The bargaining has begun. That’s the implication of the release of two of the estimated 200 people kidnapped by Hamas during the course of its barbaric Oct. 7 terrorist assault on Israel. These women—a mother and daughter who have dual American and Israeli citizenship—were among captives that include children and the elderly, who were dragged over the border to the Gaza Strip by terrorists during the course of an hours-long attack that left more than 1,400 murdered and more than 4,000 wounded in the worst mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Evidence abounds of the horrific nature of their rampage in which women were raped; entire families were bludgeoned, shot and tortured; and the corpses of the dead desecrated.
By letting some people live, the killers and their Islamist commanders hoped to accomplish something more than shedding Jewish blood, and to receive, upon their return to Gaza, cheers from the same Palestinian civilians who would soon be lamenting Israel’s efforts to punish these criminals. They assumed that taking so many hostages would give them not just a valuable commodity that could be used as bargaining chips but also some degree of impunity for what they’d done.
Everything they knew about Israel and Western countries like the United States told them that Jews and Americans don’t just value human life. They will do just about anything to buy the freedom of captives, even if it means paying exorbitant ransoms in deals that strengthen and enrich terrorists. Though American presidents and Israeli premiers often boast about not negotiating with such despicable groups, everyone knows they do it all the time. That’s true whether they are supposed “hardliners” like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or veteran appeasers like President Joe Biden.
Hamas was counting on the same factors that led Netanyahu to release 1,027 terrorists in exchange for the freedom of one lone Israeli soldier—Gilad Shalit—in 2011 or Biden to pay more than $6 billion to gain the release of five American citizens being held by Iran, bringing them benefits that would ensure, at the very least, their survival in power in Gaza.
What is America’s role?
The question that hangs over the impending Israeli ground assault into Gaza aimed at ensuring that Hamas can never again inflict such pain on Israel is whether the terrorists can leverage the fate of their hostages in such a way as to prevent their complete or even partial defeat.
In every past hostage situation, the desire of the families of those held captive, as well as compassionate people everywhere that their safety and freedom be made a priority, has created intolerable pressure on governments to pay ransoms and limit their freedom of action to attempt rescues. Yet the anger generated among Israelis about the atrocities of Oct. 7 may have made a decisive victory over Hamas as well as a military imperative for Netanyahu and his government.
At the same time, the United States, whose citizens were among both the slain and those taken hostage, is playing a dual role in this crisis. It is supporting Israel’s desire to take down the Hamas regime, in addition to supplying critical arms and ammunition that will make that goal possible. It is also fending off a potential terrorist assault in Israel’s north from Iran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries steeped in Lebanon. And yet, it is hamstringing Israel’s military efforts by insisting on providing a “humanitarian corridor” for Gazans trying to flee the coastal enclave, coupled with $100 million in aid to allow the resupply of Hamas’s beleaguered forces and civilians under their control.
There is something particularly sinister about the way Hamas has dangled the two American citizens in front of the world in this manner. If their release is considered partial payment for Biden’s gestures, then it remains to be seen how much Hamas can get for the rest of the Americans and others with foreign passports.
Does the Hamas leadership think that they can win Biden’s promise to stop Israel from removing them from power if they give up the rest of their non-Israeli captives while holding on to the Israelis to bargain for the release of Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails? More than that, it’s unclear as to how Israel can proceed with a counterattack into Gaza to bring the killers and their masters to justice while Biden is bargaining for the freedom of U.S. citizens whose lives are at risk in a war zone.
The Gilad Shalit precedent
Decent people everywhere must hope and pray that all the hostages—men, women, the elderly and children—are released unharmed. But this is the moment to finally come to the realization that paying ransoms to terrorist kidnappers is simply ensuring that the hostage-taking and terrorism will never end.
The Gilad Shalit episode is instructive in this respect. Shalit, a 19-year-old corporal serving in the Israel Defense Forces, was captured by Hamas terrorists in a cross-border raid in which two of his comrades serving with him in a tank were killed and others wounded. Hamas successfully hid him inside Gaza, evading Israeli attempts at rescue and ultimately holding the young man for a total of 1,934 days, all the while refusing and preventing, as it is now with its current larger haul of hostages, access to care from the Red Cross.
