Hostage crisis poses dilemma in Israel

Munjed Jadou, Tuesday 14 May 2024

The Israeli hostages are not particularly the determining factor in the decision-making process of the Israeli government, writes Munjed Jadou in Ramallah

Hostage crisis poses dilemma in Israel


Little time goes by without announcements from the Palestinian group Hamas about the deaths of Israeli prisoners in the custody of the Palestinian resistance factions under the shelling of the Israeli army.

Such deaths, the result of Israeli bombing, raise serious questions about the real objectives of the war that Israel has been waging on the Gaza Strip since 7 October last year.

The decreasing number of prisoners gives the impression that the Israeli government does not want to end the suffering of the Israeli captives in the Gaza Strip. At the beginning of the war, their number ranged from 230 to 252, about 112 of whom have already been released in exchange deals and goodwill initiatives.

Additionally, 12 bodies have been released as part of these initiatives. Some Israeli sources claim that the remaining number of prisoners in Gaza is 128, 36 of whom have been declared dead as a result of the Israeli bombardments.

Of the 92 surviving prisoners, 14 are women, and there is no information on whether they are still alive. Among the prisoners are five female Israeli soldiers and six male soldiers, one of whom was abducted from a party while on leave from the army, in addition to ten captives who are over 65 years old.

Western and Israeli media have reported, citing an alleged source from the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, that there are concerns that only 40 captives remain alive. However, the Shin Bet claim was then refuted in a statement following the report, stating that the information was incorrect.

The Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, announced the death of one prisoner, Nadav Popplewell, a 51-year-old British national, on its website on Saturday.

His death was the result of injuries sustained after being targeted by Israeli air strikes at his place of detention over a month ago, Hamas said, adding that this had also been the case for another prisoner, Judy Van Stein, 70, who had also died as a result of injuries sustained during intense Israeli bombing.

Popplewell’s health had deteriorated, and he had died due to not receiving intensive medical care because of the Israeli army’s destruction of the hospitals in the Gaza Strip and the cessation of their operations.

The Al-Qassam Brigades had previously announced the deaths of seven Israeli prisoners during Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip. It confirmed that prisoners Itzik Algra, Alex Densig, Ronin Tomi, and Angel Eliyahu Margalit had been killed by the Israeli attacks.

The brigades said that they had lost contact with some groups affiliated with them who were guarding Israeli captives as a result of the bombing of their locations, indicating the possibility of more prisoners being lost.

They had previously stated that there were prisoners being held by other resistance factions, making it difficult to ascertain accurate details about the captives in Gaza, including their numbers, their status, or their fate.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, some claim the number of prisoners is 136, while others state it is 128. Israeli affairs specialist Fouad Laham said that the most accurate figure could be 133 prisoners, though he added that no one knows for sure how many of them are alive or dead, including the Israeli occupation sources and media.

Regardless of the final numbers, Laham said that the prisoner issue remains a pressing matter for decision-makers in Israel. It is one that has popular ramifications and that has led to massive protests in the streets of many Israeli towns and cities, most recently on 11 May when tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu work towards a prisonerexchange deal, even if it leads to ending the war.

The protesters condemned Netanyahu’s policies, saying that these ignore the suffering of the prisoners and their families. Matters spiralled out of control after the families and supporters of the prisoners took to the streets, clashing with the Israeli police.

Laham said that the thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets want to see Netanyahu’s government exert more efforts to ensure the release of the prisoners. They are calling for Netanyahu’s resignation due to his disregard for the suffering of the prisoners and their families, some of whom joined the protests carrying pictures of their relatives who are still detained and adding to the crowds that demonstrated in Tel Aviv.

Among them was Neama Weinberg, whose relative Itay Sapirsky was abducted during the Hamas attacks on 7 October last year and was killed while in captivity, according to the Israeli authorities. In a speech, Weinberg referred to a video released by Hamas on Saturday, announcing the death of one of the Israeli hostages.

“Soon, even those who have managed to stay alive during this period will not remain among the living. They must be rescued now,” she said.

Laham said that despite the sensitivity of the prisoner issue in Israeli society, it is not necessarily the determining factor in the decision-making process of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Other strategic considerations, primarily the influence of the right-wing bloc and its extremist parties, which do not want to halt the war, are deemed more important. This aligns with the interests of Netanyahu himself, who does not want to see an end to the war owing to the corruption cases against him and his unwillingness to submit to the commissions of inquiry that will be formed regarding the events of 7 October last year.

All these things would likely necessitate his resignation.

Regarding the possibility of Israel stopping the war because of the prisoners, Laham said that the prisoners were not the cause of the war but were simply one of its outcomes. It is not reasonable to suppose that Hamas carried out last year’s attacks in order to take Israeli prisoners, he said, since it could have settled for a small group taken from a military vehicle or by attacking an Israeli military base.

The issue of Israeli prisoners will remain unresolved unless there is a clear Israeli decision to reach a comprehensive exchange deal that resolves the issue of the prisoners and their Palestinian counterparts, Laham said.

He added that what happened on 7 October was part of a broader operation within the context of a long-standing war waged by the Palestinian people against the Israeli occupation. Hamas sees itself as a symbol of the continuity of this struggle.

For Israel, the prisoners do not constitute a reason to continue the war, which is more related to the pursuit of its strategic goals, Laham said, including neutralising the threat posed by Hamas and other factions, restoring the deterrence lost on 7 October, providing conditions that persuade settlers to return to the Gaza periphery, and attempting to settle the Palestinian issue through armed force.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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