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Why the Gaza hostage crisis is different

What we know about Hamas hostage-taking and Israel’s hostage recovery policy.

- October 13, 2023
Security fence at the border of the Gaza Strip courtesy of © Joyclynn, via Canva.com

The Oct. 7 Hamas incursion into Israel – on the 50th anniversary of the surprise Yom Kippur War – was stunning for the apparent intelligence failure and reports of sheer brutality. Hamas killed more than 1,000 people.

One shocking feature of the attack was that Hamas also kidnapped an estimated 150 people – mostly Israelis but also citizens of several other countries – starting an ongoing hostage crisis that has gripped the world.

By Thursday, the Israeli government identified 97 hostages held in Gaza. This is an evolving crisis: much remains unknown about where the hostages are being held and how the crisis will end. In the meantime, here’s how I’m thinking about Hamas’s hostage taking.

Hostage taking in the Israeli-Palestinian context

Hostage taking is a war crime. It is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and has an international convention of its own. Hostage taking is, unambiguously, horrific violence: it confers serious physical and psychological trauma on victims and their families.

But kidnapping is also costly for the perpetrators. Hostage-takers face the legal and reputational risks of breaking international law – and kidnapping requires time, resources, and labor. It is a risky engagement for individual combatants. Nevertheless, hostage-takers have long decided to bear these costs because they see enormous benefits to this asymmetrical escalation, ranging from winning ransom payments, coercing prisoner swaps, embarrassing an adversary, or attracting an outsized amount of media attention.

Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have long used hostage-taking tactics to coerce massive concessions. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) launched a series of airplane hijackings, demanding – and often winning – the release of hundreds of prisoners. While Israel repeatedly refused to negotiate with the terrorists, other countries whose citizens were kidnapped eagerly engaged in prisoner exchanges, allowing the PFLP to use each hijacking to free perpetrators captured in prior attacks.

More recently, Hamas has kidnapped Israeli soldiers and civilians to enormous tactical success. Media coverage has often pointed to the case of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped in 2006 when he was 19 years old. In 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized a prisoner exchange, releasing 1,027 prisoners – mostly Palestinians – in exchange for Shalit’s safe return.

What does Hamas want?

With these examples in mind, precedent would suggest that Hamas took captives in order to coerce prisoner swaps. However, a crucial tenet of hostage taking is that to coerce concessions, kidnappers must keep hostages alive. Two aspects of the ongoing hostage crisis suggest that it might not be about prisoner swaps at all.

First, Hamas has threatened to kill a hostage every time Israel targets civilians in Gaza “without warning.” The militants have threatened to broadcast these executions in “audio and video,” reminiscent of horrific past hostage executions, including Americans Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, James Foley, and Steven Sotloff. (The links in the preceding sentence are not to videos. I am begging you: Do not watch execution videos. If you must, please read this Bellingcat guide first.)

In this manner, Hamas has transformed hostages into human shields, daring Israel to risk complicity in the death of its captive citizens.

Second, kidnappers’ choice of hostages often says a lot about their intentions. Kidnappers typically target wealthy individuals to coerce ransom payments and government officials to coerce prisoner exchanges. But across these different dynamics, kidnappers almost never capture the kind of victims held since Saturday – children, mothers, the elderly. On the contrary: Across conflicts and over decades, most hostages have been able-bodied adult men. For example, in Colombia, where I’ve interviewed more than 100 former kidnappers and hostages, more than 90% of hostages were male, and nearly 80% were between 18 and 65 years old.

Why target adult male hostages? Captivity is brutal and survival is hard. When kidnappers aim to keep their captives alive to secure a trade, they prioritize taking those most likely to survive a long and difficult captivity. In grabbing a wide range of victims – not only soldiers but also foreigners and Israeli civilians of all ages – Hamas communicates that hostage survival may not be the point.

Notably, Israel is also placing the hostages at the center of the conflict. The government announced that it would make no exceptions to the Gaza siege unless all hostages are freed.

What has Israel done in past hostage crises?

Israel has a long and troubled history responding to hostage crises. Its overall policy is to bring hostages home through negotiations or by force (notably, not every country approaches hostage situations this way: some refuse to negotiate, while others lack the military capabilities for rescue missions). While the 2011 prisoner exchange for Shalit looms large in recent memory, other examples are relevant to understand Israeli hostage recovery policy. 

During the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, eight members of the Palestinian militant group Black September infiltrated the Olympic Village. After killing two members of Israel’s Olympic delegation, the militants took nine Israeli athletes hostage, demanding the release of 236 prisoners in exchange. The botched German rescue attempt left five of the eight militants – and all nine Israeli hostages – dead. In the wake of the attack, Israel retaliated with airstrikes on PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon and ultimately launched “Operation Wrath of God” – a targeted assassination campaign that pursued the remaining kidnappers for years afterwards.

