The White House announced that the U.S. government will begin operating evacuation flights to help Americans leave Israel as Israel prepares to escalate retaliatory action against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
The evacuation flights are expected to begin Friday, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. The U.S. government is arranging for at least four charter flights a day out of Israel, according to people familiar with the planning.
The announcement came as the White House confirmed that the death toll in the fighting now includes at least 27 Americans. The warhas claimed at least 2,600 lives on both sides since Hamas launched its attack on Israel last Saturday.
Fourteen U.S. citizens in Israel remain unaccounted for. The White House has said a "handful" of Americans are among the dozens of people that Hamas took hostage.
U.S. officials estimate 160,000-170,000 Americans are in Israel, as residents, tourists or in some other capacity. An estimated 500 to 600 American citizens are in Gaza, including people who have been working as humanitarian workers or visiting relatives. Egypt and Israel have closed all exits from the blockaded territory.
There are still some commercial carriers flying in and out of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport, and ground routes are open to leave Israel. White House officials, however, have voiced concern that those options may not be feasible or affordable for some Americans in Israel who want to leave.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel on Thursday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli citizens. He was joined by the deputy special representative for hostage affairs, Steve Gillen, who will stay in Israel to support the efforts to free the hostages.
Blinken said Thursday that Americans would continue pushing regional countries for a safe passage in and out of Gaza, which could help the hundreds of American civilians trapped in the blockaded enclave.
Israeli defense officials have yet to order a ground invasion of the pummeled territory, but have been planning for the possibility. The military has called over 300,000 reservists into action in preparation.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who joined from Air Force 2 en route to Las Vegas, Nevada, met on Thursday with senior administration officials to discuss efforts to safeguard the U.S., including Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities, following the Hamas attacks in Israel.
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