The capture of over a hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians — elderly women, children, entire families — by Hamas terrorists has stirred Israeli emotions more viscerally than any crisis in the country’s recent memory, and presented an impossible dilemma for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government.
The Islamist terror group’s 2006 abduction of a sole young conscript, Gilad Shalit, consumed Israeli society for years — a national obsession that prompted Israel to heavily bombard the Gaza Strip and ultimately release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of deadly terror attacks on Israelis, in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.
This time, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have kidnapped scores of Israeli civilians and soldiers as part of a multipronged, shock attack on Saturday. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terror group smaller and more brazen than Hamas, said Sunday that it alone had seized 30 hostages, and Hamas senior official Moussa Abu Marzouk said that the terror group was holding over 100 Israeli hostages, including high-ranking army officials, according to the Palestinian al-Hadath news outlet.
Their captivity increases the heat on Netanyahu and his hawkish, far-right allies, who are already under intense pressure to respond to the killing of over 700 Israelis in the Hamas attack so far. Netanyahu’s vow to unleash the full force of the military on Hamas has raised fears for the safety of Israeli civilians spread in undisclosed locations across the densely populated Gaza Strip.
“It will limit the directions and areas that the IDF can be active,” Michael Milstein, a former head of the Palestinian department in IDF Military Intelligence, said of the hostage situation. “It will make things much more complicated.”
Locating Israeli hostages in Gaza — something Israeli intelligence agencies failed to do in the case of Shalit — poses further challenges. Although Gaza is tiny, subject to constant aerial surveillance, and surrounded by ground and naval forces, the territory just over an hour from Tel Aviv remains somewhat opaque to intelligence agencies, experts say.
“We don’t know where Israelis are sheltered,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu. “So the army would have to bomb everything.”
Hamas already has said it seeks the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — some 4,500 detainees, according to left-wing Israeli rights group B’Tselem — in exchange for the Israeli captives.
The fate of prisoners is perhaps just as emotional for Palestinians as it is for Israelis. With an estimated 750,000 Palestinians having passed through Israeli prisons since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, most Palestinians have either spent time in such jails or know someone who has. Israel sees them as terrorists, but Palestinians view detainees as heroes, including those who target uninvolved Israeli civilians.
The Palestinian Authority’s self-rule government, which administers parts of the West Bank, devotes some eight percent of its budget to supporting them and their families in what Israel and others say is a direct incentive to carry out terror attacks.
“The release of any prisoners would be a huge deal for Hamas,” said Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “It would cement Hamas’s position in the Palestinian street and further diminish the strength and legitimacy” of the Palestinian Authority.
But Netanyahu’s government — which depends on far-right ministers who have been given broad authority over West Bank matters and the police — has fiercely opposed any gestures they view as capitulating to the Palestinians. There is “absolutely no chance” that the current government would agree to the release of Palestinian prisoners, said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The radicals and extremists in this government want to flatten Gaza,” she said. Netanyahu on Saturday dismissed an offer by Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, to form an emergency national unity government on the condition that the far-right REligious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties be booted from it.
It was a clear sign that Netanyahu “has not given up on his extremist nationalist government,” she said.
To win last year’s election while standing trial for corruption, Netanyahu relied on the surging popularity of his far-right allies who seized on perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.
The powerful finance minister, settler leader Bezalel Smotrich, demanded at the cabinet meeting late Saturday that the army “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration.”
“In war as in war, you have to be brutal,” he was quoted as saying. “We need to deal a blow that hasn’t been seen in 50 years and take down Gaza.”
But the risk of Israeli civilians falling victim to relentless Israeli bombardment or languishing for years in Hamas captivity while Israel gets dragged into an open-ended campaign could also be politically ruinous for Netanyahu.
“This is a serious dilemma,” said veteran Israeli political commentator Ehud Yaari. “The fear is that if and when a ground operation kicks off, Hamas will threaten to execute hostages every hour, every two hours, and that will become a really heated debate.”
Israel’s tumultuous history has revealed the extreme sensitivity of public opinion when it comes to hostages — and therefore what a potent weapon abduction can be in a country where 18-year-olds are conscripted for military service, and the army prides itself on never abandoning its own.
“If we allow our people to be taken like this, we have no country, no government, and no army,” said 58-year-old Tali Levy in the southern city of Ashdod near the Gaza border, who has several friends missing.
Families of Israelis missing after Saturday’s mass attack held a news conference Sunday evening that was televised live during prime time. Shaken relatives, some of them holding back tears or weeping, called on the government to bring home the captives.
In the past, Israeli society’s unwillingness to withstand its citizens in captivity has ignited massive public pressure campaigns that have induced past governments to agree to disproportionate exchanges. This included the Shalit deal in 2011, in which Hamas freed IDF soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian inmates, and Israel’s release of 1,150 jailed Palestinians in exchange for three Israeli prisoners in 1985.
While military analysts remained divided on how Netanyahu would find a way out of his political dilemma, the answer was painfully obvious to Israelis whose loved ones were taken hostage.
“I want them to do everything possible, to put their politics and the whole situation aside,” said Adva Adar, whose 85-year-old grandmother, Yaffa, was captured on video being hustled across the border into Gaza on a golf cart crammed with gunmen. Her voice cracked as she started to cry.
“She doesn’t have a lot of time left without her medicine and she is suffering very much,” she said.
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