Four years after Munich, another mass hostage taking brought Israeli hostage recovery to the fore. On June 27, 1976, PFLP militants hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, diverting the plane to Uganda. Once it landed in Entebbe, the hijackers released the 148 non-Israeli prisoners. In exchange for the remaining 94 Israeli passengers and 12 Air France crew members, the hijackers demanded the release of 40 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and 13 prisoners held in other countries.

This time, the Israeli government launched its own rescue mission. Led by Israeli special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, the daring Operation Entebbe rescued 102 of 105 hostages and killed all seven hijackers. One of the operation’s commanders, Yonatan Netanyahu, was the sole Israeli service member to die in the operation. He was the older brother of Israel’s current prime minister.

Why this hostage crisis is different

Israel’s past approaches to hostage recovery are not a particularly helpful guide to the current crisis. One reason is the shock, grief, and sense of insecurity gripping Israel. The public’s demands to recover the hostages will continue to be in tension with a low appetite for making concessions. (Notably: the United States and Qatar have agreed to stop Iran from accessing $6 billion in funds that was part of a recent deal to free five American hostages from Iran.)

Another reason why this hostage crisis seems different is the sheer number of both hostages and hostage-takers. Even if the Israeli government were to decide to pursue negotiations, who would they call? As any negotiator will tell you, it’s extremely difficult to negotiate when it’s unclear who’s in charge. The hostage-takers may not be operating under a single authority, with individual combatants and factions incentivized to spoil any deal. Munich and Entebbe involved a finite number of hostages and hostage-takers in a single location. Here, it is not clear that either side knows how many hostages and hostage-takers there are in total.

To be sure, reports have surfaced in recent days that third-party mediators are pushing for negotiations to free the hostages. Reports suggest that representatives from Qatar are attempting to negotiate a prisoner swap, releasing Israeli women and children held hostage in exchange for the release of 36 Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli government has denied these reports, stating that there are no negotiations underway. 

Instead of negotiations, the Israeli government will almost certainly be considering ways to recover the hostages by force. But the nature of this crisis similarly makes recovery options far more complicated – and the outlook bleak. 

Hostage recovery missions are always hard: They require up-to-date, accurate intelligence and present a high level of danger for recovery personnel. Missions cost millions of dollars, require complicated coordination, and take time to plan. Rescue attempts, even by the world’s strongest militaries, often fail.

Crucially, rescue attempts are extremely dangerous for the hostage: they represent the time in a kidnapping when the hostage is most likely to die. Military planners thus only launch missions when they can minimize what they call “risk to force” (the special forces) and “risk to mission” (the hostage).

Compounding this risk are the specific challenges posed by Hamas and Gaza. Kidnappers are almost certainly holding the hostages in separate locations to thwart the possibility of a single rescue mission. Moreover, Gaza is a dense, urban environment, currently blocked from electricity. In such an environment, managing a successful rescue in which both hostages and recovery personnel make it out alive would be extraordinarily challenging. Furthermore, the kind of precision needed for such a mission is at odds with the Israeli government’s intense and ongoing retaliation against Gaza as a whole.

What’s the role of the United States?

As this piece publishes, the Biden administration believes that a “very small” number of the 17 known Americans unaccounted for in Israel are currently being held hostage by Hamas. Still, even the presence of a single American captive activates the U.S. hostage recovery enterprise to try to bring the captives home. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel, accompanied by Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Steve Gillen, a senior diplomat responsible for recovering Americans held hostage abroad. Gillen’s presence on the trip – along with officials from the FBI and Department of Defense already on the ground – illustrates the Biden administration’s efforts to assist in hostage recovery.

Since Americans are confirmed to be among the captives, all U.S. hostage recovery options are likely on the table. At a minimum, U.S. officials will be pressing Hamas (through regional intermediaries like Egypt and Qatar) to release the hostages immediately on humanitarian grounds. They will be brainstorming and exploring paths to a negotiated release. And the FBI, U.S. military, and intelligence agencies have already begun supporting Israeli forces in gathering intelligence, communicating with hostage families, and preparing everyone for what might come next.

The U.S. government regularly supports other countries’ military forces in their efforts to recover American hostages. In the last 20 years, for example, the U.S. has supported partner forces in successful hostage recoveries from Afghanistan, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Yemen. Given the sensitivity of these operations, there are likely many more operations that the U.S. government supported but did not publicly acknowledge. President Biden made comments to this effect on Wednesday, telling a roundtable of American Jewish leaders that if he shared the details of hostage recovery efforts, he “wouldn’t be able to get [the hostages] home.”

It is unclear what the logistical uncertainty and fog of grief surrounding the current crisis means for the war. The large-scale hostage takings could stoke a dynamic that feeds escalation risk. Or perhaps the hostages will induce caution that pushes in the opposite direction. Like so much else in this horrific war, the human cost will be acute.