US readies forces, but plays down potential for troops in Gaza

The United States is reportedly putting special operations forces on alert and moving major military assets in response to the Israel-Hamas war; however, both the Biden administration and experts this week played down the possibility that America could put boots on the ground in Gaza. 

Inserting American troops into the fight between Israel and Hamas would introduce new risk into an already volatile situation as Jerusalem weighs a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. It’s a situation the American public and U.S. military has little appetite for, but one that President Biden should be prepared for nonetheless, experts say. 

“I have a hard time actually seeing the U.S. insert ground forces,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Middle East Program. 

“I could imagine some circumstances in which you might want to use air assets — especially to send a deterrent signal, but … I don’t think anybody has much interest in jumping into this,” he added.  

As of Thursday, at least 27 Americans have been killed in the Hamas attacks on Israel that began over the weekend. Another 14 U.S. citizens remain unaccounted for, according to the White House. 

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters there are a “very small” number of Americans believed to be held as hostage by Hamas. 

“Right now, we think the number that we know, or we believe are held hostage, is very small, very small, like less than a handful. But that could change over time,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday. 

Thousands of U.S. citizens live in Israel — a country that also counts Americans as one of its largest tourist groups. But many individuals seeking to flee the country due to fighting have found it difficult to leave given that several major airlines have suspended service in and out of the country. 

The instability and violence has prompted the Biden administration to surge weapons and equipment to the Israel Defense Forces, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish the country’s Iron Dome air defense system. In addition, Washington has moved a U.S. carrier fleet to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, with talks of sending a second fleet, and repositioned fighter jets to the region. 

But the White House claims those are all efforts done as a deterrent to keep potentially malignant actors at bay from entering the conflict, with the U.S. “not contemplating” putting troops on the ground despite the U.S. hostages, Biden’s deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said Thursday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“How do you actually find these people, and then once you do find them, if you do find them, how do you actually locate them, either negotiate their release or try operationally to remove them?” Finer asked.

“But what I can say is at this point, we are not contemplating U.S. boots on the ground involved in that mission.”

The same day, a senior Defense official told reporters that the Pentagon has “no intention of putting U.S. forces on the ground at this time.”

Instead, the U.S. is helping Israeli officials with “intelligence and planning” for any potential operations to rescue hostages, Defense officials said this week.

As of now, the only U.S. forces in Israel are a “U.S. military security cooperation team” at the U.S. Embassy and American special operations forces who have been in the country for years “working to deepen military cooperation with Israel,” the senior Defense official said.

In addition, Washington has sent federal hostage recovery experts to Israel to share intelligence and help coordinate rescue efforts, according to national security adviser Jake Sullivan. 

Still, the United States has not ruled out a special operations mission to rescue kidnapped Americans — an effort that would require close coordination with Israeli forces. 

On Tuesday, The Messenger reported that the U.S. had placed special operations forces on alert in a nearby European country, though it didn’t specify which unit the forces came from.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill on that report. 

Military Times reported Wednesday that the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Marine Corps’s expeditionary unit capable of special operations, had left early from a scheduled exercise with Kuwait “as a result of a emerging events.” They are now near Bahrain, according to the outlet.

Asked about the movement Thursday, the senior Defense official said the Pentagon is “constantly moving our marine and naval assets around the theater based on what the requirements are” but wouldn’t offer further details. 

Robert O’Brien, a former national security adviser in the Trump administration, said Wednesday that rescue efforts within Gaza would be incredibly complicated but the administration should be prepared to carry out such efforts if the opportunity arises.

“We’ve probably never faced something this complicated in terms of a hostage rescue,” O’Brien said on CNN. “I’m not suggesting that there’s the ability to launch a rescue at this time, … [but] we need to be opportunistic. We need to be prepared if an opportunity arises.”

The hostage situation also comes amid concerns that the conflict could encourage adversaries, particularly Iran and its proxy forces, to attack U.S. troops in the region. Several thousand American forces are based in Iraq and Syria to keep Islamic State militants from resurging in the region.  

Defense officials have not said what additional measures, if any, have been taken to protect those troops amid the heightened security threats. 

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals,” the senior Defense official said, adding that the U.S. military is able to “expeditiously deploy dynamic capabilities across the globe to support the defensive needs of our allies and partners.” 

An Israeli ground invasion into Gaza would mark a major escalation of the war, along with ratcheting up tensions across the region. 

“It’s a complicated role for the United States [as it] has its own responsibilities in terms of the need to make sure that Americans are safe,” James Steinberg, the dean of John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and former deputy secretary of State, said Wednesday. 

“But it’s also true that the administration is already trying to think about ‘how do we get beyond this? How do we put an end to the danger of escalation of violence?’” he added. 

Steinberg suggested that Washington could try to use connections it has in the region — such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others — to engage “all of whom have a stake in not seeing the situation escalate.” 

Biden said Wednesday his administration is “working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel,” though he declined to detail such efforts. 

“Folks, there’s a lot we’re doing — a lot we’re doing. I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home,” he said at a roundtable with Jewish community leaders. “But the idea that I’m going to stand here before you and tell you what I’m doing is bizarre.”

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