WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Wednesday held his first in-person meeting with families of some of the eight Americans still unaccounted for and presumed taken captive by Hamas during its deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, reassuring the families that his administration was committed to reuniting them with their loved ones.
The family members said in a statement following the meeting that they urged Biden to do “everything in his power to negotiate a swift and total release of the remaining hostages,” and they in turn offered to do “anything he needs” to win the hostages’ release.
“We felt before and we’re only reinforced in seeing and believing that we could have no better friend in Washington or in the White House than President Biden himself and his administration,” said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son Sagui is among the Americans believed to be held by Hamas.
The two-hour meeting came a day after Biden appeared to sharpen criticism of Israel’s execution of its retaliatory strikes in Gaza, warning that the Israelis were losing international support because of “indiscriminate bombing.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden’s comments reflected “a concern that we have had for some time and will continue to have as this military operation proceeds about the need for reducing civilian harm and being as precise and careful and deliberate as possible.”
Israeli officials on Wednesday sought to play down the signs of strain between Biden and the Netanyahu government.
“I have great respect for President Biden, for Defense Secretary Austin and all the top American government officials. They are doing a lot,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yov Gallant. He added, ”Conversations are ongoing. I think we will find a way to help the Americans help us. That’s the key and the base. They want our success, and we are aware we must do so while taking their needs into account, and without giving up on the goals of the war.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer joined Biden for Wednesday’s meeting. Thirteen of the family members attended in person, while three others joined the conversation with the president and his advisers by phone, according to the White House.
The Democratic president has previously met with some family members virtually and spoken to others on the phone. White House officials said Wednesday’s engagement was emotional for the president.
“I reassured them that I will continue doing everything possible to secure the release of their family members,” Biden said in a posting on the social media site X. “And that we will not give up hope.”
Dekel-Chen declined to offer information on what, if any, details Biden and other administration officials offered the group about U.S. efforts to win their loved ones’ release. He said, however, that the administration made clear that it “is completely committed to getting the hostages out.”
Biden’s meeting with the families came as his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was to head to Israel on Thursday to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, members of his war cabinet, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
The eight Americans remain unaccounted for after Hamas’ surprise air, sea and land incursion into Israeli towns, where the group killed about 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, and took more than 240 people hostage. The White House has said that at least 31 Americans were killed by Hamas and other militant groups on Oct. 7.
Kirby said Biden “was moved by their stories, by the love they feel, by the hope that they still harbor and he harbors that hope too.”
Liz Naftali, the great aunt of 4-year-old Abigail Edan, who was released late last month after spending weeks in Hamas captivity, took part in the White House meeting and said the families are hoping for a “Christmas miracle.” The child, who was taken hostage after her parents were killed, was released during last month’s temporary cease-fire to facilitate the swapping of hostages for Palestinian prisoners.
The meeting came as Pope Francis on Wednesday renewed his call for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and for the return of hostages taken by Hamas.
“As we come to the Christmas holiday, I hope that the pope continues to speak and others around the world not only pray, but pray for us, pray for our families, pray for our leaders, pray for the president,” said Naftali.
Four Americans were released as part of a U.S.-negotiated cease-fire in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza that was brokered with the assistance of Qatar and Egypt.
One American woman was supposed to be released by Hamas under the terms of last month’s cease-fire, but she remains unaccounted for — a development that contributed to the end of the temporary pause in the fighting.
“We know that they are working 24 hours a day, and they are going to work through the holidays and they are going to do everything they can to make sure that all of our loved ones—real people—come home to us and to the families across the world and Israel,” Naftali said.
While Dekel-Chen and Naftali expressed hope, the families in their statement also expressed concern about the mental and physical pain the hostages are enduring.
“Every day, we worry that they are dying a little bit more. We implore our government, the Israeli government, and governments around the world to find a way to bring them home before it is too late,” the families said.
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