OpinionIsrael at War

It was never about the hostages

Israel’s sole strategic imperative is to destroy Hamas.

Photos of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza are seen at a protest camp near the Knesset in Jerusalem, Jan. 14, 2024. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.
Photos of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza are seen at a protest camp near the Knesset in Jerusalem, Jan. 14, 2024. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.
Yonatan Green. Credit: Courtesy,
Yonatan Green
Yonatan Green is an Israeli-American attorney who is currently a fellow at the Georgetown University Center for the Constitution.

Imagine an alternate reality in which Hamas took no hostages. One in which the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks still occurred but without the savage barbarity of mass rape, depraved torture and mutilation, and the kidnapping of hundreds as bargaining chips. Tranquil villages and military bases are still overrun. More than 1,000 Israelis—mostly civilians—are still viciously slaughtered. But the attack is ultimately repelled without a single hostage taken.

Would Israel’s response have been different? Would the strategic necessity of annihilating Hamas be absent?

The answer is no. Not even slightly. Even without hostages in enemy hands, no country that wants to survive could countenance the existence of a genocidal terror organization on its borders after such an attack. Any country would consider neutralizing such an adversary a strategic imperative.

This imperative is independent of the crucial task of rescuing and returning the hostages. Supporters of Israel must understand this and say so unequivocally.

This is why linking the release of the hostages to ending the war is at best misguided. In the long run, it serves Hamas’s interests. Yet public officials, pundits and politicians continue to call for “a return of the hostages and an end to the fighting.” This absurd platitude suggests that the hostages are the only reason for the war. Such sentiment is not just prevalent among ignorant millennial TikTok stars and Hollywood celebrities. It is ubiquitous in the highest ranks of international, American and Israeli policymakers.

Foremost among them is the Biden administration. Its rhetoric began with “Hamas must be eliminated” but slowly collapsed into self-serving diplomatic gobbledygook about the need “to secure the release of hostages together with an immediate and sustained ceasefire.”

Intentionally or not, this plays directly into the hands of Hamas. Not only because it raises the premium for a hostage release, but because it obscures the fact that Israel must defeat and annihilate Hamas no matter what. Hamas is a highly competent and motivated Islamist terror group that succeeded in inflicting a devastating blow and would do so again if given the chance. To have such an organization a mere hour’s drive from Tel Aviv is unacceptable, to say the least.

The temptation to focus exclusively on the hostages and their return is understandable. Many well-meaning supporters of Israel have earnestly submitted to it. Sadly, in the struggle for international legitimacy and persuasion, such a focus does have benefits. Past atrocities quickly fade from the collective global memory. But the hostages are still held in unspeakable conditions. As a result, their plight is pressing and visceral.

Nonetheless, the necessity of destroying Hamas would have been the same if not a single hostage had been taken. Thus, the leading pro-Israel hashtag shouldn’t be #bringthemhomenow but #crush_hamas. The military dog tags worn by many Israel supporters should signify support for IDF soldiers at least as much as advocacy for the hostages’ return.

The hostages force Hamas to pay a heavy price for international legitimacy. It does make them look bad. Nonetheless, they thought it was a chance worth taking. The essential question is: Will their gamble pay off? A hostage deal that stops the war indefinitely would vindicate Hamas’s strategy. If they succeed in playing the hostage card to secure their survival, it will mean that they were right all along. Whatever price they paid in public relations was worth it because taking the hostages saved their skins. This would only incentivize future mass kidnappings.

Many people have already pointed this out. But so far, they have not pointed out that the exclusive focus on the hostages unwittingly lays the groundwork for the disastrous concessions they oppose. In the end, it will force Israel to abandon its only real strategic imperative: the destruction of Hamas.

The current frenzy surrounding Rafah demonstrates this point quite well. Despite the protestations of many, if every single hostage were miraculously teleported out of Gaza, the elimination of the Hamas stronghold in Rafah would remain as crucial and urgent as it is now.

The suffering of the hostages, as well as their friends and families, is heartbreaking. But we must never lose sight of the fact that this war was always about one thing: crushing Hamas.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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