Over the course of his more than five years in captivity, pressure on Israel’s government from his family and their many sympathizers ratcheted up to insist on paying virtually any price for his freedom.
The same dynamic has been at work every time Americans are held hostage by hostile regimes, like that of Iran. A diverse group of American presidents—Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and, most recently, Biden—has succumbed to pressure from families of hostages, coupled with their own natural sympathy for the victims and their relatives, to do almost anything to get these prisoners back. And they all paid a dangerously high price for their freedom.
Still, Shalit’s case was one that resonated with the Israeli public in a way that is special to the Jewish state.
Shalit was seen as representative of every Israeli family’s child sent off to do their mandatory army service after high school. Families delivering their children into the hands of the government and the vaunted military are proud of their service, but they also expect that those in charge will protect them and never leave them at the mercy of the Jewish state’s cruel terrorist foes. It was in this way that his grief-stricken parents were able to generate widespread support for their cause.
Such efforts are deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition of the mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim, the “redemption of hostages.” Throughout two millennia of exile and powerlessness, Jews have a long and bitter history of members of their communities being taken and held for ransom by governments as well as criminals. As a result, since ancient times, freeing hostages has become a priority and even a praiseworthy endeavor.
Netanyahu was thus faced with the choice of doing something incredibly dangerous for his country’s security by giving in to Hamas’s demands or letting Shalit die in captivity or be lost, like Israeli pilot Ron Arad, who was shot down in Lebanon in 1982. Arad is believed to have died at the hands of his captors in 1988, though Israel wasn’t sure of that until decades later.
Aware of the potential cost, he chose to do what was, at that moment, the popular thing by agreeing to a massive prisoner release for nearly 1,000 terrorists with blood on their hands. It is estimated that those freed were responsible for the deaths of some 569 Israeli civilians. In this case, the justified outrage of the families of the victims of those crimes was overwhelmed by the joy most Israelis felt about Shalit’s release. Polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Israelis favored the ransom deal.
While some of his right-wing critics and security experts scolded the prime minister for immensely strengthening the Hamas terrorist regime in Gaza and ensuring that other Israelis would one day suffer the same fate, he paid no political price for the decision.
Netanyahu was not the first Israeli leader to make such a one-sided prisoner release. His assumption—and that of many of his political foes in the opposition, as well as the Israeli military and intelligence establishment—was that the capture of Shalit was a feat that Hamas would not be able to repeat. And few, if any, imagined that almost exactly 12 years later, Israel would be faced with a terrorist threat and hostage dilemma of the magnitude of the Oct. 7 attack.
A terrible choice
It remains to be seen if Hamas can use the hostages—not to mention the fate of Palestinian civilians around them they are also using as human shields—to ensure they emerge from this battle still in control of Gaza.
One of the most distressing aspects of the last two weeks has been the utter disdain for the hostages that has been expressed by Hamas’s foreign supporters, and the relative indifference of the international community and the corporate media to their fate. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the liberal press in the United States to essentially forget about the evidence of Hamas’s barbarism and become obsessed with the dilemma of Palestinians living in Gaza as Israel began to strike back against the terrorists lodged deep into the enclave.
But what Hamas did on Oct. 7 was to impress upon Israelis that ransoming a hostage can lead directly to something far worse. If the freedom of the 200 kidnapped Israelis now suffering who knows what torment at the hands of their barbaric captors is bought at the price of a victory for Hamas, their families will consider it worth it, and everyone should understand and sympathize with them. But as the Shalit deal should have taught the world—not to mention the way that American ransom payments have strengthened Hamas’s Iranian sponsors—such negotiations are a compact with devils that will create even more grief and suffering in the future.
This understanding shouldn’t be confused with indifference to those languishing somewhere in Gaza, but as much as we desire their safety and freedom, it cannot come at the expense of an existential threat to the Jewish state and the West. It is a terrible thing that destroying Hamas in the coming weeks and months will likely cost the lives of many Israelis and innocent Palestinian Arabs as well as the terrorists. However, it will save more lives in the long run. Nothing—not American pressure or even the tears of the families of the captives—should allow Hamas’s cruel expectation that they will be able to get away with crimes worthy of the Nazis to be proven true.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.