For nearly two weeks since the Hamas attack on Israel, those in the country and in Gaza have been forced to navigate multiple overlapping crises: the killing of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian civilians and a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza; a looming Israeli ground invasion; and the heightened possibility of a larger war in the region. In the midst of it all, Israelis have not forgotten the victims who were kidnapped and taken as hostages in Gaza.
The number of hostages — which Israel says is 199 and Hamas says is closer to 250 — include elderly people, women, and children, one of whom is 9 months old. Among them are American, French, and German citizens, at least one Palestinian resident of Israel, and an Israeli peace activist. They are believed to be held in Hamas’s extensive tunnel network, which they use to run military operations and store weapons, snaking beneath the city.
Family members say they’ve received hardly any information from their governments or Hamas about the kidnapping victims’ whereabouts, or whether they’re still alive. They are sharing their anguish with the world — this mass kidnapping, unlike previous incidents, was captured in real-time videos disseminated on social media — and pleading for a safe return of their loved ones. “I didn’t know if she’s dead or alive until yesterday,” the mother of Mia Schem, one of the hostages, told reporters Tuesday after a video of her daughter in Gaza was released. “I’m begging the world to bring my baby back home.”
On Friday, Hamas announced that it was releasing two American hostages, a mother and daughter, as a result of diplomatic negotiations led by Qatar, Reuters reported. The others, though, remain in captivity, with little known about their whereabouts.
The hostage-taking, which coincided with what many are calling the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust, would be painful enough in its own right. Israel, though, has a long and traumatic history of hostage crises. The country has never seen this scale of hostage emergency before, and never dealt with such complex circumstances. “This is without question the most difficult hostage situation Israel has ever faced in its history,” Michael Milstein, an analyst at Israel’s Reichman University, told the BBC this week.
The imperative of getting the hostages home safely may also come, some experts worry, in conflict with Israeli leaders’ desire to retaliate quickly and decisively against Hamas, with some leaders implying that destroying the terrorist organization should be prioritized over the safe return of the hostages. “To sacrifice hostages and soldiers seems to be the psychology today,” Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 for Israel, told the New York Times.
Diplomatic negotiations aimed at releasing the hostages are still underway, involving the United States, Qatar, Egypt, and other countries. Negotiators have raised the possibility that citizens of countries other than Israel might be released, as well as the women and children. As they work to free them, it’s worth considering the unique reasons hostage release is so central to the Israeli national consciousness — and why the government’s current position may complicate their efforts to get the hostages out.
Empathy and concern for captives is a cultural tradition with roots in Jewish theology. As Mikhael Manekin, an Israeli peace activist and leader of a faith-based group opposed to the occupation of Palestinian territories, writes in the New York Times, “Our sages saw securing the freedom of Jewish prisoners as a great commandment.” A daily prayer that religious Jews say three times daily invokes a God who “heals the sick and teaches compassion.”
These beliefs are reinforced in multiple Jewish teachings and texts. Manekin writes:
The third-century sage Rabbi Yochanan said that the sword is worse than death, hunger is worse than the sword, and being a prisoner is worse than all, as it holds all of these within it, a teaching repeated in the Babylonian Talmud. Based on this, the great 12th-century legal scholar Maimonides wrote in his codex that ransoming prisoners is of an even higher moral and ethical value than feeding the poor, as the prisoner is both poor and shackled. And a revered 16th-century scholar, Rabbi Joseph Karo, known as the codifier of Jewish law, wrote that he who delays ransoming the prisoner is akin to a murderer.
These teachings help explain why the Jewish state has a history of going to extreme lengths to rescue hostages or avenge their murders, and why it has engaged in swaps so lopsided they can be difficult to understand from the outside, as when the country freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. His kidnapping by Hamas in 2006 dominated national and international headlines, and the swap took five years to secure.
The reasons go beyond religious teachings. They also touch the collective psyche of Israelis who have lived through several hostage crises in the country’s 75-year history. They include the 1972 disaster in Munich’s Olympic Village, when terrorists took nine Israeli athletes hostage. (A failed German rescue attempt ended with the deaths of all the athletes.) They also include multiple plane hijackings by terrorists supporting Palestinian liberation in the 1970s, most notably in 1976, when terrorists held 94 Israeli passengers at an airport in Entebbe, Uganda, as well as the more recent memory of Shalit.
As Gideon Raff, the creator of an Israeli television series about prisoners of war and co-creator of its American adaptation Homeland, told the French newspaper Le Monde this week, “The memory of all the hostage-takings is in our DNA, in our genes. When I was a child, these events weren’t so long ago; they left their mark on the whole of society.”
Responses by the Israeli government have varied. After Munich, the government retaliated with Operation Wrath of God, a covert, targeted assassination effort to avenge the victims by killing everyone involved in the planning and execution of the attack. In Uganda, Israel deployed special forces in a rescue mission that saved all but three of the hostages’ lives; current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan was the only Israeli soldier killed in the rescue effort and is regarded as a national hero. More recent crises have been resolved more peacefully. The success or failure of each effort has helped define how Israelis feel about their leaders and their ability to protect the country’s citizens.
It makes the stakes higher in Israel than they are elsewhere. “In France, in the United States, in Russia, it’s a sovereign mandate to bring back hostages. But when this isn’t possible, it doesn’t call into question the state itself,” Vincent Lemire, a professor at Université Gustave-Eiffel and an expert on Israeli politics, told Le Monde. “In Israel, it does.”
The current hostage crisis puts Israel in a position unlike any of the previous emergencies it has faced. As Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor at Northwestern University who is an expert in hostage diplomacy, has written, the sheer number of victims, along with logistical and organizational challenges, are coalescing in a way that will make it extremely difficult to get the hostages out.
The hostage takers have issued conflicting statements about what they want in return for the release of prisoners, and Hamas leaders have said that some of the victims may have been taken by men outside of their official organization. A hostage-taking manual obtained by the Atlantic, allegedly from Hamas, suggests that the militants may not have planned to take so many hostages into Gaza, and only did so when they realized the Israeli military wasn’t there to stop them.
“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,” Gilbert writes. Baskin, the hostage negotiator, says it’s not clear that the Israeli government is interested in negotiating with them at all.
Gaza, where the hostages are being held, is also a small, densely populated area, laden with underground tunnels that pose major challenges for the Israeli military and may now be damaged by Israeli bombardment, making it harder to collect intelligence needed to plan a rescue operation.
The uncertainty only heightens the sense of anguish among the families and friends of victims waiting for news about their loved ones. Some are standing behind Prime Minister Netanyahu as he promises to wipe out Hamas; others are furious with a strategy they think makes the hostages less safe, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. A few, growing frustrated with the lack of progress amid a growing crisis with outcomes no one can predict, have said that if Israel’s government doesn’t make progress soon, they would appeal to President Joe Biden for help negotiating a release.
For now, many are doing their best to make sure their loved ones aren’t forgotten. They are uniting on social media, in press conferences, and in rallies on streets in Israel and around the world with a common phrase: “Bring them home now.”
Update, October 20, 2:15 pm: This story was originally published on October 19 and has been updated to include information on the release of two American hostages.