Hostage Deal Has Few Upsides for Israel and the West
The negative consequences are already evident.
Written by: John C. Wohlstetter
On Friday, the first 24 of a promised 50-hostage release by Hamas — 13 Israelis and 11 foreign nationals, none American — were delivered to the International Red Cross. In exchange for the 50, Israel will release 150 Palestinian terrorist prisoners. Israel has said that it will add one day of humanitarian pause for every 10 hostages released; this would add 19 days to the initial 4-day pause.
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Israel finds itself enmeshed in an elemental war of survival, with the fate of Western civilization inextricably intertwined with the outcome.
Photos of the Israelis released show people apparently in good shape. This figures, as it may give Hamas a “humanitarian” propaganda boost. But all hostages who survive, absent prior special resistance training, will surely suffer lasting psychological trauma from their harrowing experience. During his first press conference on the release, President Biden stated (57:10) that the Oct. 7 war was launched by Hamas in part to block further diplomatic progress on the Abraham Accords with Saudi Arabia.
The war unfolding on our video screens is unlike any Israel has faced since the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In truth, it most resembles the 1948 War of Independence, and is universally seen by Israelis to be equally existential. Alas for Israel, its allies do not appear to fully grasp this, applying an outdated “land for peace” model, in search of the two-state solution proposed in the 1993 Oslo Accords.
A Win for Hamas
The November 24 initial release of hostages taken October 7, 2023 sets in motion a series of events virtually certain to give Iran, its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies, and global jihadist movements a huge victory over Israel, the United States, and the Western democracies.
First, by suspending its military campaign for several days, in order to win release of some hostages — a move Israel initially dismissed as unacceptable — Israel has accepted political and moral primacy of winning release of all hostages before it can resume its full military campaign. This shifts the time clock in favor of Hamas, by slowing Israel’s war operations.
Second, by accepting a deal negotiated by outside parties (the U.S., Egypt, and Qatar), Israel has ceded ultimate control over its conduct of a war it has explicitly termed existential, against an opponent having openly proclaimed its ultimate genocidal goal of annihilating the Jewish state.
Third, by publicly calling upon Israel to accept the administration’s standards for protecting Palestinian civilians — clearly more stringent than Israel’s interpretation of international laws governing collateral damage — Washington, as alliance senior partner, implicitly warns that an Israeli rejection risks loss of vital logistical and military support.
David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, summarized key details behind Israel’s capitulation: (1) Israel has abandoned its original position that excepting specific locations where the IDF knows where hostages are being held, Israel will press forward regardless of the risk to hostages; (2) Not only did one war cabinet observer privately tell hostage families that their concerns would come first, Israel war cabinet member Benny Gantz said at a press conference that Israel “has decades” to defeat Hamas; (3) “Crucial” to the 35-3 war cabinet vote was prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge that the war effort would resume after the deal is completed; (4) Oct. 7 mastermind Yahya Shinwar believes that a ceasefire will operate as prelude to more permanent agreements.
The U.S. warning to Israel was explicit, per NSC flack John Kirby: the U.S. will not support the IDF “moving forward with operations in the south absent a clearly articulated plan for how they’re going to protect lives of the hundreds of thousands of people.” Kirby added: “There is an obligation to factor that into their plans” that is “even more incumbent [to protect] those civilians who moved at their urging.”
In a Fox News interview, former Trump NSA John Bolton predicted: “The game that’s being played here is Hamas couldn’t care less about a humanitarian pause. What they’re interested in is getting a pause started, and then extending it to become a truce, and then extending it further to become a ceasefire. Now, that may not happen all at once, but Hamas benefits more than the Israeli Defense Forces do by having this pause.”
Trump ambassador to Israel David Friedman, referring to the pressure to secure the release of all hostages, called Israel a country of “Jewish mothers.” WSJ columnist William Galston noted that on Nov. 20, hostage families prevailed upon a Knesset committee to defer consideration of possible legislation providing the death penalty for hostage takers.
Given that my three main points collectively comprise what appears to me to be the most likely outcome of the present war, what lessons can we draw from our impending defeat? History, though not always a reliable predictor, can teach useful lessons. Per a quip attributed — perhaps apocryphally — to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
The Road Ahead for the West
The historical examples that follow aim to clarify the range of choices confronting the West in hostage situations, and what benefits and hazards are likely to result from choices made. These can widely vary over time between the same adversaries.
