The Hostage Situation In the Gaza Strip

From a New York Times story by David Leonhardt and Lauren Jackson headlined “Hamas’s Hostages”:

Shiri Bibas, a young mother, is holding her two redheaded sons — Ariel, who’s 4, and Kfir, 9 months — as armed militants surround them in an online video.

In a separate video, Doron Asher Katz, who’s 34, is being blindfolded in the back of a pickup truck. Next to her are her mother Efrat Katz, 67, and her daughters, Raz, 5, and Aviv, 3.

Twelve-year-old Erez Kalderon appears in yet another video, being pushed down a path by Palestinian militia members.

Noam Elyakim, a father, can be seen limping while militants march him across the border into Gaza. When attackers entered his home on Saturday, they shot him in the leg and used his wife’s phone to livestream as they abducted the family, including his daughters Dafna, 15, and Ella, 8.

Yaffa Adar, 85, is the woman in an image that much of the world has seen, as she sat in a golf cart that militants drove into Gaza. She normally takes medication for chronic pain and heart and lung conditions. “Without her medication, every minute is a horror for her,” Adar’s granddaughter told The Washington Post.

There is no recent precedent for the scale of the hostage situation in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, the militant group that governs much of Gaza, abducted about 150 people during its weekend invasion of southern Israel. Most of the hostages are civilians. Hamas has threatened to execute them one by one and videotape the killings each time an Israeli airstrike hits Gazans in their homes.

No modern government — not even the world’s most brutal, like those in Russia or North Korea — has used hostages in this way: as human shields, under threat of public execution. It is a reminder of why both the U.S. government and European Union categorize Hamas as a terrorist organization.

War is here

The hostages are also shaping the initial stages of this new war between Israel and Hamas, complicating Israel’s planned retaliation.

Israel has a long history of prioritizing the lives of its citizens who have been taken hostage. The country has launched rescue military operations, such as the successful 1976 raid in Entebbe, Uganda. Israel has also swapped prisoners with Hamas: In 2011, it traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single soldier, Gilad Shalit. One prisoner whom Israel released then is now the leader of Hamas.

Some Israelis hope that their government can negotiate at least a limited exchange again, perhaps involving children or the elderly. But many analysts doubt that a wholesale exchange will happen. “The idea of a prisoner swap now seems very distant,” Patrick Kingsley, The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, told us.

Why? For one thing, the number of hostages is larger. But the main obstacle may be that Hamas is unwilling to make a deal under the current circumstances.

Global outrage

Both sides know that Israel is on the verge of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, intended to destroy Hamas and prevent future attacks. Israelis seem largely united behind this goal, despite their political divisions: Hamas’s attacks have killed at least 1,200 Israelis — relative to population size, the equivalent of around 44,000 Americans.

Many victims were defenseless civilians. One video shows a group of armed Hamas members marching four Israelis, with their hands tied behind their backs, down a street. Another video, analyzed by The Washington Post, shows the four lying on the same street, shot dead.

The one incentive for Hamas to release hostages may be global opinion. After several years in which left-leaning Americans and Europeans became more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the horror of the recent attacks has put some Palestinian supporters on the defensive. “I think that the brutality here is not helping the Palestinian cause,” Stephen Walt, a Harvard political scientist, said. (A pro-Palestinian rally in New York on Sunday exposed the new divisions.)

President Biden referred yesterday to the threatened executions as a “violation of every code of human morality.” Our colleague Peter Baker described Biden’s comments as “one of the sharpest, even angriest condemnations of terrorism in Israel that I’ve ever heard from an American president in covering the White House since the 1990s.”

Israel’s dilemma

Israel faces its own strategic quandaries. Hamas is likely holding the hostages in small groups, scattered through tunnels beneath Gaza, to make a large rescue operation impossible. Any Israeli attacks on Gaza risk killing hostages, including citizens of the U.S. and Thailand. (Here’s what we know about the missing Americans.)

“This is a challenge of a magnitude that has never been faced before,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote this week.

Most experts ruefully say that they expect more hostages to die. As Hoffman put it, “How this crisis will end is anyone’s guess, but the shedding of more innocent blood — Israeli, Palestinians and indeed noncombatant citizens of other countries — is certain.” Danielle Gilbert, a Northwestern University professor who has studied hostage-taking, told us she was worried that some people, especially the very young and old, may have a hard time surviving captivity.

In the meantime, Israeli families have created their own informal groups to publicize the details about their missing relatives. By humanizing them to the world, the families hope to spare their lives.

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