The United States has been flying surveillance drones over Gaza in search of hostages taken by Hamas when the Palestinian militant group attacked Israel on Oct. 7, two U.S. officials said on Thursday. The two officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was flying intelligence-gathering drones over Gaza to assist with hostage location efforts, and one of the officials said they had been carrying out the drone flights for over a week.
The drones, considered MQ-9 Reapers operated by U.S. special forces, were first seen on Saturday on Flightradar24, a website that tracks aircraft. The drones are believed to be working together with Israeli military sources to help locate the missing Americans.
Senior American officials have indicated that 10 Americans may be among the more than 200 people abducted by Hamas during the onslaught, and they believe they could be held in Hamas’ extensive tunnel network. The U.S. has been urging Israel to focus its ground offensive on locating those who are being held hostage, and President Joe Biden vowed that the U.S. was “working like hell” to get all Americans in Gaza back home.
While Israeli soldiers have met stiff resistance in the northern half of Gaza, they are still advancing steadily against Hamas. Israeli forces have been able to encircle the Gaza City area and have penetrated agricultural areas in the middle of the enclave. Israel has also been launching aerial attacks against Hamas targets in the north and northeast of the strip.
Despite this, the international community remains mainly at odds with Israel’s offensive, with some members of the U.N. Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire and others criticizing Israel’s retaliatory bombardment as disproportionate and illegal under international law. On Friday, Chilean President Gabriel Boric urged Israeli President Shimon Peres to “shut down the air force and stop bombing civilians.”
The Israeli government has also taken several steps to protect its citizens in the country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the country is severing all work permits for Palestinians in the area and will return those who had work permits before the outbreak of war back to their homes in the West Bank or Gaza. In addition, the prime minister has said that Israeli troops will only enter Gaza if they are necessary to save lives.
Amid the diplomatic furor, the United States has been increasing its military support to Israel. The Pentagon has sent bombs and artillery rounds to Israel and has dispatched two aircraft carriers and hundreds of U.S. commandos to the region. The surveillance drone flights suggest that the Pentagon is taking a more active role in a critical IDF mission to recover its missing citizens. Those involved in the searches say they do all they can to find the Americans. But the search is far from over. If the Pentagon continues to take such a hands-on approach, it will set a dangerous precedent.