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What you need to know about Biden's wartime trip to Israel

President Biden greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.
Evan Vucci
President Biden greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.

Updated October 18, 2023 at 5:30 AM ET

For updates on President Biden's visit, follow NPR's live blog.

President Biden is meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Wednesday as the White House shows solidarity with its chief ally in the Middle East after Hamas killed some 1,400 Israelis during an Oct. 7 attack.

But the trip became more fraught after an explosion at a busy Gaza hospital killed hundreds of people, shortly before Biden left Washington. Biden had initially planned to stop in Amman, Jordan after Tel Aviv to meet with three key leaders about humanitarian aid for Gaza. But that part of the trip was called off.

Here's what you should know about Biden's visit.

Why isn't Biden going to Amman now?

Biden has been originally scheduled to carry on to Amman after Tel Aviv to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The purpose was to discuss efforts to get humanitarian aid into Gaza — something that has become a growing concern as the territory runs out of food, water and medical supplies. Civilians — including American citizens in Gaza — have been unable to leave through the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

But then an explosion at a hospital in Gaza killed hundreds of people. Palestinian authorities accused Israel, while Israel said a Palestinian militant group was responsible.

Abbas cancelled his meeting with Biden, and called for three days of mourning. Biden said he would postpone the visit after he talked to King Abdullah.

Sitting beside Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Biden said he was "deeply saddened and outraged by the explosion."

"Based on what I've seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team — not you — but there's a lot of people out there not sure, so we've got to overcome a lot of things," Biden said.

President Biden speaks as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Biden speaks as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

What does Biden hope to accomplish in Tel Aviv?

Biden has taken a strong pro-Israel stance after the Hamas attacks, saying that it was the most deadly attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust, and that Israel has a right to defend itself. Kirby said 31 U.S. citizens were among the dead and 13 Americans remain unaccounted for.

Biden wants to get an update from Israeli military officials on their strategy and the pace of their operations when he meets with Netanyahu and his war cabinet, Kirby said. The trip comes as Israel prepares for a ground offensive in Gaza, and Biden wants to learn more about the objectives and plans for coming days and weeks, Kirby said.

"He'll be asking some tough questions - he'll be asking them as a friend, as a true friend of Israel but he'll be asking some questions of them," Kirby said.

At the same time, Biden has pledged support for Israel in its war against Hamas, and is expected to ask Congress later this week to provide funding for additional military aid to Israel.

Biden also hopes to get more information about efforts to locate and free hostages taken during the attacks, a handful of whom are believed to be American citizens. Biden will meet with people who lost loved ones during the attacks, as well as first responders, Kirby said.

What about humanitarian aid for people in Gaza?

Biden's team has been pressing Israel and Egypt to allow food, water and medicine into Gaza — and to let civilians out. On the way to Tel Aviv, Kirby expressed some optimism that could happen soon.

The Rafah crossing is effectively the only option for Palestinians to leave Gaza, and for any aid to come in. Food, water and medicine are already extremely scarce in Gaza, and the dire conditions have worsened in the last week. Hospitals are running out of electricity and are struggling to treat the thousands of injured, many of whom are children.

In the meantime, there are reports that Israel has been bombing the Rafah crossing region, damaging many of the roads, which makes it unclear how the aid will be distributed even if the Rafah crossing is opened.

A huge banner in Tel Aviv marking President Biden's visit.
Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A huge banner in Tel Aviv marking President Biden's visit.

How dangerous is this visit for Biden?

The White House is providing less public information about the trip than usual because of the risks of traveling to the region right now. During Blinken's visit to Tel Aviv, sirens went off as a warning of new rocket attacks, and the secretary was moved to a bunker for about five minutes.

But Biden has visited war zones before, including a trip to Ukraine in February. That travel wasn't revealed until the president was on the ground in Kyiv.

Kirby has said Tel Aviv is not being actively targeted in the same way that Kyiv was at the time of Biden's visit.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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