ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Op-ed: Day 54 of the war

Hamas hostage releases are a daily mix of horror and relief. And this is the easy part

Looming ahead is an ‘all for all’ offer – to free remaining hostages in exchange for every jailed terrorist and ending the war; that’s when Israel will need the US more than ever

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists shake hands after handing over hostages to the Red Cross in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 28, 2023. (AFP)
Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists shake hands after handing over hostages to the Red Cross in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 28, 2023. (AFP)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

The abiding nightmare Israel has been living since October 7 has mutated these past few days into scenes that few if any, life-affirming nations have been compelled to endure — of joy and profound relief mixed with heartbreak and relentless fear.

Every day since Friday, the nation has waited helplessly, guns voluntarily silenced, to see whether the same heartless monsters who massacred 1,200 of our people in and around their homes just a few weeks ago will honor a deal — even writing those words is beyond ridiculous and surreal — and give back a few of those that they despicably dragged away alive.

Some days, the process proceeds relatively smoothly. Other days, they drag it out. Lately, the releases have been delayed because Hamas has mounted elaborate handover ceremonies before large crowds of admirers, staged under bright lights, using multiple cameras.

Hamas is torturing its captives one final time, showing an insistently gullible world its ostensible magnanimity (wow, look at that, Mia still has her dog), and malevolently showcasing to any non-supportive Gazans and to Israel its ongoing control and potency.

It has released children that it orphaned and children without their mothers; it has kept captive all males, including fathers of children without mothers. It had quickly freed one elderly woman who said she was well-treated, creating a narrative only now slowly being undone by the descriptions of appalling treatment relayed by those more recently released and especially the relatives of the traumatized children.

Avigail Idan is reunited with her aunt Liron and uncle Zuli at Schneider Children’s Hospital on November 27, 2023. (Schneider hospital)

It opted to release the orphaned four-year-old Israeli-American girl, Avigail Idan, who so captured Joe Biden’s attention, finding it advantageous to pacify a US president who it hopes will turn the “pause” into a “ceasefire.”

But it is holding back another iconic innocent — 10-month-old Kfir Bibas, along with his four-year-old brother Ariel, and their parents — twisting the knife in Israeli hearts, and keeping up the pressure on Israel’s leaders, who know the war must resume until Hamas is dismantled, but who have said too that every effort must be made to return every hostage.

Kfir Bibas (Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

**

And yet these unbearable past few days, this latest phase in the globally fateful Israel-Hamas showdown, has been the relatively easy part.

Women and children first? Well, of course Israel suspends its assault on the Hamas war machine while that plays out. Elderly men after that, perhaps some fathers? Again, of course, the truce would be extended if they are to be freed.

But next will come the terrorists’ offer to free all the rest of those they seized on October 7, which will be mainly soldiers and former soldiers — in return for all of the Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel: all of the murderers, all of the instigators and orchestrators and perpetrators of terrorism, including all of those who were captured in Israel on and soon after October 7.

The offer will likely have been negotiated or brokered by Qatar — the currently much-hailed nimble truce-maker… whose funding has helped keep Hamas in power. And it will be presented, and lapped up around much of the world that is unable or unwilling to distinguish between those who seek to protect life and those hell-bent on ending it, as eminently reasonable: Your armed men and women for ours.

Ditza Heiman, 84, held hostage since October 7, is transferred by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists to the Red Cross in Rafiah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 28, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

And that won’t be the full extent of the offer. The return of the rest of Israel’s hostages will also require an end to the war.

There is likely not a minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government who would agree to those terms. There are very few in the mainstream opposition who would either.

But what of the families? Unpersuaded by the argument that it is the Israeli offensive that has pressured Hamas into the releases thus far, fearful that a resumed offensive would harm their loved ones, and believing the “all for all” offer to be their last hope, some may clamor from the rooftops to take the deal — and who could blame them?

What of the international community, much of which will accuse Israel of needlessly pounding Gaza, with all the consequent death and destruction, when the opportunity is purportedly there to restore the status quo. (The status quo, that is, give or take 1,200 slaughtered Israelis, a jubilant, adulated Hamas still standing in Gaza, soaring popularity for mass-murdering Islamic extremism in the West Bank, and a hugely emboldened Iran.)

And what, most of all, of the United States, and a president who has hitherto consistently endorsed Israel’s stated determination to eliminate Hamas?

**

Netanyahu ringingly declared earlier this month that Israel would “stand firm against the world if necessary” in pursuing its war against Hamas until victory.

He is the most divisive leader in Israeli history, leading the most hardline and dysfunctional government, with the shallowest reservoir of international support, and having himself overseen a years-long policy of tolerating Hamas. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is right to insist that Hamas must be destroyed, that the orchestrator of October 7, Yahya Sinwar, must not survive, and that the threat of more October 7s from Gaza must be eliminated.

Otherwise, Hamas will without doubt rise to attempt still greater slaughter, Hezbollah and Iran will redouble their efforts to wipe Israel out, Israelis will not return to their homes near our borders or sleep securely anywhere else in our New Jersey-sized nation. And death-cult Islamic extremists will recruit and expand their efforts everywhere.

But for all his hyperbole, Netanyahu and Israel can defy much of the world, but not all of it. We would not be able to “stand firm” against a United States that deems the war to have run its course.

Israel does not ask any of our allies to put their lives on the line for us. We have long declared that we can and do protect ourselves by ourselves.

But Israel depends on the United States for the practical capacity to do so — for the defensive interceptor missiles that have largely marginalized the thousands of rockets fired at Israel these past weeks and for the constant supplies of offensive weaponry that Israel has used when targeting Hamas and its infrastructure in Gaza. Almost eight weeks in, the IDF is still failing to so much as reliably provide food for all of its unprecedented numbers of called-up soldiers; it was utterly unprepared for a conflict as grave as this one, and unequipped with the weapons supplies to maintain it.

If we don’t want to have to depend on the US in that most practical of senses, we would need to shift a central thrust of the Israeli economy from high-tech to weapons manufacture. Or, rather, we would have had to have done so a decade ago.

**

Almost eight weeks after October 7, our abiding nightmare sees Israel facing a Hamas that is still widely functional; that is advancing a genocidal ambition Israel’s political and military leaders ignored even as it drilled in plain sight to plant its flag deep inside our country; that built an underground infrastructure the IDF underestimated for years, and one that remains potentially capable of sending gunmen into areas the IDF thought were secure.

The war, in short, is anything but won. Therefore, the imperative to maintain the vital support of the US is overwhelming. That means doing everything possible, in impossible circumstances, to do as the US urges and minimize civilian casualties and harm in a Gaza where the IDF leaves a vast trail of rubble everywhere it passes because there are killers in and under almost every building.

US President Joe Biden (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

In a tweet on Tuesday, Biden declared: “Hamas unleashed a terrorist attack because they fear nothing more than Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek. We can’t do that.” The passage was extracted from a speech he gave on Sunday in which he also restated that Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas “is a legitimate objective.”

Was the US president, or those who chose to tweet those particular words on his behalf, now signaling a shift away from support for the war? Or simply stating the obvious, that Hamas seeks nothing but war? Presumably the latter.

But the US wants contradictory goals — that Israel dismantle Hamas but that it do so without killing too many more Gazans, who may or may not support Hamas, and without forcing the Gazans that Hamas uses for cover from their homes.

And yet without the US administration at Israel’s side — reiterating the moral and practical stakes, itself defying international and domestic pressure, and giving Israel the means to fight — the consequences would be beyond stark. We would be lost.

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