The Biden administration has ruled out sending military personnel, including special forces, into Gaza as part of an attempt to free American hostages there.
But the decision, which was announced by a top White House official, could be revisited.
Three U.S. officials who were not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations said the determination was made that the current situation was exceedingly complex, posing challenges for U.S. and Israel leaders as they grapple with this hostage crisis.
The U.S. does not yet know where the hostages are held, the officials said. Gaza is notoriously dense, with a warren of tunnels, and officials believe that hostages — whether American or Israeli — would be spread out and likely not held together, housed in separate underground areas and with innocent civilians in an effort to make any rescue operation that much more difficult. Additionally, U.S. officials believe the quality of Israeli intelligence in the area has slipped — as evidenced by the stunning success of last weekend’s Hamas sneak attacks — and there has been a paucity of reliable information from the area.
Further complicating the situation, U.S. officials said, is that Hamas consists of numerous and often competing subgroups and militias that all operate in Gaza. Before the U.S. can put together a plan to recover hostages, officials first have to figure out which of those Hamas subgroups may be holding them.
And so, for now, the U.S. is deferring to the Israeli special forces, who have far greater experience in Gaza. A team of American military specialists has arrived in the region and is consulting with their Israeli counterparts about possible plans of action. Among other elements, U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command have offered to provide hostage rescue planning and intelligence support to the Israelis.
“This is one of the most difficult aspects of what will be a very difficult operational environment for Israeli forces,” Finer added. “It’s a difficult place to fight, it’s an easier place to hide. It’s an intelligence problem, how do you actually find these people? And once you do find them, if you do find them, how do you negotiate their release or try operationally to remove them?”
The Biden administration has convened a series of meetings across a number of agencies on the fate of the hostages, who are deemed to be in great physical peril — as well as a potential political problem for a president seeking reelection.
At this moment, the U.S. does not know precisely how many Americans are being held hostage by the Hamas terror group, according to the officials. Fourteen Americans remain missing in the wake of the weekend attacks but many are presumed dead or could eventually turn up safe, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said at Thursday’s White House press briefing. Kirby also confirmed that the number of Americans killed in the attacks is now known to be 27.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday that he believed that only a “handful” of Americans are currently being held by Hamas, as he stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
The U.S. is working closely with Israel to recover hostages in Gaza, with FBI and Pentagon personnel on the ground in Israel providing support to Israeli special operators. Administration officials made clear that the U.S. would play a secondary role.
An interagency team of U.S. officials from the State Department, National Security Council and FBI is receiving input from all over about the Americans who are missing or deceased in Israel, officials said. Family members and friends have reached out to the embassy about loved ones, and that information has been compiled alongside work that the FBI has been doing.
The administration is working through phone calls that have been coming into the U.S. Embassy in Israel, the FBI and the White House from friends and relatives of Americans believed to be missing. Some of these phone calls have been based on eye-witness accounts of people being taken by Hamas. But one difficulty has been trying to verify secondhand accounts.
Qatar and Turkey have offered to serve as intermediaries when negotiating with Hamas. There are U.S. special forces on the ground in Israel who were already deployed to the region but they will not be used in a rescue mission, officials said.
President Joe Biden, for his part, has stressed that it is his intent to bring all of the missing Americans home.
“We want to make it real clear. We’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel, including deploying experts to advise and assist with recovery efforts,” Biden told the American Jewish leaders at the White House this week. “There’s a lot we’re doing, a lot we’re doing. I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home.”
Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.