Israel has agreed to daily military pauses in northern Gaza for humanitarian purposes. But a wholesale Israeli ceasefire in Gaza still hangs in the balance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected this unless the 240 hostages held in Gaza are released.
In the context of war, hostage-taking is a contemporary war crime. Hamas doesn’t apply the international laws of war. It recognises that ransoms have paid well throughout history. Jews often were seized by authorities in Muslim countries. Their communities paid large ransoms that incentivised this practice continuing through the ninth to 12th centuries.
A trading price for a Jewish hostage was struck in 2011. A 19-year-old Israeli man, Gilad Shalit, was seized during a raid into Israel by Hamas in 2006. After five years of negotiations he was released in exchange for 1027 convicted Palestinian terrorists held by Israel. Many of the released convicts returned to terrorist,including Yahya Sinwar, the architect of the October 7 massacre.
Hamas demands the release of more than 6000 terrorism convicts and security detainees. These hardened operatives will mostly return to terrorism. Hamas threatens to livestream hostage execution s if its demand for a ceasefire isn’t met. An effective Israeli counteroffer could be to kill 1027 terrorists for each hostage executed.
Of course, we know Israel wouldn’t take this brutal step. Instead, the paths Israel will follow are excruciating combinations of convict releases and temporary ceasefires, or the national grief that would result in the ultimate sacrifice of the hostages.
Three weeks of hostage exchange negotiations stalled before Israel green-lighting its ground operations. So far the Israel Defence Forces have succeeded in forcefully rescuing one hostage, a 19-year-old woman, Ori Megedish. The families of the other hostages don’t favour dangerous rescue missions or five years of negotiations. They want a full prisoners-for-hostages swap deal now.
Israel would like all the hostages released. Hamas would like all Palestinian convicts released. There are two problems with this. First, the Israeli military will not welcome watching 6000 troops of the enemy walking past them to engage in the fight. Second, from Hamas’s perspective, if the hostages are evacuated this frees Israel’s hands to attack the 450km of Hamas’s tunnels with all the means at its disposal. Hamas knows removal of the hostages from the battle makes things easier for Israel.
The Israelis can happily flood, sponge bomb, implode, seal and smoke the whole tunnel system without risking Israel Defence Forces personnel or hostages. In other words, Hamas knows Israel will attack the tunnel infrastructure more aggressively if the hostages aren’t there, therefore Hamas has no interest in releasing all the hostages, certainly not without a full cessation of hostilities.
More likely options are combinations of partial releases of Israeli hostages in return for substantial numbers of Palestinian convicts, plus Israeli ceasefires. Given their fighters’ freedom of movement in the tunnel system, however, temporary cessations of hostilities may not be of great military utility to Hamas. It needs a full ceasefire to keep Gaza to fight another day.
Israel is unlikely to pull its punches and readily agree to a full cessation. It would just allow Hamas to reignite hostilities at a time of its choosing. A “drip by drip” release of one or two hostages at a time exchanged for temporary ceasefires may buy Hamas enough time to increase international pressure on Israel towards its goal of a full ceasefire. Releases of some hostages who are Israeli women and children, in return for temporary ceasefires, may delay Israeli military action. It also may increase international pressure on Israel for a full ceasefire from countries whose nationals are among the hostages yet to be released.
A variation of the liberation of the convicted terrorists is that they be exiled to a third country, such as Qatar. This could make it more palatable to Israel from the point of view that the main objective right now is to eliminate the Hamas large-scale threat from Gaza. In fact, this kind of deal was achieved in 1982 when the Palestine Liberation Organisation leadership that waged war against Israel from Lebanon was defeated by Israel but allowed to leave Beirut for Tunis.
Qatar and Turkey are material supporters of Hamas. But it’s unlikely they will accept the thousands of convicts or tens of thousands of other hardened terrorists as new residents. Nor would any other country.
Against the pros and cons of these combinations of options, Israel’s bottom line still holds: its primary objective is to destroy Hamas in Gaza. Should the lives of the hostages compromise that strategic aim, then Israel would, with enormous torment, pursue its military objective.
Even in death, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh tastes victory: “We love death like our enemies love life! We love martyrdom.” It’s difficult to see daylight for anyone at the end of the Hamas tunnels.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia. Greg Rose is a professor of law at the University of Wollongong. A version of this article appeared in The Australian.