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HAMAS-ISRAEL

Prisoners dilemma: Israel faces challenge on Gaza soldier hostages

An Israeli soldier walks on Nov. 29, 2023, amid photos of revelers who were killed or kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip, at an installation at the site of the Nova festival in Re'im, on the sixth day of a truce between Israel and Hamas to allow further releases of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners. A current truce is scheduled to expire early on Nov. 30, after a six-day pause in a conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted a devastating Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. (Credit: Menahem Kahana/AFP)

As a nation born in war, almost all of whose sons and daughters serve at some point, Israel's special bond with its military will weigh on negotiations over soldier hostages in Gaza.

Scores of Israeli women and children have been released so far under a humanitarian pause in fighting in the Gaza Strip following the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7, with three times as many Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange. 

Few in those categories remain to be swapped, and Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups will demand the highest price of all for soldiers and men of fighting age they hold.

"There is an almost inseparable link between Israeli civil society, the state and the army, with very great moral and emotional closeness," said David Khalfa, co-director of the North Africa and Middle East Observatory of the Jean Jaures Foundation in Paris.

"Israel was born in the tumult of war and the army played a crucial role in the creation of the state, the protection of its territory and the survival of the country in a hostile environment," he said.

At the same time, a fundamental objective of Israel since its post-Holocaust foundation has been to ensure the security of Jewish people, and on Oct. 7, the state, its army and its intelligence services all failed.

According to an AFP tally, at least 11 soldiers, including four women, as well as around 40 men of reservist age were among the around 240 people who Israeli authorities say were kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7. 

Official figures are not available.

"Every family has a brother, a sister, a cousin who is serving," Khalfa said.

'Blood on their hands'

The highest price Israel has ever paid for a captured soldier was in 2011, for Gilad Shalit, seized by Hamas five years earlier.

He was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, among them Hamas' future Gaza Strip leader Yahya Sinwar.

Now Sinwar stands accused of masterminding the Oct. 7 assaults, the worst in Israel's history.

Shalit's release was the first time in nearly three decades that a captured Israeli soldier was returned alive to his country.

But the exchange triggered an intense debate, which continues to this day, on the acceptable limits of concessions to secure the release of soldiers.

A total of 450 Palestinians were swapped for one Israeli businessman and the bodies of three soldiers in 2004.

The government seeks to recover such remains to ensure their burial with military honors.

For Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the other major Islamist movements holding hostages in the Gaza Strip, soldiers and other male hostages represent a very strong bargaining chip.

For them, one adult man is potentially a reservist and therefore a soldier.

Senior Hamas official Bassem Neim said on Wednesday that the movement was "ready to release all soldiers in exchange for all our prisoners". 

That amounts to around 7,000 Palestinians held by Israel, which considers some of them to have "blood on their hands."

It is a concession "that no Israeli government could or would ever make," according to Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence officer.

This time, he told AFP, Israel had a "major card in its own hands – its boots and tanks on the ground in Gaza," and was likely to pursue its military operations in Gaza, leaving "no stone unturned in its search to return the hostages, those living and the bodies of the deceased, back to Israel."

"Holding the bodies of the dead as hostage is sadistic," he added.

At the same time, Israel has repeatedly insisted it will pursue its military goal of destroying Hamas and said it will resume military operations in Gaza immediately after the ceasefire ends.

Public pressure

The Oct. 7 attacks left 1,200 people dead in Israel, mainly civilians, according to Israeli authorities. 

In response, Israel has vowed to eliminate Hamas and has unleashed an air and ground campaign that the Hamas government says has killed more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians.

Across Tel Aviv, and in many other cities in Israel, the streets have been plastered with banners, posters and stickers calling for all the hostages' safe return.

People have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands to demand their release, and independent political analyst Eva Koulouriotis said that public pressure was likely to concentrate the minds of those in power.

That also applied to returns of remains, she said.

"There are religious reasons associated with Jewish society and the importance of burying bodies appropriately and within rituals that honor the dead," she said. 

"The Israeli government considers that it has duties towards the Israeli citizen, whether he is alive or deceased."

As a nation born in war, almost all of whose sons and daughters serve at some point, Israel's special bond with its military will weigh on negotiations over soldier hostages in Gaza.

Scores of Israeli women and children have been released so far under a humanitarian pause in fighting in the Gaza Strip following the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on...