President Biden plans to visit Israel on Wednesday, an extraordinary trip to the grieving nation as it prepares to invade the neighboring Gaza Strip, which has fallen into a desperate humanitarian crisis with two million people trapped and critical supplies dwindling.
The trip by Mr. Biden — announced by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken early Tuesday morning in Tel Aviv, on the eve of a potential escalation of the conflict in the Middle East — will be a remarkable gamble less than two weeks after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks that killed more than 1,400 people in southern Israel.
His acceptance of the Israeli invitation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrates American solidarity with Israel, signaling to its rivals like Iran, Syria and Hezbollah that it has the power of the United States behind it at a time of increasing anxiety about a regional war. But it also ties Mr. Biden, and the United States, to the bloodshed in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, the group that attacked Israel.
Airstrikes that Israel says target Hamas forces have killed more than 2,808 people and wounded 10,850 others in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes. And an Israeli siege has caused shortages of food, water and fuel, drawing warnings from the United Nations of a humanitarian calamity.
Mr. Blinken said Mr. Biden is taking the trip to show unwavering support for Israel — after what officials say was the deadliest day in its history — and to speak with the country’s leaders about several urgent issues, including hostages held by Hamas and humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza.
“He is coming here at a critical moment for Israel, for the region and for the world,” Mr. Blinken said.
Mr. Biden’s decision suggests that the widely expected Israeli ground invasion will be delayed until after his departure, but there was no immediate comment from Israeli or U.S. officials.
The visit by the American leader creates intense security concerns: Sirens warning of rockets or missiles sounded repeatedly on Monday, driving lawmakers to safe rooms and soldiers and journalists toward shelter as Mr. Blinken met with Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet for more than seven hours.
Mr. Biden’s acceptance of the invitation came as Israelis learned more about the Oct. 7 attacks. The military said it now believes 199 people were taken hostage by Hamas, the group that controls the Gaza Strip, nearly 50 more than previously thought.
“This will be a long war,” Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Monday after meeting with Mr. Blinken in Tel Aviv. “The price will be high, but we are going to win for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the values that both countries believe in.”
Israel’s retaliation for those attacks has already surpassed the scope of past conflicts with Hamas, which the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist group. Hundreds of airstrikes have pounded Gaza, and Israel says it has killed at least six senior leaders of Hamas so far.
In addition to the thousands killed and wounded, the Gaza Government Press Office said at least 3,731 residential buildings that include 10,500 housing units were completely demolished by Israeli strikes.
Israel has also declared a “complete siege” to deprive the impoverished enclave of energy, food and water. The result, with Gaza’s borders closed by Israel and Egypt, is a desperate population jammed into an area about the size of Las Vegas.
Gaza’s Interior Ministry said no water had reached the enclave in 10 days, despite remarks from the White House on Sunday that Israel had agreed to restore water to the southern part of the strip.
Israel has warned hundreds of thousands of people to leave northern Gaza for their safety. More than 400,000 people have gone to U.N. shelters, and aid workers are under such strain that the head of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said his staff could no longer help unless they received new supplies.
Gaza is also running out of body bags, the official, Philippe Lazzarini, told reporters in East Jerusalem on Sunday, echoing the accounts of residents who are reopening old graves to bury the dead and burying bodies in groups.
Before Israel’s retaliatory strikes began on the day of the Hamas attack, Gaza was already in desperate straits — under a 16-year blockade and relying heavily on Israel for power and on Egypt for humanitarian aid. Now, Gaza’s three water desalination plants have halted operations because of a lack of fuel, and clean water is running out, according to the United Nations, driving people to drink dirty water from wells despite the risk of disease.
Hospitals are packed with the wounded and the dead, and medical workers have said that moving many patients, including babies in incubators, would threaten their lives. And the bombs, falling at an extraordinary rate, have landed in densely populated areas of the strip.
Mr. Biden has already made one visit to a country at war this year, taking a nearly 10-hour train from the border of Poland to Kyiv to show American support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. But that trip, conducted under a cloak of secrecy, came in the wake of many European leaders’ own trips to support Ukraine — unlike the trip to Israel, which will be fraught with implications for any efforts to ease the crisis.
Mr. Biden delivered his first significant public effort to restrain Israel’s response to the Hamas attack on Sunday, warning Israel that another occupation of Gaza would be a “big mistake.”
Speaking to “60 Minutes” on CBS, he said, “Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people.” He added, though, that he was convinced “the Israelis are going to do everything in their power to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.”
Mr. Biden has expressed staunch support for Israel, and said in the same interview that “taking out the extremists” was “a necessary requirement.”
But he has also sought to head off a wider conflict through diplomacy and a show of military might. The White House has warned Iran against escalation through back-channel messages with intermediaries in Qatar, Oman and China, its point backed up by a pair of aircraft carriers and a Marines rapid response force heading toward the eastern Mediterranean.
Reflecting fears that the conflict could spread into a regional war, Israel’s military said it would evacuate people who live within two kilometers of the border with Lebanon. Clashes have broken out there in recent days between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-backed group that dominates southern Lebanon, with both sides trading fire across the border.
And Mr. Blinken, the secretary of state, returned to Israel on Monday for another round of talks in his marathon effort to broker deals — raising hope that food and medicine could be brought into Gaza and foreign passport holders could get out.
So far, those efforts have foundered. The office of Israel’s prime minister dismissed rumors that it was allowing aid into Gaza from Egypt, saying in a statement, “Israel has not agreed to give any humanitarian aid to Hamas.”
And although the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem told American citizens in Gaza on Monday to “move closer” to the Rafah crossing if they could safely, scores of people who had gathered there, toting what they could carry in suitcases, were stuck.
Hanin Awkal, sitting in a car near the locked gates, said that she had been visiting Gaza with her three children, including a newborn, and fled to Rafah after receiving an email from the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem telling her to come to the crossing, which is controlled by Hamas on the Gaza side.
There, they found it closed. “They’ve never visited Gaza in their lives,” Ms. Awkal said of her children. “And — if you can imagine — the first time they visit, this war happens.”
Soliman Hijjy contributed reporting from the Gaza Strip, Anushka Patil from New York, and Ainara Tiefenthäler and Sarah Kerr from London.