Israel under pressure over hostages as families face Hamas ‘mind games’

When Hamas released a clip of Mia Shem, the first video it has published of any of the dozens of hostages its militants took when they rampaged through southern Israel last week, the sign of life brought a slim ray of hope for her family that she might yet come back.

But for relatives of the other 198 people who Israel has confirmed were captured, it only deepened the agonising questions they have been asking about the fate of their loved ones since they were snatched away to Gaza 11 days ago during the deadliest ever attack on Israeli territory.

“I’m happy for the family. They got proof that their daughter is alive,” said Moran Alony, whose sister Danielle and her daughter Emilia, as well as his other sister Sharon, her husband David Cunio, and their twins Emma and Yuli, are all among those taken hostage.

“[But] it’s one out of 200. What’s going on with the other 200?”

The video of Shem released on Monday night — in which she pleaded for rescue as explosions boomed in the background — has underscored one of the most painful dilemmas facing Israel’s leadership as it prepares for a widely expected ground war in Gaza: how to carry out its aim of toppling Hamas without endangering the lives of those the militant group is holding hostage in the densely populated coastal enclave.

Family members and representatives of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas militants speak at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday © Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg

“Hamas has . . . 199 very sensitive points of pressure [on Israel]. And each of those videos tears apart the hearts and souls of every Israeli,” said Gershon Baskin, director of Middle East operations at the International Communities Organisation, an NGO that works in conflict zones.

“While it seems to me that the overall primary directive of the government, the army and the majority of Israelis is the military operation to dismantle Hamas so that it can never threaten us again, the more those points of pressure are pushed, the more the hostage issue will become primary.”

There are signs the question of the hostages is moving up the political agenda. In recent days, protests have been held outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv to demand the hostages’ return. And on Monday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to deny that people with supportive views had been “planted” in a meeting he held with relatives of those who were taken.

Some with kidnapped relatives said it was too early for an inquest over the failings that led to last week’s attack. “People will ask for justice once the war is over,” Alony said. “Now it’s not the time to judge. It’s the time to do and to save and to bring families back.”

But others are increasingly frustrated at how the government has handled the situation. Iris Haggai, a US-Israeli citizen whose parents Gad Haggai and Judith Weinstein Haggai are among those believed to have been kidnapped, said for days after the attack she had heard nothing from the Israeli government.

“I spoke to the FBI every day, I even spoke to President [Joe] Biden, and two days ago or yesterday the Israeli government finally contacted us,” she said. “The army said they are considering my parents kidnapped now, because they found their phone locations in Gaza. But to me even that doesn’t mean much; their phones were stolen and they are now in Gaza.”

In the past Israel has sought to bring hostages home via prisoner exchanges. In one famous case, in 2011, it released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure the return of one of its own soldiers, Gilad Shalit.

Hamas officials have made clear that securing bargaining chips for similar exchanges was one reason behind last week’s kidnappings. Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas official, on Monday night said the militant group would seek to secure the release of the 6,000 Palestinians held in Israel’s prisons.

An image from a video showing Mia Shem, a 21-year-old Israeli-French woman, being held hostage by Hamas © Hamas Media Office/AFP/Getty Images

Discussions were held via Qatari mediators last week over a deal in which Hamas would release women and children it is holding, in return for the release of Palestinian women and children prisoners held by Israel. But those talks have yet to yield results, and Israeli officials are tight-lipped about the prospect of an exchange.

“The less we talk about this, the better it will be,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, said on Tuesday.

Analysts say any deal to bring hostages home would face huge challenges. Hamas has demanded Israel cease its bombardment of Gaza as a precondition for hostage negotiations, something observers doubt that the government will accept.

“Israel says the release of the hostages is a major goal, but right now the Israeli approach appears very aggressive in terms of its war aims and a likely ground offensive,” said Amos Harel, a military analyst. “Those things will be difficult to balance.”

Another, according to Adi Schwartz from the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, is whether the militant group would be able to deliver on its side of any deal.

Abu Obeida, a spokesperson for Hamas, on Monday night said the group’s military wing had taken about 200 hostages. But he implied there could be as many as 50 more in the hands of other factions in Gaza, claiming he could not be precise because of the security situation.

Schwartz said: “They might say that they will release them. But are we sure there is now a functioning chain of command? Is it reliable? Khaled Meshaal is in Qatar. Is he really in control [of things in Gaza]? I don’t know.” The other question, he added, was whether anything Hamas said could be trusted.

Those with relatives being held in Gaza are wrestling with the same question. “We are trying to stay positive,” said Michael Levy, whose brother Or was presumed kidnapped in an attack on a music festival during which his sister-in-law Eynav Elkayam Levy was also killed.

“We are trying to get [Or] back because his baby boy needs a father . . . But unfortunately we already know that Hamas are liars, and they are playing mind games with us, the families. And they are enjoying our suffering.”

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