Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab hospital

There’ve been very worrying developments since we last wrote, starting with an explosion at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City that’s left many dead.

EgyptIranJordanSaudi ArabiaTurkey, the UAE, the Palestinian Authority and others say the explosion was the result of an Israeli air strike.

For its part, Israel says that intel shows a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) caused the blast, a claim PIJ has denied. The US suspects PIJ too.

But furious reactions have erupted across the region, including:

  • Mass protests in Morocco and Iran, plus fiery demonstrations and incursions at the Israeli embassy in Amman, the Israeli consulate in Istanbulthe US Embassy in Beirut, and elsewhere.

In parallel, Switzerlandthe UK, and the US (among others) are condemning the massive loss of life while investigations continue.

And in the meantime, this blast threatens to be the event we worried might kick off a chain reaction of escalatory events across the region.

Biden is walking the finest of diplomatic lines

As President Biden lands in Israel for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today (Wednesday), his visit is now looking extraordinary:

  • Security risks. It’s rare for a US president to pre-announce a visit to a conflict zone, let alone one that deteriorates while he’s in the air. The idea was to impose a pause: deter Iran and create space for Israel to think carefully about its next steps. But that idea is fading in real time.
  • Diplomatic risks. Biden’s aim was to publicly support Israel’s “right to defend itself” against Hamas atrocities while not further inflaming the region. Outrage without escalation. That just got a whole lot harder.
  • And in private, we expect Biden may delineate the extent of US support, push Netanyahu to allow aid into Gaza, and caution him on the real escalatory peril ahead. But because these talks will remain private, Biden risks being seen as sanctioning whatever path Israel ends up pursuing.

Another of Biden’s goals for this trip was to work with Israel’s neighbours to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. But this now looks fraught:

  • Citing the hospital blast, Jordan has cancelled a summit between its king, Egypt’s president, the Palestinian Authority leader, and Biden.

Final thought: We can’t remember a higher-stakes trip by a sitting US president. Biden’s public grief at the Hamas atrocities has made him a very popular figure in Israel – a fact that will no doubt enter Netanyahu’s calculations as he considers his next move.

But if the region is determined to go to war, there’s only so much even a US president can do to stop it.

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