Analysis: Deal with the devil

Why Israel agreed to the hostage deal, and how Hamas may intend to exploit it

The cabinet’s 35-3 vote shows ministers believed there was no better arrangement, and were persuaded the war will resume afterward; Yahya Sinwar may have other plans

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).

A man and a child walk past portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the Oct. 7 onslaught by Hamas, in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
A man and a child walk past portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the Oct. 7 onslaught by Hamas, in Tel Aviv on November 21, 2023, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group. (Ahmad Gharabli/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.

At the very start of Israel’s war against Hamas, an Israeli official told reporters that the IDF would strike Hamas everywhere in Gaza, even at the cost of possibly harming some of the 240 hostages being held there. If the IDF had information on a specific location where hostages were believed to be held, it would not target that location. But otherwise, its operations would not be limited by fears of inadvertently harming the hostages.

As the ground operation continued, however, some war cabinet members made clear that the entire approach to the fate of the hostages had gradually changed. This culminated on Saturday night with war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot privately telling families of the hostages that the release of their loved ones was the first priority of the war, even ahead of destroying Hamas, and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz stating at a press conference that Israel potentially has “decades” in which to destroy Hamas while the imperative to secure the release of the hostages was urgent.

That evolved mindset is at the heart of the agreement approved overnight Tuesday-Wednesday by the full Israeli cabinet: The war is being suspended for four days to enable the release of some 50 Israeli hostages, and the halt in the fighting could potentially be extended by an extra day for each group of 10 more Israeli hostages that Hamas can produce and release.


The fact that cabinet ministers voted 35-3 in favor of the deal with the terror group that seized and is holding most of the hostages, and that organized and led the slaughter of 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7, underlines how potentially advantageous Israel’s political and security leadership believes the deal to be.

Obviously, Israel would have wanted an agreement to secure the return of all hostages. Ministers were told that there was no such deal to be made.

Obviously, too, Israel would have wanted the IDF to have itself located and rescued all, or at least more of the hostages — without necessitating any deal with the terrorists, any release of Palestinian security prisoners, any halt to the war. But that option, ministers were told, was not available either. Only one hostage has been extricated from Gaza to date — Orit Megidish, three weeks ago, in an extremely high-risk operation — even as the IDF has taken greater control of many of Hamas’s strongholds in the north of the strip. (The case of Nachshon Wachsman. a soldier abducted and held hostage by Hamas in 1994, underscores the difficulty of such rescues. In Wachsman’s case, Israel knew precisely where he was being held, in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, but a rescue attempt proved disastrous, with Wachsman killed by his captors as IDF commandos attempted to break in, and the lead officer in the rescue attempt killed as well.)

This deal, the ministers were told, was the only hostage-release option currently available. For all the pain over those who will remain captive in Gaza — including many who are elderly and many parents — almost all ministers were persuaded that it was a deal with the devil that nonetheless had to be done.

In this screenshot of a video released by the government, ministers meet to vote on a hostage agreement with Hamas, November 21, 2023. The agreement was approved early on November 22. (Screen capture/X)

Crucial to the near-unanimous support — with only Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit ministers voting against — was the pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the war will resume once the deal is carried out, and that the war’s declared aims remain unchanged: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governance capabilities and the return of all the hostages.

Ministers were also told that the progress of the ground offensive thus far was central to Hamas’s agreement to the deal, and that resuming the ground offensive was crucial to the effort to secure the release of the rest of the hostages.


Given that even some of the coalition’s most hardline elements — notably including Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party — considered the deal to be well worth taking, the question must plainly be asked: Why did Hamas agree to it, even offer it?

Its strategic goal in mounting the October 7 slaughter was to pursue its raison d’etre — killing Jews and ultimately destroying the State of Israel. But it also took hostages in order to secure the release of its terrorists from Israel’s jails. In a 2011 deal, it leveraged its 2006 kidnapping from within Israel of a single captive, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, to secure the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners, some 280 of whom were serving life terms. And yet here, now, it has agreed to release 50 Israelis in return for some 150 Palestinian women and youths, none of whom has been convicted of murder.

This would suggest a Hamas under pressure for a deal. But if so, that is hard to square with reports that Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza Hamas chief who orchestrated the slaughter and is said to have determined the terms of the deal, is euphoric over the “success” of October 7. Presumably, in any case, Sinwar believes he is outsmarting Israel over the deal’s terms and implementation.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza, gestures during a rally in Beit Lahiya on May 30, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/ Flash90)

Many Israeli commentators expect that Sinwar will seek to use the pause to reorganize his terrorist-army — most of which remains intact even though much of its infrastructure in northern Gaza is destroyed or located in areas under IDF control. They suggest that he may also use the pause to emerge from wherever he is hiding, for a “victory picture” to revitalize his army and demoralize Israel.

Some commentators also assess that he is eager to prevent the imminent extension of Israel’s ground offensive into southern Gaza, and especially Khan Younis, where he, other Hamas leaders, and many of the hostages are believed by some to be located.

Thus, they speculate, Sinwar will try to stretch out the implementation of this deal, including by asking for a longer halt to ostensibly track down further hostages, potentially pitting families of those hostages against the government, while attempting to gradually bolster international pressure on Israel to abort the ground offensive altogether.

Tamir Heyman, a former IDF intelligence chief, said Tuesday he believes international pressure on Israel, most relevantly from the US, will actually ease as a consequence of the halt in fighting — with more humanitarian aid going into Gaza — and also that the pause can be utilized by the IDF, too, to refresh and reorganize its forces.

The semantics surrounding the accord are important in this context. The deal is being widely reported as providing for a “ceasefire” — and a ceasefire is generally understood to represent a halt in fighting intended to accommodate discussions on ultimately ending the fighting. Israel’s political leaders, and the government decision on the deal (Hebrew link), by contrast, refer to a “pause” in the campaign.

Asked about the deal, the pause in fighting it involves, and the potential impact of that pause on restarting the war, IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari said such agreements were the preserve of the political echelon, and was adamant that the IDF would be able to pursue and achieve the war’s stated objectives.

For his part, Netanyahu reportedly told ministers on Tuesday night that the expansion of  the IDF’s ground offensive into Khan Younis was “not a matter of whether but of when.”

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