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The twisted logic that would lead Hamas to kidnap an Israeli soldier

An Israeli soldier near the Gaza border
An Israeli soldier near the Gaza border
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after Israel and Hamas finally entered their ceasefire earlier today, what was hoped to be the beginning of the end of the three-week war in Gaza, the Israeli military announced that one of its soldiers had been kidnapped. The ceasefire is over.

On the surface, Hamas's decision to kidnap an Israeli soldier would seem irrational bordering on insane. This invited the Israeli military to push even further into Gaza, to deepen the war that has already been so disproportionately costly for Hamas and regular Gazans. Over 95 percent of casualties have been Palestinian, mostly civilians. One in four Gazans has been displaced. Hamas has been militarily weakened; many of its rocket batteries, and the tunnels it uses to ferry supplies and people, have been destroyed. By ensuring more war, Hamas ensures more losses for it and more suffering for the Gazans it claims to serve.

So what is Hamas thinking? Why would they do this despite the easily foreseeable devastation it will invite? There is, from within the Hamas worldview, potentially more logic to it than you might think. To be clear, this is not to endorse that worldview, but to explain why Hamas would do this, what it likely hopes to accomplish, and why.

First, a caveat: it is still not 100 percent clear whether Hamas's leadership was directly responsible for this. On the one hand, the kidnapping appeared highly a coordinated cross-border raid from beginning to end (unlike the much more amateurish murders of three Israeli students last month) and was timed in a way that maximizes Hamas's potential strategic gain. On the other, Hamas's political and militant branches are often out of sync, and the political leadership is already backtracking on claiming responsibility. That question is still shaking out; this is all premised on explaining why Hamas would plausibly decide to kidnap an Israeli soldier.

The most telling detail here may be the timing: it happened right as the ceasefire was coming online (probably just after, it seems). Daniel Nisman, president of the consulting firm Levantine Group, persuasively argued that Hamas likely wants to negotiate the kidnapped soldier's release separately from the ceasefire. This would also help explain why Hamas has (mostly) stopped firing rockets and is being so ambiguous about whether the kidnapping even happened.

In this thinking, Hamas would want the ceasefire to become "set" and then to reveal that it has the soldier, thus making it harder for Israel to resume military operations without looking like the bad actor. It allows Hamas to have its ceasefire and its international ceasefire negotiations, to stop the fighting that was so devastating for Hamas and Gazan civilians, and then to initiate a separate negotiation over the kidnapped soldier.

Hamas loses on the battlefield, and badly. But the group could plausibly see hostage-taking as an area where it can, in a certain sense, be the winner. Israel clearly places a huge premium on returning kidnapped soldiers. The fact that it has a draft, and that soldiers are often young, means that broader Israeli society is unusually sensitive to kidnapped soldiers. This makes the war more asymmetrical, which is more comfortable ground for Hamas.

For Hamas, this pays off: five years after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, they exchanged him for the release of over 1,000 Palestinians. Hamas also got substantial propaganda capital out of that kidnapping and release. Why wouldn't it want to repeat that, especially as a way to compensate for its heavy losses during the three-week war?

To be clear, if this makes strategic sense for Hamas, it makes sense only in the short term, and only if Hamas disregards the fact that it invites an Israeli counter-attack that would surely cost further Palestinian lives. In the long term, Hamas will continue to get the same thing that its larger strategy has always produced: an endless war with Israel that it will never win, in pursuit of an impossible mission to conquer Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, at the cost of hundreds of Palestinian lives and the perpetuation of a conflict in which Israel is also not innocent but that disproportionately hurts the Palestinians that Hamas claims to fight for.