Hamas is not known for its strategic thinking. People who blow up innocent civilians knowing that the response will kill a lot of their own citizens don’t think much at all. But wherever Hamas got the idea to take hostages in order to paralyze Israel, it was a stroke of evil genius.
Hamas’s piecemeal release of hostages has committed the United States and the international community to a course of action that will prevent Israel from moving into Gaza City to wipe out Hamas. First, two Americans were released, thanks to Qatar and Egypt’s intercession. Then, two elderly Israelis. Next, Hamas is negotiating to release 50 hostages in exchange for a mountain of humanitarian supplies, including fuel.
International experts can see where this is headed.
“It’s posturing and it’s to keep the negotiations alive,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, a U.S. policy fellow at al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy institute based in California. “What these piecemeal hostage releases do is that it buys time for Hamas and it chips away at this initial international support that Israel was enjoying.”
From all appearances, Israel’s ground assault was going to kick off late last week. Then came the release of the two Americans and the beginning of endless rounds of negotiations for the release of the 220 hostages. Complicating matters in the extreme are that almost half the Hamas hostages are foreign-born.
Israel said 138 of the hostages had foreign passports, including 15 Argentinians, 12 Germans, 12 Americans, six French and six Russians.
Many were believed to have had dual Israeli nationality, however some, like the Thais and five Nepalese hostages, almost certainly did not. There was also one Chinese hostage, one Sri Lankan, two from Tanzania and two from the Philippines.
Thais also made up the largest single group of foreign dead and missing, with 24 confirmed killed and 21 unaccounted for.
Every day that passes is a gift to Hamas. Hamas is using this gift to dig deeper in Gaza City, guaranteeing its survival as a fighting force, at least in the short term.
The constant bombing of Gaza is also playing into Hamas’s hands. How much weaker is Hamas getting as compared to what it’s costing Israel in terms of goodwill as the civilian death toll rises?
Beyond that, the bombing of Gaza is becoming torture for Israeli families who know their loved ones are being held by Hamas. Families in Israel are pleading with the government to strike some kind of deal to bring their loved ones home. To the hostage families, there are no great questions of national security. There’s only the pain they feel at their loved ones being in danger.
The same angst is being felt by foreign families whose loved ones are in the clutches of the terrorists. Their governments are also putting pressure on Israel to do nothing that would cause the death of their citizens.
The final component of Hamas’s hostage calculations is the most important; Israeli soldiers captured during the raids. The Israelis won’t say how many soldiers were taken. We know through some captured video that several have been tortured and killed. But the captured Israeli soldiers are worth their weight in gold. Hamas will look to exchange Israeli soldiers for the 6,000 Hamas fighters held by Israel.
“Eventually it is the soldiers, male and female, who are the core of the trade in those terms. So they have buffers. They have degrees of freedom of maneuver and they can draw time,” said Tamir Hayman, a reserve brigadier general in the Israeli military.
“They’re dripping them drop by drop to prolong the suffering of those families and Israeli society and to gain one more achievement to their campaign,” said Gen. Hayman, who is also the managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli policy institute.
Hamas is going to drag out hostage negotiations for weeks — months if they can get away with it. This is why, as hard as it would be — the damage to Israel’s standing in the world it would cost — Israel may have to grit its teeth and attack Gaza City in a ground assault anyway. It would kill many hostages and probably cost thousands of Palestinian lives. But Israel would have effectively destroyed one of its mortal enemies, or at least severely damaged them.
If they want to “destroy” Hamas, only a ground assault would accomplish that goal. And if they wait until the hostages are all released, Hamas will have built up its defenses, making it virtually impregnable.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has some extremely difficult decisions to make about the hostages.