Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip protest outside the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip protest outside the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
featureIsrael at War

Knowing the cost, will Israel again negotiate with terrorists?

Despite the catastrophic price of past prisoner-exchange deals, experts can't rule out the possibility that Israel may once again make the same mistake.

The pictures are horrifying. Dozens of Israeli civilians, including many children and old women, many with severe wounds, being cruelly paraded through the streets of Gaza before thousands of jeering Arabs.

In all, it is believed that there are some 130 Israeli hostages in Gaza. Hamas has threatened to murder one every time Israel bombs Gazan targets without prior warning, and even to do it live online for the whole world to see.

On Monday, families of missing and captive Israelis gathered in a heart-wrenching press conference outside of Tel Aviv to plead for help. To date, the only information they have about their loved ones is from videos posted online by Hamas.

Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said that the country is committed to bringing the hostages home and issued a warning to Hamas. “We demand Hamas not harm any of the hostages. This war crime will not be forgiven,” he said.

Families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza protest outside the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Many of the family members say outright that they want a prisoner exchange. “I want [the Israeli government] to do everything possible, to put their politics and the whole situation aside,” said Adva Adar, whose 85-year-old mother, Yaffa, is being held in Gaza. Abbey Onn believes that five of her relatives from Kibbutz Nir Oz are being held captive by the Hamas. Onn, too, said that she is hoping for a “diplomatic” solution.

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, director of National Security and Middle East Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former director-general of the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry and headed the IDF Military Intelligence’s research division.

The aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Gaza border, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.

“Israel must concentrate on defeating Hamas and for now put the issue of the captives aside. It can’t be a factor in our decision in how we fight Hamas. Besides, Hamas has an interest in protecting the captives in order to use them as a bargaining chip later,” he said.

So far Israel has denied being involved in any kind of negotiations related to the release of the Israeli captives. But Qatar says its mediators are already negotiating their freedom in exchange for the release of Arab terrorists held in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has appointed IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch as coordinator for captives and the missing. “My team and I are fully committed to the mission, and we are with you in the difficult journey that lies ahead, and in carrying the heavy burden to bring everyone back home,” he said.

Gal Hirsch, the government’s point man on missing and kidnapped citizens, speaks during a meeting with relatives of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas and missing Israelis in Tel Aviv, Oct. 13, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

On Tuesday evening, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with the families of the captives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. “I have just finished a deeply moving meeting with the families of those who have been abducted and are missing in the terrible assault that Israel endured,” said Herzog. “It was a difficult and painful meeting, but even so, we saw the strong, amazing spirit of the families,” he added.

On Friday, representatives of the Israeli families spoke at the United Nations ahead of a Security Council meeting on the situation in Gaza.

The Shalit deal

The current situation brings up memories of past Israeli negotiations with terrorists. The most famous was the deal for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Hamas terrorists seized Shalit in a cross-border raid on June 25, 2006, and killed two other members of his tank crew. On Oct. 18, 2011, the IDF freed 477 Hamas terrorists and later 550 more Fatah terrorists in exchange for Shalit: a total of 1,027 terrorists for one Israeli soldier. 

Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (center) and his father, Noam, (front, center) arrive near their hometown following Gilad’s release after over five years of captivity by Hamas following a landmark deal with the terror group, Oct. 18, 2011. Photo by Israeli Police Unit/Flash90.

In a huge festive rally held for the freed terrorists, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh celebrated the victory, declaring it “a historic achievement” and a “strategic turning point in the struggle against the Zionist enemy.”

Of the Hamas terrorists released, 163 were expelled to the Gaza Strip. It is more than likely that many of the terrorists who took part in the Simchat Torah massacre of more than 1,300 Israelis were released by Israel in the Shalit deal. That is, in freeing Shalit, Israel likely contributed to the deaths of hundreds more Israelis.

Palestinians freed from Israeli jails as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner-exchange deal arrive at the Rafah crossing border in the Gaza Strip, Oct. 18, 2011. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Repeat offenders

On April 14, 2014, a few hours before the Passover seder, Arab terrorists fired on Israeli motorists on the road to Hebron near the Tarqumiyah Crossing. Dozens of shots were fired at seven Israeli vehicles. Some of the bullets hit members of an Israeli family of five en route to a seder in Kiryat Arba. The father, Baruch Mizrahi, 48, an off-duty police officer, was killed, his wife was critically wounded and two of their five children sustained injuries.

The family of senior Israeli police officer Baruch Mizrahi, at his funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 16, 2014. Mizrahi was killed by Palestinian terrorists near Hebron on April 14. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Three weeks later, Israeli security forces captured the murderers: Ziad Hassan Awad, 42; and his 18-year-old son Izz al-Din Ziad Hassan Awad. Ziad Hassan Awad was a Hamas operative imprisoned for murdering Palestinians who assisted Israel in capturing terrorists. Awad was released in the Shalit prisoner exchange deal.

Ziad Awad (left) and his 18-year-old son Izz al-Din Ziad Hassan Awad arrive at the Ofer Military Court on June 23, 2014. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Awad’s story isn’t unique. Hundreds of Israelis have been murdered by terrorists released in the Schalit and other prisoner deals. According to an estimate by former Israeli attorney general and current Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, 80% of freed terrorists return to terrorism in one way or another, whether commanding, instructing, or killing directly.

But the highest price of all was paid in the release of Yahya Sinwar.

