Lawmakers Mull Deeper Military Role in Israel as 'Dozens' of Americans Are Held Hostage by Hamas

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Some members of Congress on Wednesday left open the possibility of deeper U.S. military involvement in the unfolding war between Israel and Hamas as Americans were killed and taken hostage, and others were struggling to leave a country at war.

"Whatever Israel wants, they should ask us, and we should be there to help," Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force brigadier general and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said about rescuing hostages.

Pressed on whether that should include U.S. troops participating in raids, Bacon replied, "We should do whatever is needed to rescue Americans and to kill those bad guys."

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The sentiments from Bacon and other lawmakers came after officials from the Pentagon, State Department and Office of the Director for National Intelligence briefed House members Wednesday morning on the weekend's horrific attack and the escalating war that has followed.

After Saturday's brutal and unprecedented assault by Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, at least 1,200 people were confirmed killed. The U.S. military rushed the USS Gerald Ford carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

    The U.S. has also sent hostage recovery experts from across the federal government to Israel to help coordinate rescue efforts and share intelligence, national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. A senior Pentagon official also told on Tuesday that special operations personnel who were already in Israel working at the embassy or participating in bilateral training “have offered to help with hostage recovery efforts.”

    But defense officials have so far stressed that there are no plans for direct U.S. military involvement in the conflict or for deploying American troops to engage in combat. The Ford's presence is meant as a deterrent to Iran, Hezbollah and any other malign actors who might seek to widen the war or otherwise take advantage of the chaos, defense officials have said.

    At least 22 American citizens have been confirmed to be among the dead from Saturday's attack, the State Department said Wednesday, up from the 14 that officials cited a day earlier. At least 17 others remain unaccounted for, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

    While the Biden administration has confirmed that U.S. citizens are among the hostages, it has not publicly offered an estimate of how many are being held. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, told reporters Wednesday that "dozens" of Americans are being held, but declined to be more specific about the details of a classified briefing.

    "We will provide assistance to Israel to get them out of there," McCaul said, pointing to the capabilities of both the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team and U.S. special operations forces.

    He said the Israeli military’s bombing campaign in Gaza is aimed at defeating Hamas command-and-control operations. But the next phase of the war will include troops clearing the area as Hamas forces hold hostages, including Americans.

    "It's going to be very difficult going house to house, like Fallujah in 2005, to rescue these hostages when they use them as human shields," McCaul added. "It's very dangerous doing that. It's very dangerous, but we have to get the Americans out, and we have to get the Israelis out."

    Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington state, who is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said some lawmakers asked during the closed-door briefing about deeper U.S. military involvement in rescuing hostages or evacuating civilians but that "nothing specifically was said" by the briefers about the prospect of doing so.

    Thousands of U.S. citizens, including some with dual citizenship, live in Israel, and the U.S. is also Israel's largest source of tourism. While Ben Gurion Airport, Israel's main international airport, remains open, several major airlines have suspended service to and from the country since the fighting started, and hundreds of flights have been reported canceled or delayed.

    It's unclear exactly how many U.S. citizens want to leave Israel and can't, but several lawmakers said the issue was discussed at Wednesday's briefing.

    "They have contingency plans right now to help people get out of this," Bacon said, adding, "That's why our Ford battle group is there."

    Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass., a Marine Corps veteran, said it's more likely the administration would tap civilian aircraft to help evacuate Americans if necessary.

    Many times in the past, the U.S. has organized charter flights to evacuate Americans from international crises rather than relying on the military, and more than 140 lawmakers in both parties earlier this week urged the State Department to arrange charter flights for U.S. citizens who want to leave Israel.

    Still, Auchincloss also highlighted the presence of the Ford in the Mediterranean when asked about evacuating Americans.

    "I think we've got the ability on the commercial side to do that," he said. "But clearly the strike group is there in the eastern Mediterranean to send a strong signal to Hezbollah and to Iran that opening up new fronts in this war is unadvisable."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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