, but also from Saudi, from the UAE.

The UAE, you know, which has normalized relations with Israel and was very much a, you know, a friend and pal to the White House who have been trying to affect this normalization project as sort of their Middle East Pillar, as it were, as far as policy is concerned. All of them outrightly condemning what has happened in Gaza, blaming Israel for the blast that happened at the hospital in Gaza, which has caused so many deaths.

Look, you know, we've already just in the past hour or so, heard from the IDF, who are absolutely denying that they were responsible for that incident. They have said it was a rocket from Islamic Jihad, one of the other groups working in Gaza, and they say they have evidence to support that contention. They also say that they have a audio conversation, which they've now released between Islamic Jihad and Hamas soon after that blast, which they say supports the contention that it was indeed an Islamic Jihad rocket.

But look, you know, be that as it may at this point, you know, clearly it is important for the White House to get on the right side of this. And so, you know, once again, you know, we await to see, you know, what comes out of these meetings in the next couple of hours or so. But from the White House -- White House perspective, Arlette, is it clear? Is it now clear what success will look like for Joe Biden on this trip?

SAENZ: Well, I think that first and foremost, what the White House is hoping to accomplish here is trying to show that steadfast support for Israel. Trying to determine what exactly they will need going forward as they're continuing this military campaign to root out Hamas.


But the blast in Gaza has certainly complicated the dynamics around in an already a difficult trip. Of course, you have both sides assigning blame to one another, responsibility to one another for this blast. The White House has said that they are still working to determine and examine the intelligence. That they have yet to assign any responsibility to this. But a White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, on the trip over here, did say that Israel feels very strongly that they did not cause this blast.

So that is something that the White House will have to navigate going forward as there are a lot of concerns about the fact that there were hundreds killed during this blast at that hospital in Gaza.

But of course, one of the other key items for the president is that he's expected to stress in his meetings will be the need to provide humanitarian aid to Gaza. As well as trying to protect civilians during -- as Israel is continuing this campaign against Hamas. That has been one of the very tricky dynamics as this has all played out. You know, you've heard Biden at the very beginning say that Israel has the right to defend itself, but you have seen this steady uptick of warnings from the President and the White House to Israel to try to take caution about civilians who could get caught up in this battle.

And that is something, as you noted, that allies in the region have also expressed concern about. You've heard that from the Egyptian President. You've heard that for from Jordan's King, King Abdullah. And so that is all something that the White House will have to balance in this moment.

Of course, one thing to note, is that even though this trip to Jordan was cancelled, even though that summit with those Arab leaders was cancelled, the White House did say that the president intends on calling Egyptian President Sisi as well as the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as he is traveling home back to Washington once this trip in Israel concludes.

So this could be an opportunity for the President to once again try to talk about those humanitarian corridors, getting that aid into Gaza. But it's unclear whether they will emerge with any type of concrete plan coming out of the president's trip today.

Of course, the White House says another issue that is top of mind to President Biden is those hostages who are being held by Gaza. The White House estimates they're about a handful of Americans who may be currently being held hostage. While the president is on the ground there in Israel, he is expected to meet with families who have been impacted by this violence, who have lost loved ones, also those who believe that their loved ones are being held hostage. It's unclear if any of those will be Americans, but that is one of the president's key priorities, though it doesn't -- they haven't had any signals yet that there would be any imminent release.

ANDERSON: OK. Arlette, while we watch these pictures, let's just remind ourselves what is going on here. So, President Joe Biden has arrived in Tel Aviv, in Israel. They are now leaving in the cars from the tarmac where they touched down.

Let me just bring back some images of what happened as President Biden descended the stairs. He hugged and, you know, obviously the optics are very important here. He hugged the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he came off that flight. Also in attendance there, the President Isaac Herzog also embracing the U.S. President.

While on the flight the White House released a statement from the U.S. President while he was flying into Israel on Air Force One. It said, and I quote:

I am outraged and deeply saddened by the explosion -- as he described it -- at the Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza and the terrible loss of life that resulted. 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.