Capitulation. Despite its official policy of never negotiating with hostages, Israel twice caved in to Palestinian pressure, negotiating two mega-scale lopsided hostage release deals. In May 1985, Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israelis held in Lebanon; and on Oct. 18, 2011, Israel released 1,027 prisoners to win release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas terrorists who infiltrated Israel territory. Such bargains were forced after massive intense political pressure from families and their supporters — amplified by hyper-sentimentalist media coverage. One consequence: Among the 1,027 prisoners exchanged was Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the Oct. 7, 2023 war of extinction launched against Israel.
President Biden’s Sept. 12, 2023 decision to release $6 billion to Iran to free five hostages sent the wrong signal to the wrong adversary. The upshot is that some 240 hostages were taken on Oct. 7. Biden’s response to the first five weeks of Hamas atrocities came on Nov. 14: he released another $10 billion to Iran, via waiving sanctions on Iran’s oil revenues. Meanwhile, Iran fights this war via its wholly-owned proxies: Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north, and with West Bank Palestinians as a silent partner. Evidence that Iran sponsored the Oct. 7 attack emerged when Iranian emissaries entered the Israel-Hamas hostage release negotiations.
Also critical to the success of the October 7 invasion was pressure from the Biden administration to allow more Gazans to work in Israel. This enabled successful mass spying by Gazans that exposed weaknesses in Israel’s defenses:
Some 20,000 “uninvolved” workers from Gaza used to enter Israel every day until the slaughter. They did so for months and months. They worked in the communities of the Gaza border, in Sderot, and in Ofakim, and some of them took detailed notes about their destinations: how many houses there were, where the living rooms, the bedrooms, and the security rooms were, how many family members lived in each house, whether they had a dog, where their cars were parked. They documented everything. And all of it went to Hamas. It was part of the infrastructure of the pogrom — the contribution of the “uninvolved” to the atrocity.
Another form of capitulation is allowing war crimes against Israelis to go unpunished, such as sexual violence against women. And then there are outsiders blaming Israel for Palestinian babies murdered by Hamas, the legal responsibility for which, writes ace law professor Alan Dershowitz, rests solely with Hamas. Such blame-shifting increases pressure on Israel to stop short of its goal of destroying Hamas.
And then there is partial capitulation, in the form of unilateral restraint, beyond that required under the laws of war. An exemplar: Israel’s Sept. 6, 2003 airstrike on a Gaza home where eight of the most senior leaders of Hamas were having lunch, what Israel’s current defense minster called “a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. Israeli commanders anguished over how powerful a bomb to use, as Palestinian children were playing outside the home. The result: they decided to drop a 500-pound bomb instead of a 2,000-pound bomb, because the latter would have killed the children. Under international law, collateral casualties can be lawful if the objective is sufficiently consequential. Instead of a decisive victory, Israel has had to endure a series of wars in which far more civilians — both Israeli and Palestinian — have been lost. The Oct. 7 War’s grisly tally as of Nov. 16: 1,200 Israelis, of whom 372 were soldiers, killed; at least 5,400 wounded; four hostages, one killed; 237 (11/24 update: 213) still held captive.
Negotiation. After the April 1980 hostage rescue attempt ordered by Jimmy Carter ended in abject failure, Carter negotiated the terms of surrender, lifting the trade embargo and releasing frozen financial assets. He thus secured the release on Jan. 20, 1981 of the 52 hostages that since Nov. 4, 1979 had been held 444 days in Tehran (several had escaped capture and others were released for health reasons). In doing so, he did an enormous favor for Ronald Reagan, who could begin his presidency without facing pressure to deal with a vexing problem that had held national center stage for 14-1/2 months.
Negotiation in the current conflict — driven by Team Biden’s constant pressure to bring an early end to the war — has allowed Hamas to dictate the battlefield rules: Israel must give sufficient notice and exercise sufficient restraint to minimize international outcry; the inevitable result is to allow Hamas terrorists to escape targeted locations, taking captives with them:
Yes, the IDF has control of northern Gaza and all of the key buildings and symbols of Hamas’s rule. Yes it has destroyed significant weapons, significant numbers of tunnels, and killed probably more than 5,000 Hamas terrorists between Gaza and the southern Israel battles.
But if Hamas has 30,000 fighters as the IDF recently said, the vast majority of Hamas’s forces have not been touched.
