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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel faces hostage dilemma in Gaza

People view an installation showing a Sabbath table set for those taken hostage by Hamas militants in the Oct. 7 attacks, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.

By Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt

As terrified families of hostages abducted by Hamas hold tense vigils, voicing fears that Israel’s ground attacks in Gaza could take the lives of their loved ones, the country got a rare bit of good news Monday: Israeli soldiers had secretly rescued a 19-year-old woman.

The Israeli military provided few details about the operation along the Gaza border to free the woman, Pvt. Ori Megidish, whose release was kept quiet until word started to trickle out that she had been freed in an overnight raid two days prior.

The soldier came home to a country still deeply traumatized by the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, while worried family members wondered how many of the other 240 hostages would make it home.

The predicament of the hostages underscores the extraordinary dilemma facing Israel as it seeks to achieve its military goal of destroying Hamas while attempting to free the men, women and children held in locations likely scattered around Gaza.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, met with families of the hostages, and insisted those two goals were not incompatible.

“If there is no military pressure on Hamas, nothing will progress,” he told the families Sunday. “The military operation is intended, among other things, to increase the chance of returning our people.”

Hamas also appears to understand the nightmare facing Israel, putting pressure on the Israeli government to make concessions, including a break in the fighting. After the media reported that Megidish had been freed, Hamas released a video of three Israeli female hostages. One of the women, Daniel Aloni, 44, animated, angry and under extreme duress, criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“You were supposed to free all of us,” Aloni said. “You committed to free us all. But instead we are carrying your political, security, military, diplomatic failure.”

Netanyahu called the Hamas video “cruel psychological warfare.”

Hamas is prepared for a long, bloody fight, and its fighters have turned Gaza into a labyrinth of tunnels, stocked with weapons and food. Some of the hostages are hidden in the tunnels, many of which are likely booby-trapped.

After pounding Gaza and its people with artillery and bombs, the Israeli army moved in Friday. So far, the Israeli troops have advanced to the outskirts of Gaza City but not entered the Hamas stronghold. Fierce urban fighting is expected when they do.

Rob Saale, the former head of the FBI-led Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, said Israel was facing an unprecedented situation.

“There are no easy solutions,” Saale said. “I think the Israelis are pursuing the right course. You can’t let the hostages dictate what you are doing. Continuing to put a lot of pressure on Hamas is probably the best way to get them back. Hamas isn’t going to free hostages from a position of strength.”

Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired Special Operations commander who formerly served as U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said that Israel has likely embedded commandos within its advancing ground units so they can act quickly if they receive fresh intelligence on hostage locations.

Other former senior officers who have served combat tours in the Middle East painted a grim picture of trying to recover the hostages — either through negotiations or military rescue — as Israeli forces pushed deeper into Gaza.

Gen. Richard D. Clarke, a retired head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the conditions in Gaza — an active war zone, the large number of hostages, scarce intelligence on their exact locations and Hamas’s preparations to defend against an Israeli assault — make any hostage recovery operation “extremely challenging.”

“Getting the hostages out will be very difficult,” said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired head of the U.S. military’s Central Command. “Hamas will try to create dilemmas for the Israelis — putting them near command posts, rocket launching sites and ammo dumps — as long as they can.”

The three generals all predicted a lengthy fight, possibly taking months.

“I do not think Hamas will fold,” Schwartz said. “They want to kill Israeli soldiers, and I expect there to be brutal fighting.”

Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff in the Israeli military who helped rescue partygoers at a music festival that was attacked Oct. 7, said the hostages have to be a priority as Israel conducts the war against Hamas.

“You have to fight to release the hostages — not doing so means a breaking of trust on the part of leadership, of the fundamental contract between the government and the people,” he said. “An Israeli citizen, anywhere in the world, needs to know they have a home.”

Golan, like other analysts and former military officials, believes diplomacy will play an important role in securing the release of the hostages. Already four hostages have been released as the United States and Qatar try to broker complicated deals.

But considerable hurdles remain. Hamas has asked for a cease-fire, but Israel has refused. There are also thorny issues involving the transfer of relief supplies and whether some hostages were being treated as military personnel rather than civilians, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

U.S. officials say the Israelis do not know where all the hostages are at any given time. They are being held in different places, not just by Hamas but other groups including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed group in Gaza, and can be moved at any time, they said.

Yaakov Peri, a former head of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, said Hamas was not negotiating seriously. The terrorist group was just trying to buy time and delay the ground assault, he said.

“They know the issue of hostages is a very sensitive issue,” he said. “They’re trying to take advantage of the political situation. They’re dealing with the hostages as a bargaining card.”

American officials said the priority remains seeking the hostages’ release through diplomatic channels, rather than a highly risky commando raid into Gaza’s dense urban environment.

Another senior U.S. official said the presence of hostages has imposed some limitations on Israel’s military planning — taking off the table options like flooding portions of the vast network of underground tunnels where many of the hostages are being held. But the official noted that if any hostages are killed, either by the captors or by Israeli strikes, Hamas loses leverage.

Israel’s expanding ground operations have complicated efforts to release the hostages, but U.S. officials say the more limited incursions, at least initially, align with advice Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conveyed to his Israeli counterparts in recent days to mitigate risks to the hostages and civilians in the enclave.

As a result, U.S. officials said Israel was taking the hostages’ safety more into account than it was in the initial invasion planning, while acknowledging they still remain in serious danger.

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