President Biden is faced with the thorny reality that American citizens are among the hostages Hamas terrorists kidnapped and took into Gaza over the weekend, but the U.S. government doesn’t know exactly how many of its citizens are in that situation or where they are.
“We now know that American citizens are among those being held by Hamas,” Biden told reporters in the White House State Dining Room on Tuesday. He said the U.S. military would be helping Israeli forces in the planning and intelligence collection for efforts to rescue hostages and that he had “no higher priority” as President than the safety of Americans held hostage around the world.
Speaking forcefully in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, Biden called Hamas’s rampage through towns and farms in southern Israel and the slaughter of more than 1,000 Israelis “pure, unadulterated evil” and confirmed that those killed include 14 Americans. “At this moment, we must be crystal clear,” Biden said. “We stand with Israel.”
Beyond confirming that some of the hostages are US citizens, White House officials had few other details about them or what options for their rescue are available to Biden.
“We do not know about their condition and we cannot confirm a precise number of American hostages,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at the White House. More than 20 American citizens who were in Israel are missing, Sullivan said, but it is unclear how many among those are being held captive by Hamas.
The lack of clarity was especially upsetting for some of the family members of American citizens caught up in the crisis. Nahar Neta doesn’t know whether his 66-year-old mother, Adrienne Neta, is still alive after she was kidnapped on Saturday by Hamas from her home on Kibbutz Be’eri. “It is a little bit ridiculous at this stage to say that the optimistic scenario is that she is held hostage in Gaza and not dead on the street of the kibbutz where we grew up,” he said during an event in Jerusalem where family members of kidnapped Americans called on Biden to take action to bring their loved ones home.
Nahar described how Adrienne was on the phone with him and her daughter during the assault when they heard her scream. Neta said that his mom, who had worked as a nurse and midwife, spoke in Arabic to try to calm down the attackers.
If the U.S. is able to locate any of the Americans being held by Hamas, a U.S. rescue mission would be incredibly complex and dangerous for U.S. military personnel and any civilians on the ground in the densely populated Gaza Strip, which is currently under regular barrage by Israeli missiles. Also, the kidnappers may be holding U.S. citizens alongside Israeli captives, leaving open the question of which country would lead such an operation.
Hamas is believed to have more than 100 hostages in Gaza, including children and the elderly, making the Israeli offensive into Gaza that much more challenging and complex, says Uzi Arad, who served as national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 2009 to 2011. “This is a complicating factor to an incredible degree, because the hostages may be now used as a card in the management of the war,” says Arad, who was part of the 1976 Israeli commando raid to rescue hostages at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. Arad praised Biden’s statement of support for Israel on Tuesday. “The effect this has on Israeli morale and attitude is galvanizing,” he says.
Biden ordered U.S. military aircraft to Israel loaded with additional weapons, equipment and supplies, and a U.S. carrier strike group armed with guided missiles is loitering in the Eastern Mediterranean to deter other Iran-backed militants based in Syria and Lebanon from taking advantage of the moment to step up their own attacks.
The U.S. Navy strike group, led by the USS Gerald R. Ford—the newest, most sophisticated carrier in the U.S. fleet—is manned by more than 5,000 sailors and Marines and places additional US special operations forces, intelligence collection equipment, and attack planes closer to Gaza. Those could be used in potential hostage rescue operations, if the U.S. can learn more about their fate.
The families of the missing Americans who spoke to reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday were frustrated that they hadn’t been told anything by the US State Department or Israeli government about what may have happened to their loved ones. Neta wanted to hear what US and Israelis officials know about his mother at this point. “I think that after three days—more than three days now—it is more than a reasonable request to have somebody from the Israeli government or the U.S. administration approach us with any type of information they may have on our family members,” Neta said.
—WITH REPORTING BY ERIC CORTELLESSA