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Hamas kidnappings leave Israeli forces with painful hostage dilemma

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was held for five years by Hamas in Gaza before he was extracted in a 2011 prisoner swap. The price: more than 1,000 jailed Palestinians.

Now Israel faces a hostage dilemma of a different magnitude. During Hamas’ surprise assault on southern Israel on Saturday, the militant group that runs the Gaza strip abducted people including civilian women, small children and the elderly, taking what the Israeli military said were “dozens” of captives back to Gaza.

The fate of the hostages presents Benjamin Netanyahu’s government with one of the most acute challenges of the worst war on its territory since Israel was founded in 1948.

Videos of the abductions horrified the Israeli public, while families of some of those kidnapped have appeared in tearful television broadcasts saying they were receiving little or no information from authorities. Israelis are acutely aware of potential risks to the abductees from the country’s fierce bombardment of Gaza and an expected ground assault.

“Even in our worst nightmare we couldn’t imagine that this was possible,” said Adva Adar, whose 85-year-old grandmother was filmed being driven in a golf cart through Gaza as crowds cheered. “We’re heartbroken and have no words to imagine what it’s like to be kidnapped at [more than] 80 years old.”

The kidnappings appear to have been a key element of Hamas’s strategy in its surprise assault. The militants on Monday threatened to broadcast the execution of one Israeli civilian captive each time Israel targeted civilians in their homes in Gaza without warning. Hamas said on Monday that four hostages had been killed in Israeli bombings, but the claim could not be independently confirmed. 

Qatar has held talks with Israel and Hamas aimed at a deal in which the militant group would release women and children it is holding, a person briefed on the discussions said on Monday. The person said that in return the Jewish state could release Palestinian women and children held in its prisons, though the talks do not appear to have borne fruit so far.

Yet prisoner swaps carry their own risks, and such exchanges by Israel have historically been lopsided ones in which the Jewish state released large numbers of Palestinians in exchange for a handful of Israelis.

While the prisoner swap for Shalit was popular at the time, it has since drawn sharp condemnations from rightwing politicians and ultranationalist groups. Israeli security officials say many of the Palestinians released in 2011 went on to return to militant activity: one of them, Yahya Sinwar, is currently Hamas’s political leader in Gaza. 

Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011 accompanies Gilad Shalit who had been held captive in Gaza for five years by Hamas militants before he was released in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel © IDF/Getty Images

“It was a terrible, tragic choice to have to make,” says Uzi Arad, who was Netanyahu’s national security adviser during the negotiations in 2009 to 2011 over Shalit’s release. “We knew that with the release of the poor man Shalit — in a cellar in Gaza for years — what we were to give in exchange were terrorists who were not only guilty of terrorist crimes, but would likely return to that line of activity.” 

Israel’s military and civilian leaders have not disclosed what they know about the location of the latest hostages or any plan to try to keep them safe, much less extract them at a time when Israel is bombarding Gaza from air, sea and artillery ahead of a potential ground assault. 

Major Nir Dinar, a spokesperson for Israel’s defence forces, said on Tuesday: “When you face this kind of situation, there are two options. First, you put enough pressure on the terrorist organisations to [return] kidnapped people. Second, you bring them back by force.

“Now in most days, I would recommend the first option. But after seeing what I saw, in the Israeli civilian communities in southern Israel, the way that bodies were treated, I don’t think we have someone to speak to.” Hamas said on Tuesday it would not negotiate for a prisoner swap while under fire.

Dinar said that the captives numbered at least 50, but that there might be more as it was hard to ascertain whether some individuals had been killed or kidnapped; other reports have suggested they may number as many as 150.

Some captives hold passports from countries other than Israel. US president Joe Biden said on Monday it was “likely” US nationals were among those being held, while France and Thailand are among the countries that said they believe their nationals were captured.

Israel-Palestinian conflict

After Saturday’s attacks, Netanyahu said he would hold Hamas “responsible for their wellbeing”. “Israel will settle accounts with anyone who harms one hair on their heads,” he said.

The Israeli leader said he had appointed Gal Hirsch, a confidant and former military commander during the 2006 Lebanon war, as his “co-ordinator for the captive and missing”. Netanyahu said he was “formulating a full assessment of the situation” and “acting with full force” to help the hostages’ families.

The families, however, say they have been largely left in the dark. “We’ve received no information — zero — from the Israeli authorities,” said Yossi Schneider, a relative of another family from Nir Oz, all six of whom were taken hostage: Margit and Yossi Silverman, in their 60s, their daughter and son-in-law Shiri and Yarden Bibas, both in their 30s, and their four-year-old son Ariel and 9-month-old baby Kfir. 

Protesters in London hold placards showing members of the Bibas family, who were abducted by Hamas © Neil Hall/EPA/Shutterstock

Israel for decades prided itself on not negotiating with militant groups over the release of hostages, long preferring to use force — whether inside Israel or famously in Uganda during the hijacking of an Air France plane to Entebbe in 1976. Netanyahu’s older brother, military officer Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed during an otherwise successful Israeli raid to rescue those hostages.

Israel’s policy shifted dramatically in the 1980s, as the country began engaging in prisoner swaps. Military officials also put in place the “Hannibal protocol”, a directive allowing Israeli forces to take extreme measures, including endangering a soldier’s life, to prevent their capture. 

Israel in 1985 exchanged more than 1,100 imprisoned militants for three soldiers held captive by a leftist Palestinian faction in Lebanon. In 2004 it released more than 400 prisoners in exchange for a captured Israeli colonel seized by the militant group Hizbollah in Dubai.

Arad, the former national security adviser, said the current hostage crisis reminded him of the Entebbe raid because of the large number of hostages involved and the threat to their lives. In the ongoing crisis, he added, Hamas had not just taken combatants, but civilians: “This is a completely different order of magnitude: both an outrage and an act of atrocity.”

With little information to go on, relatives and friends of missing people are scouring social media for any news. Schneider, the relative of the missing family of six, said he had learned of the family’s abduction via a social media video of Shiri in Gaza, petrified and surrounded by militants, clutching her two boys to her chest.

Adva Adar, whose grandmother is missing, said: “I just hope that they will find a place in their hearts to keep them safe and bring them back home . . . I don’t know if there’s anyone listening.”

Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London and Raya Jalabi in Beirut

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