Israel’s hostage dilemma

  • Themes: Israel

Hostage situations, ransoms and prisoner exchanges are among the problems premiers fear most.

Taken from a video released by Hamas of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit reading a letter to his family on September 14, 2009.
Taken from a video released by Hamas of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit reading a letter to his family on September 14, 2009. Credit: Debbie Hill / UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

On Tuesday 18 October 2011, the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit finally tasted freedom. For five years he had been held by Hamas, captured in a cross-border raid facilitated by tunnels. His liberty was long in the making, negotiated intricately in the shadows by the intelligence services of Israel, Turkey, Egypt and other countries. The eventual price of his freedom was the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Israel had initially vowed not to negotiate for fear of encouraging further kidnaps, but in the end, it talked to the enemy.

Israel now confronts the same dilemma on an unimaginable scale. Reportedly, Hamas has captured over 100 individuals, including women and children, even babies. As with the Yom Kippur surprise attack of October 1973, which this operation deliberately sought to echo, the almost supernatural faith that Israeli citizens have in their intelligence services to keep them safe has been badly shaken. Now the focus of media attention and personal pressure on the Israeli government over hostage recovery will be intense and unremitting. For now, Israel is temporarily united by the shock of the immediate attacks, but these captives offer the prospect of endless public disputation about what to do, but with no easy answers. Hamas will try to drag it out over years and watch its enemy squirm.

Hostage situations, ransoms and prisoner exchanges are among the problems political leaders fear most. So much foreign policy making is anodyne and removed from reality, but this sort of ‘body politics’ brings security up close and personal. Ministers often recount in their memoirs that this is the moment when security becomes visceral. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu takes a tough stance, the perpetual parade of anguished relatives will wear him down. Historically, most countries that claim to take a hard line have buckled.

In 1971, the UK’s prime minister, Edward Heath, overruled his foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home and chose to pay a ransom to terrorists. The UK ambassador to Uruguay had been taken hostage by a group called the Tupamaros. The hard-nosed Douglas-Home was resigned to his likely execution, but Heath was inclined to bargain for his life. The situation was surreal. President Allende of Chile served as the intermediary, and so he sat in a darkened room in his presidential palace in Santiago, together with the UK envoy and a Tupamaros guerrilla leader. The latter wore a bag over his head to hide his identity. Initially, the captors demanded two million dollars, but over several weeks of talks the cost of release came down. When the price dropped to about one hundred thousand, Edward Heath took the deal. Meanwhile, over a hundred Tupamaros prisoners mysteriously ‘escaped’ from jail in the same week.

In recent years, Britain and America have taken a harder line on terrorist kidnapping, as underlined by the case of journalist James Foley in Syria in 2014. A failed rescue mission was followed by his execution, recorded on video by ISIL. Ten years later, facing the same tactics in the digital realm, Washington buckled. In May 2021, the Colonial fuel pipeline linking Texas and New York was taken hostage by criminal hackers using ransomware, crippling fuel supplies to the East Coast and threatening air traffic. The sight of Americans carrying petrol in leaking supermarket bags was too painful for the White House. Despite years of wagging its finger and telling companies never ever to negotiate in a ransomware attack, Washington suddenly gave the green light. The FBI quietly signalled to Colonial to pay the money, more than four million dollars in Bitcoin.

Superficially, the hostages taken in recent days appear to be part of a game of chess between Israel and Hamas. This is, in fact, a deeper international contest, with Iran guiding many of the moves. Iran is an experienced practitioner of body politics. The release of fourteen Royal Navy sailors captured by Iran in 2007 has been linked to the liberation of an Iranian diplomat seized by American-controlled security forces in Iraq. The recent case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been associated with the UK’s payment of the £393.8 million debt related to an unfulfilled arms deal in the 1970s. In both cases the existence of any ‘deal’ was denied. International involvement will be critical on all sides, not least because those taken hostage in recent days are of several nationalities.

The future conversations will not only be prolonged and painful but potentially grizzly. In the past Hamas has not only negotiated over the fate of live human beings but also the return of human remains; apparently, each morsel of human flesh has its price. While Hamas is currently threatening punishment executions in retaliation for unannounced Israeli strikes against Gaza, this seems unlikely. Although keeping its hostages hidden will stretch the organisation’s resources, they are simply too valuable to lose in what is a long game and so some will be protected. Indeed, Hamas leaders have already admitted that freeing some of the thousands of Palestinian militants in Israeli jails was a key objective underpinning the recent assault.

Did Netanyahu receive any warning of the attack? For now, the events of the last few days suggest a conceptual intelligence failure. It was not just spies who under-performed, but also the intelligence analysts and even their chiefs. As with 1973, there was an inability to understand the thinking of the enemy. The surprise offensive by Hamas, like that undertaken by the Arab states fifty years ago, makes limited sense in rational actor terms. Instead, it was driven partly by issues of emotion: fear, shame, pride and self-esteem. Strategists need to think less like economists and more like psychologists, appreciating the extent to which feelings rather than calculations propel the behaviour of all sides in such conflicts. In the imaginary of Hamas, is this what victory looks like?

What happens next? International terrorism is deemed ‘international’, partly because violent non-state actors learn from each other globally. If and when successful deals are done, other groups will seek to emulate them. Therefore, these events will likely have reverberations not just in the region but also further afield. Those planning the security for the Paris Olympics, only nine months away, must be watching with a mixture of fascination and alarm.


Richard Aldrich