The massacre’s mastermind

In 1988, Yahya Sinwar organized the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers, as well as the murder of four Palestinians whom he suspected of collaboration with Israel. For these crimes, he was arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to four life sentences in 1989. In 2011 he was one of 1,026 terrorists freed in exchange for Shalit.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh kisses freed Palestinian prisoner Yahya Sinwar, a founder of Hamas’s military wing, as Hamas supporters in Khan Younis celebrate the release of hundreds of prisoners following the Schalit prisoner exchange with Israel, Oct. 21, 2011. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

The consequences of this foolish move were devastating. In February 2017, Sinwar was elected Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, taking over from Ismail Haniyeh. Israel has singled out Sinwar as the mastermind of the Simchat Torah massacre.

“It’s obvious that the terrorists released in the Shalit deal took a leading part in Hamas terror since then, including the current massacre,” said Kuperwasser. “So there is an understanding that releasing more terrorists is a bad idea, especially as long as Hamas controls Gaza.”

The few who opposed the deal

One of the handful of government ministers who opposed the Shalit deal, Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau, said at the time: “We all pray that Gilad Shalit comes home safe and sound, but the exchange is a huge victory for the terrorists and damages Israeli deterrence and security.”

Lt. Col. (res.) Meir Indor is the head of Almagor–The Israel Terror Victims Association. The group has been at the forefront of the lonely fight against terrorist releases, especially the Shalit deal. He says it was a mistake for Netanyahu to even appoint a hostage negotiator.

“The Simchat Torah massacre is the price we paid for the Shalit deal. We wouldn’t even be in the horrible situation we’re in now if we had been strong in the past. Now we should do it all over again?”

A candlelight vigil for the 1,300 people murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7, at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Methods for freeing hostages

Security experts say there are basically two ways to release hostages: by surrender or by force. The first method is to give in to the demands of the terror organizations. This method has been used by Israel mainly since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. But there is also the second method.

Just as Hamas has threatened to kill Jewish hostages if its demands are not met, Israel can do the same. Israel has over 4,500 terrorist prisoners it can threaten to kill if the hostages are not released. In addition, Israel can continue the war in Gaza indefinitely, until all the hostages are released. The force method was repeatedly and successfully used by Israel up until 1993.

The rescued Air France passengers and crew coming off an Israel Air Force Hercules plane at Ben-Gurion Airport, July 1976. Credit: GPO.

Its most famous example was the Entebbe Raid. On June 27, 1976, Air France Flight 139 departed from Tel Aviv carrying 246 mainly Jewish and Israeli passengers and a crew of 12. On its way to Paris, it stopped in Athens, where it picked up an additional 58 passengers, including four hijackers. These were two Arab terrorists from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two German terrorists from the German Revolutionary Cells.

On July 4, 1976, Israeli transport planes flew 100 commandos more than 2,500 miles to Uganda. Over the course of 90 minutes, the daring commandos freed the 102 hostages. Three were killed, as was the operation’s leader, Yoni Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother.

“I prefer putting more pressure on Hamas,” said Kuperwasser. “A prisoner exchange is a mistake. If we keep releasing terrorists we encourage Hamas to take more hostages. That’s what we have done until now. We should do the exact opposite. Put more pressure on them so they understand it was a mistake to take Israeli captives.”

Indor agrees, stating that “the real solution is to put more and more pressure on the terrorists.”

The issue is not theoretical.

Already the far-left B’Tzelem organization is pushing for another Arab terrorist release. In a paid Facebook advertisement titled “Captive Release Deal Now!” it wrote, “Although Israel is capable of advancing their release, it is failing in this respect, too.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said on CNN: “Of course, we want to see all of our boys, girls, grandmothers, everyone who was abducted, back home. But right now, our focus, looking at our national strategy, is to obliterate Hamas’s terrorist capabilities.”

Israeli soldiers at a staging area near the Israeli border with Gaza, Oct. 14, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.

This, said B’Tzelem, raises serious concern that Israel has no intention of working towards a deal and is willing to abandon the captives to their fate.

“It’s hard for me to believe that there are Israelis that are still discussing releasing more terrorists,” said Kuperwasser.

“Under the guise of protecting human rights, B’Tzelem defends the most despicable terrorists,” said Indor. “They support a prisoner release because they know it will lead to more kidnappings and they want to destroy Israel’s endurance.”

The cost of releasing terrorists

Terror and security experts note numerous dangers regarding the release of terrorists from prison. These include encouragement of further abductions, escalated terrorism, demoralization of the Jewish public; the popularization of Hamas as the only organization capable of bringing about the release of terrorists, and damage to the Israeli justice system.

If murderers don’t pay for their crimes, where’s the incentive not to murder? And if Arab terrorists do not pay for their crimes, why must the handful of Jewish terrorists pay for theirs?

The Israeli media’s role 

The Israeli media is once again full of images of Israelis pleading for the release of their captive family members. “Please give me back my baby girls,” begs one Israeli mother in one heartbreaking scene.

According to Kupperwaser, it’s “natural that the media will talk about the captives. We all want to see them home healthy. But the government must look at the situation coldly and rationally.”

Learning from our errors

Will Israel keep making the same tragic mistake? Despite the catastrophic price of past deals, Indor says he can’t rule out the possibility that Israel may do it once again.

“We are dealing with people who are experts at manipulating the emotions of the public. It all depends on where we put the emphasis—on the victims or on the captives. But you can’t build a country on endless surrender.”

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