Worse, Hamas is psychopathic, and thus no promise made can be trusted until performance is rendered; Israel must try to calibrate (5:17) the long-term implications of its deal. Thus, after the 2011 Gilad Shalit swap, the public came to believe that it had been a mistake. Since then such deals are no longer left to the prime minister; they go to the entire Israeli Cabinet.
Rescue. The quintessential hostage rescue success story was the storied raid on Entebbe, Uganda, providentially carried out on July 4, 1976 — the date America celebrated its Bicentennial birthday. Terrorists from the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the West German Red Army faction hijacked a commercial jet that on June 27 had stopped in Athens, en route from Israel to France; the terrorists released 155 of the 258 passengers — those who were not Jewish or whom they thought didn’t look Jewish. The remaining 103 were taken to Entebbe. Israeli commandos flew 2,500 miles in C-130 Hercules transports, freed 100 of the 103 hostages and destroyed 11 Soviet combat jets, whilst losing their commander, Yoni Netanyahu, brother of the current prime minister.
But such raids can end in tragedy, as with the May 15, 1974 massacre of 25 hostages — 22 of them schoolchildren — and wounding of 68. Three terrorists from the PFLP crossed the Israel-Lebanon border, targeting a school in the town of Maalot, in Western Galilee. The Israeli Defense Forces tried to rescue the hostages, but the operation, though carried out in 35 seconds, gave one terrorist time to toss a grenade amidst the captives. The raid was timed to coincide with the 26th anniversary of Israel’s birth.
Cyber-dystopia was created by interlocking technologies whose powerful … malignancies have outrun our ability to manage them.
To thwart the IDF, Hamas has perfected the use of tunnels — 300 miles, labyrinthine, not linear — since taking over Gaza after Israel’s 2005 exit. The result is an underground network largely invisible, within which hiding and moving hostages has been mastered. Hostages surely are clustered in groups, to enable rapid movement. To illustrate: given 10 groups, spacing can be 30 miles apart. Israel has developed specialized tools and tactics to defeat terror tunnel terrorists, and minimize collateral civilian casualties.
International Law: A Double-Edged Sword? We have no way of knowing how many civilian deaths there have been. As Hamas terrorists do not wear uniforms with identifying insignia, we will never know. What we do know is that they will always lie, inflate casualties, etc. During this war Hamas has been shockingly successful. Most Western media outlets presume Hamas casualty figures true and Israeli numbers false — what counter-terror expert Melanie Phillips calls “the legal prism through which they refract the Palestinian war against the Jews.” Further, equally depressing evidence of this phenomenon is that the Palestine Authority, which wholeheartedly supports Hamas, blames Israel, rather than Hamas, for the atrocities carried out at the Oct. 7 Nova Music Festival.
At the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, professor emeritus Louis Rene Bares presents a compact, detailed examination of applicable international legal principles. Most notable is his identifying terrorists as hostes humani generis, common enemies of humankind. These criminals are subject to universal jurisdiction and prosecution for their crimes. But another area of international law carries risk for Israel: Bound by specific contract clauses, under the doctrine of force majeure Israel could face supply-chain disruption if the conflict renders performance impossible.
Ultimatum. The classic case of an “or else” ultimatum was President Truman’s August 1945 warning after the Hiroshima atomic bomb was dropped, that unless Japan promptly surrendered it would face a “rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.”
Israel alone cannot issue a “rain of ruin” ultimatum, such as giving Hamas 24 hours to unconditionally release the hostages, else it will begin the wholesale destruction of Iran’s military infrastructure — to follow Truman, the initial warning would include taking out a key part of Iran’s military infrastructure — its deep nuclear facilities are an obvious choice. Alone, Israel can strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, to pre-empt nuclear breakout. By one estimate, Israel would need to fly 1,500 sorties to accomplish its mission. But without U.S. support for broader, more sustained action, Israel can at best only strike to pre-empt imminent Iranian nuclear breakout.
Guideposts: How many Palestinians are loyal to Hamas? Are there closet dissenters awaiting liberation? At Gatestone Institute, scholar Bassam Tawil collected a series of polls showing that most West Bank Palestinians support Hamas, desire elimination of Israel, and scorn the Palestine Authority — the latter ostensibly moderate, but in its post-Oct. 7 “pay-for-slay” stipends to families of Hamas terrorists killed in the war, equally ardent in its desire for a Jew-free “Palestine from the river to the sea.” At Frontpage Magazine Daniel Greenfield notes that when polled 20 years ago after a suicide bomber blew herself up in the midst of a Passover Seder, 74 percent supported Saddam Hussein, 82 percent called Hamas “freedom fighters” and 79 percent did not consider bombing Israeli restaurants and buses acts of terrorism. Today, only 16 percent of young West Bank Palestinians support coexistence with Israel; 81 percent don’t believe that a permanent Arab-Israeli peace will ever be achieved.
