ISRAEL | HAMAS WAR - Amid Israel’s relentless bombing campaign in Gaza is a crisis within a crisis: The presence of many hostages, including U.S. citizens, held captive in a war zone. According to the latest Israeli estimates, Hamas and other Palestinian groups are holding 199 captives following their attack last week into southern Israel. This figure includes both prisoners (soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces) and hostages (civilians, including children and the elderly).
Hamas claims that Israeli airstrikes have already killed 22 hostages and prisoners in Gaza, including foreigners. News outlets have not independently verified those claims, and Israel has disputed them, calling them “lies” by Hamas. Up to 14 U.S. citizens are among those held captive in Gaza, along with around 500 Palestinian-Americans living in the besieged strip who deserve equal protection.
A spokesperson for Hamas’ military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, said in a video statement on Monday that it would release hostages holding foreign citizenship when “the opportunity arises on the ground.” That followed an extensive interview on Al Jazeera by Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy chief, who tried to officially distance Hamas from the acts of abducting civilian hostages. “After the breach of the fence and the collapse of the IDF in less than three hours, Palestinian civilians and other armed groups crossed the fence from Gaza, resulting in chaos that we have not planned for,” he said.
Perhaps a cease-fire could also serve as a collective pause, forcing all parties, including the U.S., to reconsider the broken policies that led to this violence...
Arouri claimed that Hamas only took Israeli soldiers as prisoners of war, and that it was other Palestinians groups, and even Palestinian civilians, who had taken civilians hostage once the wall was breached. While the video evidence shows Arouri’s claims about not taking civilians as hostages false, his comments do suggest that Hamas is seeking a political justification for the speedy release of all hostages.
As significant are Iran’s statements about the hostages. Iran’s Foreign Ministry claimed Monday that Hamas was “ready” to release its hostages if Israel ceased airstrikes in Gaza. Last week, when Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, sent a message to Israel through the United Nations, most of the media coverage focused on Iran’s threat to Israel that it would enter the conflict. But the buried lead was that Abdollahian also offered to broker a deal for the release of civilian hostages in Gaza. Iran has leverage over Hamas, though less than is often assumed.
More signs, then, point to the possibility that a cease-fire could expedite the release of these civilian hostages. The more complex task is a prisoner swap—exchanging captured IDF soldiers for Palestinians in Israeli jails. Hamas has indicated it wants to use the Israeli soldiers it is holding in a deal to free the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, of whom 1,123 are political prisoners held under Israel’s laws of “administrative detention” without charge or trial. Among these prisoners, 160 are children under the age of 18.
What should be alarming for U.S. citizens is Israel's controversial, so-called Hannibal Doctrine. This controversial protocol permits the use of lethal force while attempting to free captured Israeli soldiers, even if it risks the lives of hostages or prisoners of war in the vicinity. For American citizens among the hostages, this presents a clear and direct danger. Under this doctrine, the Israeli military can, theoretically, justify the killing of American hostages (and other civilians) in their efforts to free captured IDF soldiers. While this might align with Israeli military objectives, it blatantly disregards the safety and well-being of American citizens and other civilians who are caught in the conflict. The U.S. government should categorically reject the Israeli military’s Hannibal Doctrine when American lives are at stake.
It should take immediate steps to protect the safety of all American citizens in Gaza, including hostages and the hundreds of Palestinian-Americans who cannot escape, with the crossings into Israel and Egypt sealed. This isn’t just about hostages; it’s about respect for human life across borders.
Instead, the Biden administration has given Israel a green light for what amounts to the collective punishment of all of the people of Gaza. Among those suffering under Israel’s “complete siege” are also U.S. citizens, along with other foreign nationals held hostage or living there.
Rather than blindly backing Israel as it devastates Gaza with airstrikes and prepares a ground invasion that risks the lives of hostages, a cease-fire is desperately needed, and not only to save hostages. A cease-fire would allow for the flow of essential supplies and humanitarian aid into Gaza and offer a respite to treat the wounded and mourn the dead—approaching 3,000 Palestinians, including more than 1,000 children.
Perhaps a cease-fire could also serve as a collective pause, forcing all parties, including the U.S., to reconsider the broken policies that led to this violence and the unsustainable situation not just in Gaza, but all of Israel and Palestine.
(Raed Jarrar is the Advocacy Director for Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). This article was first published in CommonDreams.org.)