Blinken Says Status of Missing Americans Unclear as Israel Revises Hostage Number

Blinken Says Status of Missing Americans Unclear as Israel Revises Hostage Number
Israeli army spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari speaks to the press from The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

At least 222 people have been taken hostage in the Gaza Strip since Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched its cross-border onslaught against Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

Speaking at a news briefing on Oct. 23, Rear Adm. Hagari said the updated number of people who were captured and dragged back to Gaza includes a number of foreign nationals. The latest figure is an increase from the previously stated total of 212 hostages.

“We will employ every available means to safely free the hostages, whether through military, intelligence, or diplomatic channels,” he said, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported. “This represents the core purpose of this war, in addition to dismantling Hamas rule and destroying its capabilities. These objectives will be achieved.”

According to Rear Adm. Hagari, the military has information about the hostages and has contacted family members of those who are missing to inform them that their loved ones were captured by Hamas.

The updated number does not include two U.S. citizens—Judith Tai Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter, Natalie Raanan—who were kidnapped during Hamas’s Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel.

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Judith Raanan (L) and her daughter Natalie, 17, after Natalie’s recent high school graduation. (Raanan Family via AP)

The 59-year-old Chicago-area mother and her teenage daughter were released at the Gaza border on Oct. 20 nearly two weeks after the terrorist group abducted them and dozens of others near Gaza. The pair, who also hold Israeli citizenship, were the first hostages to be released.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Oct. 22 that it is unclear why Hamas released Ms. Raanan and her daughter.

“We don’t know why Hamas chose to release Natalie and Judith first, and I use the word ‘first’ advisedly because, again, we’re hopeful that more follow,” he said.

Mr. Blinken also pointed out that the Biden administration is currently unaware of the status of Americans who remain unaccounted for. He did, however, confirm that a “significant number” of missing Americans are believed to be held hostage in the enclave.

“We’ve got 10 unaccounted-for Americans,” Mr. Blinken said. “We believe that some significant number are hostages. But what’s happening is … Israel continues to discover, uncover people who were killed, who were slaughtered.”

“So what we don’t know for sure is whether some of the unaccounted-for are dead and have simply not been uncovered yet, or whether they’re hostage,” he added. “But we have a pretty strong idea that some number of the 10, at least, are being held in Gaza by Hamas.”

Israel Steps Up Bombing

Israel said on Oct. 23 that it has ramped up its airstrikes in Gaza ahead of a widely anticipated ground offensive. According to IDF, 320 terrorist targets throughout Gaza have been struck over the last 24 hours in preparation for “a maneuver”—an apparent reference to a ground operation. The military said it does not target civilians and noted that Palestinian terrorists have fired over 7,000 rockets at Israel since the start of the war.

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Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel on Oct. 23, 2023. (Ariel Schalit/AP Photo)
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Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Rafah, on Oct. 23, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP Photo)

A ground operation in Gaza is widely expected after Hamas’s brutal rampage into southern Israeli communities. Tanks and troops have amassed at the Gaza border, and Israel said the increase in airstrikes is in order to reduce the risk to troops in the next stages.

Mr. Blinken, meanwhile, declined to say on Oct. 22 whether the United States wants Israel to hold off on its ground operation in Gaza until more hostages can be freed, saying the country has “the obligation to defend itself.” Last week, a number of reports citing anonymous sources suggested the U.S. government has pressed Israel to delay its ground operation in Gaza.

“We’re not in the business of second-guessing what they’re doing,” Mr. Blinken said. “We are talking to them on a regular basis about how they do it. It’s vitally important that every measure be taken to protect civilians, that humanitarian assistance gets in to people who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’s making. And, of course, both of us want to make sure that the many hostages who’ve been taken come home.”

The Israel–Hamas war is the deadliest by far of five wars fought between Israel and Hamas in less than 15 years. More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed—mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack.

On Oct. 23, Hamas said more than 5,000 Palestinians have been killed. However, that figure cannot be independently verified as the terrorist group has inflated casualty numbers in the past. The death toll in Gaza has reportedly climbed more rapidly in recent days, with Hamas reporting 436 additional deaths in just the last 24 hours.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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