You have to ask yourself how the objectives or framing of this trip might have changed in the hours while Joe Biden has been on that flight. Given what we saw local time here at 7:00 yesterday, the enormous loss of life by an explosion at the hospital in Gaza. The IDF absolutely, 100 percent describing that as an attack by Islamic Jihad, Hamas absolutely determined that that strike was caused by an air strike from the Israelis.

So as that sort of back and forth goes on, clearly what we see is the fallout from that.


Which, you know, Gaza had already been described as a nigh on a catastrophe. And now you see this incredible loss of life at a hospital. I mean, this is just, you know, the sort of thing that nobody hoped to see and what is unfolding on the ground is very, very devastating. So Arlette Saenz stand by.

Let's get to Elliot Gotkine, who is standing by in London. Because at this point, as I've suggested, we've got these developments in the past hour or so from the IDF, clearly extremely important to Israel as the U.S. President arrives, as he gets involved in these talks with Israeli officials here. So he is coming, you know, with the images in his mind of what happened in Gaza yesterday, let's just describe for our viewers how the IDF is framing this.

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, JOURNALIST: Becky, the IDF is framing this, as you say, as an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad. This is the smaller militant group, also designated a terrorist organization by the United States that operates in the Gaza Strip.

Israel in a quite lengthy press briefing earlier, the chief spokesman, Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the IDF, saying, outlining what he says is the evidence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel was not responsible. That it was not attacking the hospital or the area around it at that point in time. There's no structural damage or craters that would indicate that it was an IDF bomb that caused this explosion. And also saying that they even have intercepts of audio from Islamic Jihad militants talking about how they hit this hospital and this rocket was fired from a nearby cemetery.

Daniel Hagari in that press briefing, saying that after it became clear what had happened, Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, decided to blame it all on Israel.


REAR ADM. DANIEL HAGARI, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES SPOKESPERSON: Analysis of our aerial footage confirms that there was no direct hit to the hospital itself. The only location damage is outside the hospital in the parking lot where we can see signs of burning -- which I will show later. No cratering and no structural damage to nearby buildings. As opposed to the damage caused by any aerial munition, which would have been of different nature. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GOTKINE: And Israel, saying that it has even more intelligence than it is sharing with the United States. And no doubt President Biden will be privy to that, to confirm, or perhaps otherwise, the IDF's take on what happened last night.

But of course, this does not only complicate President Biden's visit to Israel, but it also complicates Israel situation right now. Both, in terms of the concern that those images from that hospital could be used as a pretext by Iran's proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon to widen the conflict, to create for real a northern front. And also, we've already seen Israel's allies in the region -- we've seen the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Emiratis, and now the Saudis, with whom Israel just a few weeks ago we were -- a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about, they were inching towards a normalization agreement with Israel. All coming out and criticizing Israel. So also complicating the diplomatic picture for Israel.

And also, I think perhaps the military approach now. Because we've been talking about the potential for this ground invasion being imminent over the past few days. It hasn't happened thus far. I think it would be incredibly surprising to see it happen while President Biden is in town.

But perhaps, given what has happened and the rising death toll among Palestinian civilians, whether or not the those who died last night in that blast at the hospital were due to an Israeli rocket or Israeli bomb or a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket. The pressure will be on Israel to be incredibly careful with any ground invasion. That's more careful than it would have been, and this may temper perhaps the plans that Israel had for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to try to, in its words, destroy Hamas and its capabilities to ever do anything on the scale of the terrorist attack that it launched on October the 7th -- Becky.

ANDERSON: Yes, an incursion that the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have promised the Israeli public -- Eliot.

GOTKINE: Absolutely. This government, which in many quarters is being blamed for the intelligence failures for not being able to prevent this attack from happening and not being able to deal with it in a faster way when it became clear what was unfolding. It is under enormous pressure to do what it says it's going to do.


