The hundreds of Hamas fighters who carried out a murderous rampage inside Israel over the weekend returned to the Gaza Strip with an invaluable new strategic asset. On Sunday, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told journalists that the Islamist group had captured “dozens” of hostages with American citizenship. If this number is even remotely accurate, the assault would be the largest mass abduction of Americans since the Tehran embassy crisis of 1979.
Hamas has likely divided those hostages across unmapped underground sites throughout Gaza, foreclosing the possibility of a single, swift rescue operation. The hostage issue threatens to inject a future source of divergence into Israeli and American objectives during the crisis. Outgoing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy listed “rescue all American hostages” as the U.S.’s top priority in the unfolding war.
Israel must now weigh the survival of American hostages against neutralizing active threats against other groups of civilians, and also against the country’s stated war aim of disarming Hamas, which would likely require a massive ground operation in which most if not all of the hostages would be killed. Hamas, meanwhile, can parade American corpses through downtown Gaza and claim that they are victims of the Israeli assault.
“Hamas will use the hostages in two ways: as human shields and as a source of leverage over Washington,” explained Michael Doran, director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute and a former senior director on the National Security Council. “As human shields they will prevent Israel from destroying critical infrastructure. As a source of leverage, Hamas will convince Washington to compel Israel to make concessions—on the terms of a cease-fire, the release of prisoners, relaxing economic restrictions on Gaza, delivering payments from abroad, etc. Hamas will parade American hostages before the cameras to beg Washington to bring a halt to Israeli military operations so that the hostages can gain their freedom.”
The ways in which American hostages complicate the conflict hardly ends there. The tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar served as the laundering mechanism for $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian oil money that the U.S. used to purchase the freedom of five American citizens or green-card holders that the Islamic Republic had imprisoned, a transaction announced only last month. Doha also happens to be where much of Hamas’ exiled high command lives. Qatar, Washington’s chosen middleman for hostage diplomacy with Iran—which is Hamas’ leading state sponsor—can claim it runs an existing and effective channel for negotiating the hostages’ freedom. Any apparent progress on this diplomatic track could provide the Americans with an incentive to restrain any Israeli operation in Gaza.
Jason Poblete, one of the U.S.’s leading lawyers working on behalf of American hostages, told Tablet it is likely that officials from the U.S.’s Special Operations Command are already in Israel, weighing their options and waiting for further instructions. Poblete explained that when Americans are held hostage, an entire policy infrastructure springs into action—one that includes the State Department special envoy for hostage affairs, the FBI, the military, family engagement coordinators, and the intelligence community. “There’s a whole mechanism behind the scenes that was already working” when Erdan made his vague statement about hostage numbers Sunday morning, Poblete said.
It is the impression of policymakers in Washington that Israeli security planners believe Hamas can be convinced to release children and the elderly from captivity without major preconditions, meaning there is some degree of existing Israeli buy-in for any hostage negotiations that might already be taking place. The presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier positioned offshore may suggest that the U.S. is actively weighing some sort of operation to rescue its citizens, or at least wishes to project a willingness to do so.
However, entangling the United States in a war in Gaza would go against Israel’s entire concept of its own security. “Israel has this doctrine of defending itself by itself,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It doesn’t want American boots on the ground.”
It is unclear whether Hamas made a specific effort to kidnap American citizens. But it is fortuitous, from the Islamists’ perspective, that the price of an American hostage has never been higher. The captives freed through the deal that the Biden administration struck last month fetched about $1.2 billion a head—a sum that doesn’t include an additional $10 billion that made its way to Iran through Iraq that same week. “That by itself is opening a new door to hostage-taking,” explained Nizar Zakka, whom Iran held between 2015 and 2019 and who now heads the organization Hostage Aid. “It’s become a hostage business model.”
The Iranian hostage business model has an established official counterpart within the American policy apparatus. In response to a string of ISIS abductions and executions of American citizens, the Obama and Trump administrations formulated a set of codified responsibilities, working groups, fusion cells, and protocols within the U.S. government for securing the release of kidnapped Americans. “We have a guy now who has the [informal] title of ‘hostage ambassador,’” Poblete pointed out.
But like anything else in the executive branch of the U.S. government, the behavior of the American hostage-policy complex is an expression of the basic outlook and objectives of a given presidential administration. “Our hostage policy will be successful or not based on how we anchor our overall policy,” Poblete said. If the policy is anchored in a series of direct quid pro quos with a terrorist group or its state sponsor, enabled through the mediation of a government with close ties to whichever extremists are holding the Americans, the machinery of U.S. policy will spring into action within that paradigm, with the possible result of billions of dollars making their way to the Hamas hostage-takers in Gaza, along with the promise, presumably, that they will still be alive to make use of the money.
Interestingly, two of Poblete’s clients were released from Iran without a reported ransom being paid. “Trump used all instruments of state power to secure the release of hostages,” Poblete explained. These instruments might have included a credible threat of force against Iran or its proxies, financial and psychological warfare, and other tools that are outside the scope of negotiations, or even of pure diplomacy.
The war against Hamas contains the possibility of a deck-clearing regional conflagration through which Israel can correct decades’ worth of strategic errors that have led to the establishment of large Iranian-backed terror armies on two of its borders. Perhaps the unfolding hostage crisis will force a similar rethink of America’s approach to hostage issues, especially when Iran is involved. “We can use this crisis to have an end to the hostage-business model. This is an industry that has to stop,” Zakka said.
Hostage-taking limits a country’s range of actions against its enemy. It is also a shortcut for baiting very powerful governments into a parody of civilized diplomacy in which they bargain with and petition people who kidnap and murder their citizens. The hostages become stand-ins for whatever evils their societies are accused of. In return they lose all connection to the rest of the world.
What the Hamas hostages, Israeli and American, are enduring now, with the prospect of a live-broadcast execution hanging over their heads, is excruciating, even if they have not yet been physically harmed. “The hostage-takers put you in a certain mindset that you are nobody—nobody cares about you, you are nothing,” Zakka explained. “This is what is very important for the hostages to stay alive: To know that people are working, and they’re not sleeping, to get you out.”
A country can’t easily wage a full-scale war if scores of its own people and the citizens of its closest ally are being held captive. But in the sickening logic of a rapidly escalating conflict, Israel might not have any other choice. “If Israel fights this war the way that it probably should, it will probably need to assume that the hostages are already dead,” said Schanzer.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.