Op-ed: Day 215 of the warHow Hamas fooled the world

Sinister Hamas terms would let it keep most hostages, win the war, inflame the West Bank

It took the US more than a day to internalize that Hamas had not in fact accepted a hostages-for-truce proposal. But the text of its ‘agreement’ is far more duplicitous than that

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).

Then-Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and newly freed Palestinian security prisoner Yahya Sinwar wave as supporters celebrate the release of 1,027 security prisoners in a swap for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on October 21, 2011. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Then-Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and newly freed Palestinian security prisoner Yahya Sinwar wave as supporters celebrate the release of 1,027 security prisoners in a swap for kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, on October 21, 2011. (AFP/Said Khatib)

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

On Tuesday night, more than a day after Hamas claimed to have approved what it said was the Egyptian and Qatari mediators’ proposal “regarding a ceasefire agreement,” the US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller finally declared publicly, “That is not what they did.”

Rather, said Miller, “They responded with amendments or a counterproposal.” The US, he said, was “working through the details of that now.”

In fact, close examination of the Hamas document, as issued (Arabic) by the terror group itself, shows that far from containing “amendments” or a remotely viable counterproposal, it is constructed with incendiary sophistication to ensure that Hamas survives the war and regains control over the entire Gaza Strip. (Quotations from the Hamas text in this piece are from a translation by the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera website.)

But that’s far from all.

It is also calculated to ensure that Hamas secures further key, immensely far-reaching goals without having to meet the prime Israeli requirement for a deal: the release of all the hostages. In fact, Hamas can abrogate the deal, with all of its key goals achieved and then some, while continuing to hold almost all of the hostages.

Among those goals is one of the most central Hamas objectives since it invaded Israel on October 7 — seeing its declared war of destruction against the Jewish state expand to the West Bank. By extension, the terms of the document are also designed to destroy US President Joe Biden’s grand vision of Saudi normalization and a wider Middle East coalition against Iran.

A stream of ominous changes

Much has been made of the fact that, whereas Israel has repeatedly insisted it will not end the war as a condition for the release of the hostages, Hamas, in the opening paragraphs of its own sinister alternate proposal, specifies that one “aim” of the deal is “a return to a sustainable calm that leads to a permanent ceasefire.” But relatively speaking, that’s splitting hairs: The proposal conveyed by the mediators to Hamas late last month, and described by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as an “extraordinarily generous” Israeli offer, reportedly provides for an “arrangement to restore sustainable calm” — which sounds like a near-euphemism for a permanent ceasefire.

Much has correctly been made of the fact, however, that, in the Hamas document, Israel is to cease military operations in the first six-week stage of the three-stage deal, in which 33 hostages are to be freed, and that the IDF must “withdraw completely” from Gaza and a “permanent cessation of military operations” must take effect before any more hostages are freed in the second stage.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of hostages held by terror groups in the Gaza Strip, near the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, May 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Less widely appreciated is that the Hamas proposal states that, in the first stage, “internally displaced people in Gaza shall return to their areas of residence” and that “all residents of Gaza shall be allowed freedom of movement in all parts of  the Strip,” with all Israeli “aviation (military and reconnaissance)” in Gaza to cease for much of each day.

Combined with a partial withdrawal of IDF troops as further specified for this first stage, the effect of these demands would be to enable Hamas’s gunmen and officials to retake control of the entire Gaza Strip. The Hamas proposal does use the word “unarmed” in one clause to describe the displaced persons who would be allowed to return to their areas of residence, but the accompanying demands and provisions mean that Israel would have no right and no means under the proposal to impose any such limitation.

Even more significant, and largely unrecognized, however, is the radical reconfiguration in the Hamas document of the terms and process for the release of Israeli hostages.

The Hamas proposal is structured to enable it to release very few of the hostages in return not only for an end to the IDF’s campaign in Gaza and its survival and resumption of full control there, but also for a planned surge in support for Hamas in the West Bank, the further neutering of the Palestinian Authority, and the potential major escalation of violence against Israel in and from the West Bank

Many of the relatives of the 128 Israelis still held in Gaza since October 7, alive and dead, have pleaded, desperately and understandably, for a deal at any or almost any price, including an end to the war, in return for the release of all, most, or even many of the hostages.

But the Hamas proposal is structured to enable it to release very few of the hostages in return not only for an end to the IDF’s campaign in Gaza and its survival and resumption of full control there, but also for a planned surge in support for Hamas in the West Bank, the further neutering of the Palestinian Authority, and the potential major escalation of violence against Israel in and from the West Bank.

How so?

Who goes free

The Hamas proposal remakes the previous document under which Hamas was to release at least 33 living hostages in the first stage of the deal, at a rate of three hostages every three days from the first day that the deal takes effect.

In the Hamas proposal, as has been widely noted, it no longer commits to freeing 33 living hostages in the first stage — itself a concession by Israel, which had sought 40 living hostages in the first stage — but now says the 33 hostages may be “alive or dead.”

Israelis held hostage since October 7 are transferred by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists to the Red Cross in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 28, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

Moreover, Hamas would release the first three hostages on only the third day of the deal taking effect, and thence “three other detainees every seven days.” This means that whereas, in the Israel-backed proposal, all 33 hostages would go free in the course of the first month of the deal, the Hamas schedule means fewer than half of the 33 would be released in the first month.

