By Matthew Lee and Aamer Madhani

The number of U.S. citizens confirmed to have been killed in the Israel-Hamas war has risen to at least 22 with at least 17 more Americans unaccounted for, the State Department said Wednesday. That's an increase in the death toll from 14 the day before, in a war that has already claimed more than 2,200 lives on both sides.

A “handful” of U.S. citizens are among the estimated 150 hostages captured by Hamas militants during their shocking weekend assault on Israel, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.

In a further sign of U.S. support for Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken left for meetings with officials there. And the U.S. military is moving a second aircraft carrier toward the Mediterranean Sea as part of efforts to prevent the war from spilling over into a more dangerous regional conflict.

Kirby said the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its ships would be an “available asset” if necessary. The USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier, and its strike group have already arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The attack has raised questions about the role of Iran, the main sponsor of Hamas, and whether it was directly involved in the operation. But the U.S. has collected information that suggests senior Iranian government officials were caught off guard by the multipronged assault, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. That piece of intelligence has informed White House officials publicly asserting that it has not yet seen evidence of direct involvement by Iranians in the planning or execution of the Hamas attack.

“We haven’t seen anything that tells they have specifically cut checks to support this set of attacks, or that they were involved in the training. And obviously, this required quite a bit of training by these terrorists," Kirby said, though he added that the U.S. will continue to look at the intelligence “and see if that leads us to different conclusion.”

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined with a top political rival to create a war-time Cabinet, establishing a degree of unity as the government there faces public pressure to topple Hamas. Israel continued destructive airstrikes in Gaza, where a potential ground offensive would likely result in a large number of casualties on both sides of the conflict.

With many airlines suspending commercial flights in and out of Israel because of the ongoing rocket and missile exchanges, Kirby said the United States was exploring “a range of other options” to assist Americans who want to leave, appearing to leave open the possibility of a U.S.-assisted evacuation.

Kirby said the administration was still in talks with Israel and Egypt to try to arrange safe passage for Gaza’s civilians. “These people are victims, too,” he said. “They didn’t ask Hamas to do this.”

President Joe Biden, who is set to meet with Jewish leaders later Wednesday, sought to connect the Hamas attacks directly to decades of antisemitism and violence endured by Jews around the world.

“This attack has brought to the surface the painful memories and scars left by a millennium of antisemitism and genocide against the Jewish people," Biden told reporters. He added, "We have to be crystal clear: There is no justification for terrorism, no excuse and the type of terrorism that was exhibited here is just beyond the pale, beyond the pale.”

Biden said he and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone on Wednesday with Netanyahu. It was at least the fourth call between Biden and Netanyahu since Saturday’s attack.

“The United States has Israel’s back and we’re going to be working on this through the day and beyond," Biden said.

Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.

Updated October 11, 2023 at 3:47 p.m. ET with latest details.

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