U.S. ‘surging support’ to Israel, vows aid in Hamas hostage standoff

The Biden administration raced to deliver military support to Israel on Monday in its spiraling conflict with Hamas, as U.S. officials vowed to account for Americans killed or potentially held hostage in the Gaza Strip.

A senior defense official said the Pentagon was “surging support” to its closest Middle Eastern ally in response to what U.S. officials have said are the brutal new tactics that characterized the weekend assault by Hamas militants into southern Israel. With the combined death toll exceeding 1,500, Israel’s government on Monday ordered a full-scale siege of the Gaza Strip, setting the stage for what could be a prolonged and bloody offensive in the small, densely populated Palestinian enclave.

“This is ISIS-level savagery that we have seen committed against Israeli civilians,” the defense official told reporters, pointing to reports of militants executing children and burning Israeli homes. The official said that steps to provide Israel with munitions and reposition U.S. military assets were intended to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to its ally and to deter Iran or its Middle Eastern proxy groups from launching pile-on attacks. “Those adversaries should think twice,” the official added, who like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.

A second Defense Department official said the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, with a troop contingent of 5,000 to 6,000 personnel, would arrive in the eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday. According to maritime tracking sites, the carrier was off the eastern coast of Italy on Monday. Other elements of promised Pentagon support, including American F-35 and F-15 aircraft to be positioned in the region, are expected to come into position in the coming days.

“Right now the focus is getting the assets that have been declared into position to provide the widest variety of options to national command authorities,” the official said.

The intensifying war between Israel and Hamas, with its long-standing ties to U.S. adversary Iran, poses a combustible challenge for President Biden, who has attempted to focus his foreign policy on China and the war in Ukraine. The renewed crisis in the Middle East — and the possibility of a direct American role in an emerging hostage crisis — now threatens to drag the White House more deeply back into the region and into a conflict that has defied decades of U.S. attempts at resolution.

Biden on Monday expressed sorrow at the loss of at least 11 American lives in the conflict and pledged American support in attempts to free hostages taken during the Hamas assault, which Israeli officials have said number at least 100. The administration is also considering and expediting Israeli requests for armaments including air defense missiles, small-diameter bombs and machine gun ammunition.

“This is not some distant tragedy,” the president said in a statement. “The ties between Israel and the United States run deep.” Since Hamas’s shock invasion, the impact of which Israelis have compared to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Biden has vowed unequivocal support for Israel and has spoken several times to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While the U.S. carrier strike group’s intelligence capabilities could assist in detecting ongoing militant attacks, U.S. officials have said the repositioning of military assets was intended primarily as a warning to Iranian-backed groups that represent an additional threat to Israel. First among them is Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which has a history of direct conflict with Israel, including a 2006 war in which more than 1,000 people were killed.

Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Biden’s new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged Iran “not to get involved” in the unfolding situation.

“We wanted to send a pretty strong message that we don’t want this to broaden,” Brown, who was sworn in less than two weeks ago, said in his first remarks since the weekend attacks. “And the idea is for Iran to get that message loud and clear,” he said. Brown spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, about the unfolding situation on Monday.

Israel’s military said Monday that it had killed several militants who infiltrated northern Israel from Lebanon. Hezbollah denied it had sent personnel over the border.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby cautioned that the United States had “no intention to put U.S. boots on the ground. That said … President Biden will always make sure that we are protecting our national security interests,” he told reporters.

U.S. and Israeli officials have stopped short of ascribing a direct role to Iran in the planning or staging of the Hamas invasion, which was without precedent for the group in its scale and complexity.

“No one would be surprised to find out that Iran had direct involvement — either planning or giving an order in support of the operation,” the official said. “But we haven’t seen any evidence of it.

As it seeks to prevent a regional conflagration, the Biden administration must now grapple with the potential for a prolonged standoff over American hostages. Biden, who has vowed to make repatriating U.S. citizens detained overseas a top priority, has already shown his willingness to authorize controversial prisoner swaps to secure Americans’ release.

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Israeli officials have acknowledged the difficulty of the task they face in recovering those now held by Hamas, which can hide hostages in Gaza’s underground tunnels and dense warrens of buildings. The issue took on greater urgency Monday when the military wing of Hamas, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said it would execute hostages if Israel continues to bomb and kill civilians in Gaza.

Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who now serves as Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, on Monday said that his government was trying to determine the number of individuals kidnapped but that Americans were among them. “We have to have a very, very forceful response,” he told NPR.

In his statement, Biden said his administration was still working to determine whether Americans were among the hostages but said it was likely. He said he had instructed officials to share intelligence and deploy a team of hostage experts to Israel to assist with the response.

“My heart goes out to every family impacted by the horrible events of the past few days,” the president said. “The pain these families have endured, the enormity of their loss, and the agony of those still awaiting information is unfathomable.”

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who took part in attempts to broker peace between Israeli and Palestinian authorities, said that Israel would probably take the lead on negotiations or military operations to recover hostages even if Americans were among those detained.

“The basic dilemma which affects the United States if in fact there are U.S. nationals [or dual nationals] hostage is, how do the Israelis reconcile a major incursion into Gaza with the fate of those hostages?” he asked.

It remained unclear Monday whether the two sides had started negotiations over hostages. Israel has conducted prisoner swaps for captured Israelis in the past, including the 2011 deal that yielded the return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

A Hamas official on Monday denied there were talks about a potential hostage exchange occurring in Qatar. “It’s too early for this conversation,” Ahmed Abdul Hadi, Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, told The Washington Post.

The government of the tiny Persian Gulf state, which has long allowed Hamas leadership to maintain a presence in Doha, has been involved since Saturday in trying to coordinate the release of Israeli women and children held hostage in Gaza, according to a person briefed on the talks.

Hamas has asked for the return of all Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. The talks, which began Saturday, include Israeli officials and former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who heads the organization’s diaspora office in Doha, and have been closely coordinated with the United States, according to the person briefed.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke late Saturday with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Qatar, with approval and coordination with Israel, has long provided direct economic and humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut and John Hudson, Ellen Nakashima, Abigail Hauslohner and Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report. Lamothe reported from a U.S. military aircraft.


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