Furthermore, the Hamas proposal specifies that the first hostages to be released will be “women as much as possible (civilians and female soldiers).” It raises the number of Palestinian security prisoners to be released in exchange for each of the (believed five) living female Israeli soldiers held hostage from 40 to 50 — including 30 who are serving life terms, where the Israeli offer specified 20 life-termers. And it removes a key clause in the Israel-backed proposal, under which Hamas would be allowed to choose only 20 of the security prisoners to go free in stage one, and Israel would have the right to veto those choices. Rather, it states, the Palestinian security prisoners will be released “based on lists provided by Hamas.”

The accumulated consequence of all those changes is that, in the very first days of the deal, Hamas would be able to secure the release of hundreds of the most dangerous and iconic terror chiefs and murderers, including at least 150 serving life terms, in return for the release of very few of the hostages.

Released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), then-defense minister Ehud Barak (left), and ex-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz (right), at the Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

The Hamas proposal also features a clause requiring the release, on the 22nd day of the deal, of “all prisoners from the Shalit deal who have been rearrested.”

For Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas chief in Gaza who was himself among the 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners freed by Israel to secure the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011, this would plainly constitute the closing of a certain circle — the freeing of the many of his colleagues who returned to terrorism after their spectacularly contentious release 13 years ago but who, unlike him, were recaptured.

Finally, in this regard, a widely reported Israeli demand for the right to veto the return of some West Bank-based Palestinian security prisoners to the West Bank, but rather to have them instead sent to Gaza or into exile, is absent from the Hamas proposal.

Why does all this matter?

West Bank primacy

The nightly release during November’s weeklong hostage deal of dozens of Palestinian security prisoners prompted scenes of jubilation in the West Bank. As The Times of Israel reported at the time, “Night after night, dozens of green Hamas banners were waved in front of cameras, and freed prisoners wore them as headbands – even in the streets of Ramallah, the bastion of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.”

And the security prisoners who were being freed then were women and minors.

File: A Palestinian security prisoner gestures among supporters and relatives after being released from Israeli jail in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, in Ramallah in the West Bank on November 26, 2023. (Photo by Fadel SENNA / AFP)

By contrast, under the Hamas terms now, dozens upon dozens of prisoners serving lengthy terms and life terms, murderers and mass murderers and terror chiefs — including Marwan Barghouti, the most popular of all Palestinian security prisoners, who is serving five life terms for orchestrating deadly terror attacks during the Second Intifada, and Ahmad Saadat, serving a 30-year term for organizing the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001 — would be coming out of jail. And they would be returning to the West Bank.

Their release, as calculated by Sinwar, would be expected to be perceived by West Bank Palestinians as an astounding humiliation for Israel, an indictment of the Palestinian Authority, which had failed to set them free, and a stunning victory for Hamas.

Fatah terror chief Marwan Barghouti, serving five life terms for murder during the Second Intifada, appears in a Jerusalem court, January 25, 2012. (Flash90)

Amid what would be regarded as a vindication of Hamas’s implacable determination to destroy Israel, and as proof of the success of its tactics and its strategy toward that goal, Sinwar would reliably expect the euphoria accompanying the return of the prisoners to cement Hamas as the peerless champion of the Palestinian cause, fueling soaring support for Hamas in the West Bank and the unification of West Bank Palestinians behind it, the marginalizing of the already failing PA, and the dawn of a new era of escalated violence and terrorism against Israel.

Abrogating the deal

At this early stage of the ostensible three-stage, 18-week deal, Hamas would have very little incentive to proceed with the process. It would have precious little left to extract from Israel.

And Israel, crucially, would have very little if any remaining leverage over Hamas.

It would be Hamas’s delighted pleasure to calculate how far to proceed with the deal before abrogating it — with the stated “interconnected” stages of its proposal providing it with numerous opportunities to do so. Hamas would be able to calculate the right moment to halt the hostage releases, and to do so in a way designed to fool as many people as possible into thinking that it was the Israelis who were the rejectionist guilty party — as it did successfully on Monday night when falsely claiming to have accepted a ceasefire agreement.

And Hamas would do so knowing that the US wants the war to stop and stay stopped. The Biden administration has been publicly fuming at Israel for months at the high civilian death toll in Gaza, and is desperate to secure and maintain a ceasefire amid an election campaign and with huge tensions on and beyond university campuses. Already withholding weaponry from Israel in order to prevent the IDF from tackling Hamas in its last remaining stronghold in Rafah, deeply mistrustful of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his core far-right coalition, the administration would be immensely reluctant to provide diplomatic support and weaponry for a resumed Israeli military campaign.

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

In summary

Under the terms that it has set out, therefore, Hamas expects to survive, rearm and reassert full control in Gaza, and establish primacy in the West Bank. Israel will be under attack on multiple fronts. The ambitious, improbable American vision of an Israel integrated into the region, at peace with Saudi Arabia, with a reformed PA ruling in the West Bank Gaza, will be shattered. Most of the hostages will still be held in Gaza, with no prospect of release. And Israel will be more torn and vulnerable than ever.

On Monday night, soon after the office of Hamas’s overall chief Ismail Haniyeh issued its ostensible acceptance of a ceasefire, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he had spoken with Haniyeh, who had assured him that “the ball is in the opposite court. We are honest in our intentions.”

Indeed, the document leaves no doubt about Hamas’s intentions. You just have to read it.

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