The White House confirmed on Tuesday that about 20 Americans remain missing and may be held hostage by Hamas, as President Biden strongly condemned the attack on Israel and vowed to stand unequivocally with the wartime Middle East ally.
Mr Biden was furious during a 10-minute statement at the White House after speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing as angry as he has been in public since he became president. He repeatedly condemned the attack as “evil” and used words and expressions such as “atrocities”, “sick”, “abhorrent”, “brutality” and “violation of every code of human morality” to describe it.
“This was an act of pure evil,” Mr. Biden said in the state dining room. “More than 1,000 civilians slaughtered – not just killed, but slaughtered – in Israel, among them at least 14 US citizens killed. Parents butchered using their own bodies trying to protect their children, reports of babies being killed, entire families killed from vertigo.”
The president, who was flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, confirmed without elaborating that at least some of the people captured by Hamas in the lightning strike over the weekend were American citizens, in addition to the 14 Americans known to have been killed. “We now know that Hamas is holding American citizens,” Mr. Biden said.
Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, later told reporters that “20 or more” Americans were missing, though it was not yet clear how many were in the hands of Hamas. He said that the government is in regular contact with their families.
Mr. Sullivan said that some stocks of interceptors stored in Israel had already been released and that more shipments of ammunition and other weapons were on the way. “You can expect American planes to fly to Israel,” he said.
Mr. Sullivan offered nothing but words of support and said the administration had no plans to lecture Israel on how to defend itself. But in a sign of concern about Palestinian civilians caught up in the war, he suggested the United States was working on ways to allow Gazans to escape punishing Israeli airstrikes.
“I’m not going to go into the details of that, about the specific crossing or so on,” he said. “Just to say it’s something we’re focused on and working on.”
Mr. Biden spoke to the cameras shortly after he and Ms. Harris finished a conversation with Mr. Netanyahu in which they reiterated their pledge to support Israel. It was Mr. Biden’s third conversation with Mr. Netanyahu since the attacks began on Saturday.
In addition to sending the first shipment of military equipment to Israel, the president has deployed ships and warplanes closer to the area in hopes of deterring Iran, Hezbollah or any other force from escalating the war. Mr. Sullivan said Congress would be asked to approve more aid.
The president did not bother to ask Israel for restraint while he responded. “Like every nation in the world, Israel has the right to respond, and in fact, the duty to respond to these vicious attacks,” he said.
And he rejected suggestions that the attack was understandable if not justified given what critics see as Israel’s repression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“There is no justification for terrorism,” he said flatly. “There are no excuses. Hamas does not stand for the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and self-determination. Its stated purpose is the destruction of the state of Israel and the killing of the Jewish people. They use Palestinian civilians as human shields. Hamas offers nothing but terror and bloodshed regardless of who pays the price.”
During the press briefing afterwards, Mr. Sullivan made it clear that the issue was personal for Mr. Biden, who has been a strong supporter of Israel for more than half a century. “You heard his voice, and this was a deeply emotional time for all of us,” Mr. Sullivan told reporters, his face flushed and his voice thick with emotion. “We have all developed close relationships with our Israeli counterparts.”
Speaking of the president, Mr Sullivan said: “He can hear the pain in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s voice when he talks to him.” He added: “This is not about politics or strategy. This is personal for us.”
Michael D. Shear contributed to the reporting.