Simply put, for the foreseeable future there is no plausible lasting resolution to the conflict.
In his latest post, Greenfield adds more telling numbers: Many polls show Palestinian support for Hamas running in the 70s or 80s, some even in the 90s. Perhaps more significantly, in virtually every polling category, more residents on the West Bank support terrorism against Israel than in Gaza. Further, overwhelmingly they both hate America, its allies, other Mideast countries, and just about everywhere else. Greenfield concludes: “This isn’t a culture or a country: it’s a xenophobic death cult that hates the entire world.” He recommends that we stop giving them money and stop caring.
A more optimistic note is sounded by Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes, who cites polls showing that Gazans consider their leaders corrupt and desire a ceasefire; Pipes also cites figures from the 1970s showing West Bank and Gaza Palestinians statistically outperforming many economies. But that was long before the advent of Hamas, and the wholesale indoctrination of Palestinian youth in demonizing Jews and glorifying martyrdom, economic progress be damned. There were, even then, warning signs, such as (not making this up) Gaza textbooks in 1967 asking students, “You have five Israelis. You kill three of them. How many Israelis are left to be killed?”
Implications for Israeli-Palestinian Future. Simply put, for the foreseeable future there is no plausible lasting resolution to the conflict. Bret Stephens writes that for Jews, every day must be the day after the Oct. 7 massacres; just as after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 every day henceforth was Sept. 12. for the U.S. In a later column, Stephens chides those in the West who make demands for a ceasefire now, but never demand that Hamas instantly cease terror attacks.
The “two-state” solution is dead, one writer says, for 75 to 150 years. Any Israeli government that proposed, let alone, entered into, a compact establishing a Palestinian state anywhere West of the Jordan River would fall within 24 hours. Arthur Herman writes that the assault on Israel is a proxy for an assault by the radical left on Western civilization. The clearest, most eloquent picture of the challenge posed to Jews — and the entire West worldwide — by radical Islam was given by journalist-activist Bari Weiss, in her Sept. 2023 Barbara Olson Memorial Lecture (38:35).
Regarding time not being on our side, one WSJ op-ed lists different clocks ticking at the expense of the West, citing historian Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.: (a) the “ammo clock,” or the U.S. replacing ordnance expended by the IDF; (b) the “reservist clock,” Israel’s mobilization of reservists who are critical to Israel’s high-tech economy and other sectors; (c) the “economic clock,” collapsing foreign investment and tourism; (d) the “humanitarian clock,” killed, wounded, or displaced soldiers and civilians. Moreover, the are 200,000 Israelis displaced from the south who are in limbo in the hostage release period. Finally, Oren sees yet two bigger clocks: the time until an Iranian nuclear breakout, and the time until an Iranian missile sinks a major U.S. warship.
Enter Orwell. The rise of an Orwellian cyberspace dystopia — ubiquitous social media that cycles 24/7 what was the author’s original daily “two-minutes of hate” — means that henceforth it will be impossible for the West to win the propaganda war. Social media is driven by the loudest, most ignorant, and promiscuously mendacious voices.
Hamas can use civilians as human shields, and the largely ignorant cyberspace denizens will not even know that it is a black-letter violation of the laws of war to use human shields, or locate military assets near civilian targets — hospitals, churches etc.
Cyber-dystopia was created by interlocking technologies whose powerful, metastasizing online malignancies have outrun our ability to manage them — much like in World War I, when the technologies of destruction outran the technologies of command and control. In 1914, once the trains rolled, the armies could not be called back. Now, there is no way that the social media genie can be put back into the bottle.
We have reached the 21st century’s incarnation of Orwell’s Big Brother slogan: “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.”
Israel finds itself enmeshed in an elemental war of survival, with the fate of Western civilization inextricably intertwined with the outcome. The clocks are ticking, and on all of them time is on the side of our adversaries. To date, few leaders and only a minority of the public in the West understand this. Given our drastic inability to grasp the breadth and magnitude of challenges facing us, there seem to be more potential outcomes that accelerate Western civilizational decline than those that augur a turning of the tide against Islamic jihadism and its latest effort to perpetrate a Jewish genocide.
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