President Biden spent nearly two hours Wednesday with family members of Americans being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, his first in-person meeting with the group since militant group attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
Biden met with the relatives in the Diplomatic Room at the White House, joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jon Finer, the principal deputy national security adviser. Thirteen family members were present and three additional relatives joined by phone.
“The president was very grateful for the time that they afforded him, and he was moved by their stories, by the love they feel, by the hope that they still harbor — and he harbors that hope, too,” John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said at the White House news briefing.
He said Biden promised to keep the families informed at every step of his administration’s efforts to secure the hostages’ release.
Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son Sagui Dekel-Chen remains in captivity, said afterward the meeting was “terrific,” although he declined to provide specifics, citing the families’ desire to keep the conversation private. He said the officials expressed their full commitment to do everything in their power to help free the hostages.
“We have no better friend in Washington or the White House than President Biden himself and his administration,” he told reporters outside the White House.
American officials say there are at least eight remaining hostages with American citizenship after a number of hostages, including Americans, were released last month. Qatari and U.S. officials helped broker a pause in fighting, during which Hamas released more than 100 of the roughly 240 hostages they took during their October attack.
Among the individuals Biden met with Wednesday was Aviva Siegel, who was taken hostage by Hamas and released last month. Siegel’s husband, Keith, who is a North Carolina native, remains in captivity.
“We are here because the president and his team have been bringing out light in this dark time,” said Liz Naftali, whose 4-year-old grandniece, Abigail Edan, was released by Hamas.
She added, “We’d love a Christmas miracle.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the president’s second engagement with the families. A few days after the Oct. 7 attack, Biden held a video call with the families of the Americans who were missing.
“They’re going through agony not knowing what the status of their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children are,” Biden said after that October call. “You know, it’s gut-wrenching. I assured them my personal commitment to do everything possible, everything possible to return every missing American to their families.”
The path to securing the release of the remaining hostages remains unclear.
The meeting came a day after Biden criticized Israel for its continued campaign of “indiscriminate bombing” in the Palestinian enclave, warning Israeli leaders that they were losing international support for their efforts.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, will be in Israel on Thursday and Friday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his war cabinet and Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The meeting will be the first face-to-face encounter between top White House and Israeli officials since Biden ratcheted up his criticism of the Israeli’s military campaign in Gaza
“Bibi’s got a tough decision to make,” Biden said Tuesday, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “I think he has to change, and with this government, this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.” Netanyahu’s government includes several hard-right members who oppose any conciliation with the Palestinians.
The U.S. has tried on numerous occasions to get Netanyahu to prioritize the release of hostages over bombing Gaza. After last month’s pause between Israel and Hamas was extended for several days, allowing the release of more than 100 hostages, Biden aides were hopeful it would lay the groundwork for a more permanent end to the fighting.
Even after that agreement collapsed — which U.S. and Israeli officials blamed on Hamas — the Biden administration pressed Netanyahu to focus primarily on securing the release of the remaining hostages. But Israeli officials seemed to disregard that advice and resumed an unrelenting airstrike campaign in southern Gaza.
The U.S. has become increasingly isolated on the global state for its strong support of Israel’s scorched-earth campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 18,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children, displaced over 80 percent of Gaza’s more than 2 million residents, and deprived Gazans of such basic necessities as food and water.
As the situation in Gaza has rapidly deteriorated, international calls for a cease-fire have grown. The United Nations on Tuesday voted for a second time to demand a cease-fire in Gaza, with 153 countries in favor, an increase of more than 30 since a similar resolution in October. The United States was one of 10 nations that opposed Tuesday’s motion.
Biden’s comment on Tuesday that Israel was beginning to lose support around the world due to its unrelenting bombing campaign was arguably the strongest break with the country since the war began more than two months ago.
While the president has called for increased aid into Gaza and the protection of Palestinian civilians, he has been reluctant to criticize Israel directly, even as his top aides are showing more willingness to do so.
Kirby on Wednesday sought to clarify that Biden believes Israel is trying to minimize casualties but worries that the death toll on the ground does not reflect that effort.
“He was expressing concerns that we continue to see civilian casualties,” Kirby said. “They are making efforts and they are taking steps. But of course we want to see more results in that regard.”
He also stressed that despite his criticism of Israel’s ruling coalition, he was not calling for a change in government. “It’s not for us to dictate terms to a foreign sovereign government,” Kirby said. “Israel is a democracy.”
In his comments Tuesday, Biden did not directly address the growing pressure he faces over the Israel-Gaza war, both domestically — as key parts of the Democratic coalition want him to press for a cease-fire — and internationally, as the U.S. finds itself increasingly at odds with allies.
Earlier this week, the leaders of six major humanitarian organizations wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times saying the U.S. must change course in Gaza and arguing that a cease-fire was the only way to begin to address the immense suffering in the territory.
“Global leaders — and especially the United States government — must understand that we cannot save lives under these conditions,” the leaders wrote. “A significant change in approach from the U.S. government is needed today to pull Gaza back from this abyss.”
One of the hostages’ relatives who spoke Wednesday, Liz Naftali, is a Democratic donor who has been subpoenaed by House Republicans about her purchase of Hunter Biden’s artwork.