As the Israeli army resumes its attacks, accusing Hamas of numerous violations of the ceasefire, there is a growing concern among the Israeli public about the fate of the remaining 130-plus hostages held in Gaza.
The Israeli war cabinet led by Benjamin Netanyahu and the top military echelon will need to start thinking creatively. Since the horrific events of 7 October when Hamas terrorists stormed parts of southern Israel, it has only responded to events, reacting to measures and actions taken by Hamas, which is dictating the pace, the timing and the number of hostage releases. It’s about time that Israel took the initiative and formulated a better strategy.
Israeli passivity could be understood in the first days of the war, when political and military leaders were paralysed and the public traumatised by the scope, magnitude and cruelty of Hamas. But there is no justification for Israel continuing to behave as if it has still not recovered from the shock.
Israel invaded Gaza and has caused significant destruction, with 16,000 Palestinians dead, approximately 6,000 of them Hamas terrorists, according to the Israeli army. But the hostages remain its soft belly. Being a small and relatively homogeneous society, Israel has always shown a particular sensitivity to these concerns: securing the return of Israeli prisoners and efforts to bring bodies back for Jewish burial have been part of its tradition and culture, and have guided its policy.
However, in the first weeks of the war it appeared that Israel would begin to behave differently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, and their military leaders designed new priorities motivated by a sense of humiliation and desire for revenge. Toppling Hamas from the Gaza government and destroying its military capabilities was to be the prime goal of the war, while releasing the hostages was secondary. But very soon the families of the hostages, with the support of the public, demanded the government and the military change tack. Netanyahu and Gallant were forced to announce that the two goals were equally important and went hand in hand.
This was morally and operationally the right decision. But it has been executed clumsily. With the significant involvement of the Biden administration, and Qatar and Egypt acting as mediators, Israel agreed to a seven-day ceasefire in which Israeli and foreign hostages were released. In return for humanitarian aid, which entered Gaza, Hamas released 10 hostages a day – women and children – and Israel freed 30 Palestinian women and children from its jails in kind.
There is still a discussion going on behind closed doors between Israel and Hamas. But staggering the freeing of the hostages is playing into the hands of Hamas, who want more time to stall, refresh and regroup after the heavy blows they have suffered from the Israeli military.
Israel must instead take the initiative and lead. The Israeli government should swallow its pride and offer to release most or all the thousands of security prisoners, among them terrorists, held in Israeli prisons in exchange for freeing all the remaining hostages. Such a deal is known as “all for all”. This would no doubt receive backlash within Israel, but to minimise the criticism, freed Palestinian prisoners could be sent to places far away from Israeli borders, such as Qatar, Libya, Tunisia or Algeria; and not to the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Syria.
If such a deal does materialise, it will lift from Israeli shoulders the heavy burden of the hostages. It’s very probable that Hamas leaders would decline the offer or increase their demands to include stopping the war and withdrawing Israeli troops from Gaza. In such an eventuality, Hamas leaders will be seen by their Palestinian followers, and the entire Arab and Muslim world, as not caring for their prisoners.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli writer and commentator specialising in security and intelligence affairs. He is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon
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