To not only destroy Hamas, to prevent it remaining in government and certainly decimating its offensive capabilities, but also to bring back those some 200 hostages who were taken by Hamas into the Gaza Strip, to bring them back home and to bring them back alive. It is an incredibly difficult and complicated task at the best of times in the wake of that blast at that Gaza hospital. Whether or not Israel was responsible, or indeed it was a rocket from Islamic Jihad. That task now just got a whole lot more complicated -- Becky. ANDERSON: Elliot Gotkine is in London, reported for years from Tel

Aviv, of course. And Arlette Saenz in Washington. To both of you, thank you very much indeed for joining us. And we'll be back with more on President Biden's visit to Israel following Tuesday's deadly blast at a Gaza hospital. Stay with us.


ANDERSON: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Becky Anderson in Tel Aviv for you. Well, you as President Joe Biden, has landed here in Israel just a short while ago. His visit comes amid deepening tensions in the region after a blast killed hundreds of people at a hospital in Gaza last night.


Palestinian officials have blamed Israel for the bombing. However, Israel Defense Forces just in the past hour produced a video it says shows the blast could not have been the result of an Israeli air strike.

Well, the United Nations Secretary General has condemned the deadly blast and called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the region. A UN human rights official also warning that Palestinians are in grave danger of, quote, mass ethnic cleansing by Israel.

Well, joining me now from London, Michael Stephens is an associate fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. And its comments like those coming from the UN, which are clearly going to under score just how difficult now this trip for President Biden will be. How do you see the framing for this trip? And how do you think it may have changed in the hours since the hospital blast in Gaza?

MICHAEL STEPHENS, ASSOCIATE FELLOW MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES, RUSI: Well, clearly there's still looming over the back of all of this the potential for an Israeli ground incursion in Gaza to free the hostages or to destroy Hamas. Whatever the mission statement is. I think President Biden needs to talk to the Israelis about how that window has gone from here to here now. I mean, the possibility for an escalation militarily is shrinking by the second. And it's not just because of what happened with this hospital strike, whether it was Israel, or whether it was the Palestinians firing a rocket.

It's the fact that the regional tectonic plates are shifting so fast right now that the narrative is swinging away from the Israelis and they're losing a little bit of control over their ability to manage this escalation. So President Biden is going to need to speak to Benjamin Netanyahu and say, look, what is the end game here? How do you get there? These are the things that we can accept. These are the things that we cannot accept. The international community is beginning to say that whatever happens now, more civilian casualties are unacceptable. What is your plan? And when you've executed that plan, how do we ensure that we go back to some kind of status quo that doesn't mean this happens again in five years? It's a lot of questions. Benjamin Netanyahu may not have the answers to those questions, but he better find them fast because the window is closing.

ANDERSON: We know that Antony Blinken has had sort of three priorities in the past week while he's been in region. Obviously, the release of hostages, there are U.S. citizens included that in the 199 hostages being held by Hamas. The opening of that humanitarian corridor. You know, the purpose is to get aid in, but also to the to the U.S. message, get people out. Again, in a first instance, one guesses the 500 or so U.S. and Canadian citizens that we understand to be in Gaza.

And then it's the wider story. You know, what happens next? What happens next as far as his ground incursion is concerned? As you rightly point out. And then the kind of wider story of how you deescalate what's going on here to avoid, you know, this spilling around the region. I think it's really important that we marked this regional reaction. This has been swift. It came in the early hours in the wake of the blast at the hospital in Gaza, where let's just be quite clear, hundreds of people have lost their lives.

It was swift around the region. The UAE, Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Iraq, condemning Israel. A statement from Jordan's King Abdullah called it a heinous massacre committed by Israel today against innocent injured and sick civilians who were receiving treatment.

Whatever the facts of the investigation are. Do you believe this could be a turning point in this conflict? A turning point, you know, a point at which President Biden's mission in region to a certain extent becomes almost impossible.

STEPHENS: Well, I mean it's not quite yet impossible, but he's got a real challenge on his hands. And I think you've nailed it here, right? It's the sense that no matter what the facts around this strike or this explosion at the at the hospital, regional friends are slipping away.

