As many as 20 American citizens are thought to be being held in captivity by Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza, the U.S. State Department has said, as Israel appears to be gearing up for an offensive on the Palestinian territory following attacks last weekend.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, spokesman Matthew Miller said 14 Americans had been confirmed dead in the surprise attacks, and that a further 20 remained unaccounted for; a number cited the same day by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
Miller added it was possible that some of those were deceased or simply missing, “but we do believe it’s likely that there may be hostages who are U.S. citizens who are held in Gaza.”
He said the number “has been moving around over the last few days.” On Thursday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said that President Joe Biden‘s administration was not aware of the condition of the hostages, but that the number of Americans among them was still thought to be “less than a handful.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country is “at war” and has cut off supplies of food, fuel, electricity and medicine into Gaza. Israel has called up 360,000 army reservists as it prepares for a likely ground offensive into the territory, which has an estimated population of around 2.3 million.
As many as 150 hostages of various nationalities are thought to have been taken by militants amid the violence that broke out across Israel last Saturday, according to a preliminary assessment. Earlier in the week, a senior Hamas official had claimed there were around 130 held captive.
On Saturday, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it had so far identified 126 hostages, according to the Associated Press.
“We’re going to do everything in our power to find them,” Biden said of the American hostages in an interview with 60 Minutes. “We’re working like hell on it.”
On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed he had met “with the families of some of those being held hostage by Hamas,” the previous day, adding: “Their anguish is profound.” Biden also said he had spoken to the families of those unaccounted for, telling them from the Oval Office: “We’re not walking away. I promise you.”
However, the hostage situation in Gaza may be complicated by an anticipated ground offensive on the Palestinian territory by the IDF. On Friday, it told residents of the northern part of Gaza, including Gaza City—which combined account for around half of Gaza’s population—to evacuate south.
After initially giving residents a 24-hour window to leave, and following outcry from humanitarian organizations, it has highlighted routes from the north that it said it would not target with air strikes within given periods over the weekend.
The Israeli Air Force has been conducting an intensive campaign of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, but Netanyahu indicated this was only the opening salvo in a much larger offensive.
With units massing on the border with Gaza, on Saturday the IDF said it was “currently preparing to implement a wide range of operational offensive plans” including coordinated strikes by air, sea and land.
Military experts have said that any ground assault not only risks high civilian and personnel casualties, but was also unlikely to save the hostages. “Whether you can release them from the ground or not is another question,” Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired British Army officer, previously told Newsweek. “I wouldn’t be too confident of that.”
Hamas claimed on Saturday that nine hostages, including four non-Israelis, had been killed by Israeli air strikes in the preceding 24 hours, AFP reported, and told the BBC earlier in the week that five had died as a result of the targeting. These figures could not be independently verified.
Speaking on Thursday, Kirby said that it was a “common tactic in the Hamas playbook to break up hostages and move them around in, sometimes, small groups.”
He confirmed that the U.S. had hostage recovery experts in Israel, but said there were no intentions to put American combat troops on the ground. He also declined to go into detail about potential hostage negotiations, explaining: “It’s never a good idea to negotiate for the transfer of hostages or detainees in public, lest you torpedo the actual success you’re trying to achieve.”
However, a ground assault on Gaza could throw any such negotiations into jeopardy. Newsweek approached the State Department for further comment on Sunday.