Biden administration working to recover U.S. hostages held by Hamas
President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable with Jewish community leaders in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Oct. 11, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Biden spoke about U.S. support for Israel following the Hamas terrorist attacks. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. officials are working to recover American hostages from the Middle East and provide aid to Israel as violence continues in the region following last weekend’s attack by Hamas, administration and congressional leaders said Wednesday.
Speaking to Jewish community leaders at the White House late Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden said the administration was working to extract U.S. hostages taken by Hamas, that he was in consistent communication with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that he condemned antisemitism and hate of all kinds.
Biden affirmed a strong U.S. commitment to Israel, saying it went beyond geopolitical interests. He invoked the Holocaust and said that without Israel, “no Jew in the world would be able to be safe.”
“The past few days have been a solemn reminder that hate never goes away,” he said. “All it does is go underground. It doesn’t go away, it just hides.”
At the White House press briefing Wednesday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said 22 Americans are confirmed dead in Israel and 17 are unaccounted for. Officials expect those numbers to rise, she and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said from the briefing room.
The administration is aware that several missing Americans are being held hostage by Hamas and is working to extract them, Biden said, though he said he could not provide details on those efforts.
“We’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel, including deploying experts to advise and assist with the recovery efforts,” he said.
Biden said he knew the Jewish leaders and the news media would have questions about plans to retrieve hostages, but said he couldn’t share any details without compromising the mission.
“I have not given up hope that we can get them home,” he said. “But the idea that I’m going to stand here before you and tell you what I’m doing is bizarre.”
Evacuating Americans, Gaza civilians
More than 100 U.S. House members said in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken they’ve received calls from constituents who are in Israel and are seeking to return and urged the secretary to help them come home.
“We urge the State Department to use all resources at its disposal, including charter flights, to help those Americans that remain in Israel and wish to return to the United States,” the letter reads.
Kirby and some members of Congress also highlighted efforts to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based.
“We’re actively discussing this with our Israeli and Egyptian counterparts,” Kirby said of evacuating civilians in Gaza. “We support safe passages for civilians. Civilians are not to blame for what Hamas has done. They didn’t do anything wrong.”
Kirby said he couldn’t announce any concrete plans Wednesday, but that civilians were protected under international law and should be given “every opportunity to avoid fighting.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Gregory Meeks, of New York, said at a morning news conference that Palestinian civilians should not be punished for the actions of Hamas.
“I want to acknowledge that there are innocent Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank that hope to just live normal and free lives,” Meeks said. “They want nothing to do with Hamas. Hamas is their enemy, too. What the cowardly people of Hamas do is use them as human shields.
“I just want to make sure that we cannot lose sight of this,” he continued. “We must keep these Palestinian people, and their safety and livelihoods, in mind as we crush Hamas.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, criticized Israel’s response of cutting off food, water and other necessities from Gaza, calling it “a serious violation of international law” that “will do nothing but harm innocent civilians.”
Sanders, who is Jewish, said in a statement the U.S. was right to offer solidarity and aid to Israel, but “must also insist on restraint from Israeli forces attacking Gaza.”
“Let us not forget that half of the two million people in Gaza are children,” he said. “Children and innocent people do not deserve to be punished for the acts of Hamas.”
Congress calls for Iron Dome aid
Four bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrats Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Rounds of South Dakota, wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to request the U.S. send two batteries for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Kirby said the U.S. was “able to replenish” some Iron Dome interceptor missiles. The missiles were already in Israel but in possession of the U.S. military, which “just transferred ownership” to the Israeli military, he said.
Members of both parties also called for stopping any release of the $6 billion in Iranian assets the Biden administration agreed to provide earlier this year in return for the release of U.S. prisoners.
That money is supposed to be used for humanitarian purpose— and has not been released at all yet, officials said Tuesday — but Iran has provided aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, a militant group based across Israel’s northern border in Lebanon, and lawmakers argued the humanitarian funding could allow for more money to be sent to militants.
“Based on what I heard today in our classified briefing, I believe we need to hit the pause button on any release of the funds that were part of this deal,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin said on X, formerly Twitter, referring to a classified briefing House members received Wednesday morning.
Several Republicans made a similar request in a letter Tuesday, and U.S. Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, supported that view in a statement Tuesday.
U.S. Senate Banking and Housing Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said the panel “will examine the financing behind Hamas’s attacks, including whether cryptocurrency was involved, and what additional economic tools we need to stop state sponsors of terrorism, including Iran, from supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups.”
“As we work to hold any state sponsors of terrorism accountable, the administration must freeze the $6 billion in Iranian assets,” he added.
Widening the war
Reports early Wednesday indicated Hezbollah, a militant group on Israel’s northern border that also receives backing from Iran, could be organizing an attack.
Biden and Kirby said Wednesday the administration was warning other actors not to get involved.
“We’re sending a loud and clear message that the United States is ready to take action should any actor hostile to Israel consider trying to escalate or widen this war,” Kirby said.
-Ashley Murray and Jane Norman contributed to this report.