What I thought was interesting about the timing of the UAE and the Saudi statements were that they came out in both English and Arabic at a time in which it was clear that it wasn't certain who had done this, right. So initially people were reporting that the Israelis had hit the hospital.


Then very quickly, people, you know, analysts, people like myself, military experts were saying, hang on. Something doesn't look 100 percent on here. We need to wait for verification. Now what happened was the regional Arab states knew that this was happening. They're on Twitter. They speak to analysts. They speak to professional diplomats. They knew that there was a disagreement about what the cause of this strike was, and yet they came out with these statements anyway, condemning Israel. That shows to me that the politics of this is moving much faster than the military situation. When that happens, it's very difficult to then keep control.

So from Biden's point of view, from the time he took off, to the time he landed in Tel Aviv today, the situation had changed and the U.S. is going to have to shift the goal posts a bit. What does success look like for Biden now? Well, I think it's basically getting people around the table to try and stop further escalation. The question that he's going to have to come up with, is well, OK, Arab states are saying that Israel cannot keep going.

But of course Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure from his own side to conduct an operation in Gaza to remove Hamas, to ensure that this doesn't happen again. How do you balance these two things? Three days ago, that was not the question. It was almost a certainty that the Israelis would go into Gaza. We were all expecting a ground invasion. The longer that has not happened, the more likely that it won't happen. Or if it does happen, it's extremely limited. So we're in a situation which is almost like the worst of both worlds. We don't have a military solution, there's no political solution. Is this going to be put on ice just to start all over again in a couple of years? I see a lot of problems coming.

ANDERSON: Yes, and I think it's just important to explain why it is that we under score the response of the UAE and the Saudis. It's because these two countries are not just close allies of the United States, and of course, the United States has Egypt and Jordan in this region, who are also close allies. But these are the two countries who had increasingly close ties to Israel. The UAE normalized relations under the Abraham Accords back in 2020, when we had much discussion about a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi being only months away.

We always talked about how important it was for both of these countries that the Palestinian issue was front and center. Perhaps there's been some criticism of the United Arab Emirates that they went ahead without a sort of road map for the Palestinians. The Saudis have been very clear about wanting to ensure that there was a road map for the Palestinians, for their outlook of independence and sovereignty.

But certainly these two countries have been in lockstep with the United States, who have been using this issue of normalization as a bedrock, as a pillar for Washington's Middle East policy at present, under this Biden administration. And it has to be said, under the Trump administration as well.

So that is why -- and I think it's really important to point out -- why this condemnation of Israel by this kind of wide group of U.S. allies, is so important at this point and will make this trip here for Joe Biden, you know, so critical in in how he frames his sort of objectives going forward.

And of course, the meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan is cancelled. And I wonder what you think his message to the region is going to be at this point. I mean we know that there is you know clearly going to be a big focus on what is happening in Gaza. But you know, how does he stop this slipping out of control? And what will be his message to these regional leaders?

STEPHENS: Well, I think, Becky, this architecture that the U.S. was trying to build may already be breaking apart. I can't say yet whether the UAE is going to, you know, pull away from the Abraham Accords or not. But the Saudi normalization is off the table. And I think maybe all of us made a bit of a mistake in over focusing on the regional aspect here while not paying attention to the severity of the conditions in in the West Bank and Gaza. And you know, I'm at fault here, a lot of us are.

The day before Hamas launched its attack, I spent several hours talking with people from the region and all we could talk about was the Saudi normalization. No one spoke about Palestinian rights. And then within 10 hours of that conversation, bang, here we are. Two weeks later and the situation looks very grave indeed.

So what does Biden have to do? Well, the U.S. position is quite clear that Israel has a right to defend itself. They will not move from that premise. OK, so there's a military operation that's ongoing. There's a humanitarian crisis on the ground. How do you then translate what you're seeing to getting Arab states back on board with the program that you have for the region?