November 6, 2023

IntelBrief: Diplomacy Aims to Secure Hundreds of Hostages Caught Up in Gaza War Fighting

AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Working through various diplomatic channels, the United States and Qatar are continuing to actively engage with Israel and Hamas at the highest levels in order to secure the release of hostages in Gaza, as negotiations take place around the clock.
  • So far, only five of the 242 hostages taken on October 7 have been released, while Hamas has claimed that more than one-fifth have been killed by Israeli airstrikes.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that any potential ceasefire would be predicated on Hamas first releasing Israeli hostages after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed, unsuccessfully, for a “humanitarian pause” to allow hostages to be freed and emergency aid to enter Gaza.
  • While senior Israeli officials have argued their intense military campaign will pressure Hamas to release hostages, skeptics have said this will endanger the hostages, who are thought to be held near Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) personnel and infrastructure.

International diplomatic efforts are underway to secure the release of the hostages who were kidnapped and taken to the Gaza Strip by Hamas during their October 7 attack on Israel. Of the 242 hostages taken, so far only five – two Americans and three Israeli women – have been released. The United States, Qatar, Egypt, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are reportedly involved in negotiations with Hamas and Israel to secure the release of further hostages, with pressure continuing to be applied as negotiations continue around the clock. The chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has been to Doha recently, and now Bill Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has arrived in the region, demonstrating the importance that intelligence agencies are devoting to the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlighted that Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Steve Gillen has been present in Israel synchronizing efforts on hostages for the past several weeks. Officials with the U.S. Department of Defense also revealed that the United States was even further involved with these efforts than previously known when the New York Times reported that U.S. surveillance drones were being used to support the recovery of hostages in Gaza and inform the hostage-recovery operations of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). According to the officials, this was the first time American drones had flown over the Strip.

Israel has set a high bar for its military objectives in Gaza: the release of all hostages, as well as the outright defeat and destruction of Hamas. Some experts are skeptical that both can be achieved in tandem, however, believing that the intensity of a campaign required to destroy Hamas will invariably come at the expense of the lives of at least some, if not a significant portion of the hostages - presumed to be held among Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters and infrastructure. Thousands of Gazans have already been killed by Israeli airstrikes in recent weeks, as have numerous international aid workers.

Facing public and international pressure to use its diplomatic clout with Israel to get it to lower the intensity of its campaign in Gaza – which has resulted in staggering numbers of civilian casualties – the United States has begun to advocate for a “humanitarian pause” to allow for the release of hostages by Hamas, as well as to facilitate essential aid entering the Gaza Strip and allowing some wounded civilians to exit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that any potential ceasefire would be predicated on Hamas first releasing Israeli hostages after Secretary Blinken pushed for a humanitarian pause during his recent trip to Israel.

Despite ostensible similarities between a pause and a ceasefire, generally, the former is thought to be shorter in nature and may see lower levels of negotiating between the warring parties to settle the fighting, if any such negotiation occurs at all. While this distinction seems to be supported by some U.S. policymakers, such as White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, another White House official told ABC News the two phrases could be interchangeable after U.S. President Biden suggested the United States had successfully pushed for a “cease-fire” when the Rafah border crossing was opened to some wounded civilians and foreign passport holders from Gaza last week.

Over one hundred trucks loaded with humanitarian aid entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing late last week, marking the largest single-day passage of aid into Gaza since the conflict began, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. This number appeared to meet an initial benchmark set by the United States, which aid groups say is the minimum number of deliveries needed to meet Gaza’s desperate humanitarian situation. To date, 374 humanitarian aid trucks have entered Gaza since Israel began allowing controlled shipments into the Strip, including food, water, medicine, medical equipment, and relief supplies. Israel still has not allowed shipments of fuel into the territory, which are needed to operate hospital generators, water pumps, and desalination plants. Israeli officials have expressed concerns that the supplies will be used by Hamas for military purposes. Israel has often accused Hamas of stealing and hoarding fuel supplies that are intended for hospitals and humanitarian use in Gaza. Appearing to reverse the policy on fuel supplies, the head of the IDF stated late last week that this could possibly change if hospitals ran out of fuel, which many have warned is imminent, with supplies potentially allowed via the Rafah crossing with “oversight” to ensure it does not further serve Hamas’ war aims. However, this statement was immediately countered by Netanyahu’s office, which stated that such a plan for fuel to enter Gaza had not been approved, standing by Israel’s refusal to allow fuel into the Strip.

Public statements by Israeli officials have cast some doubt on the priority being placed on hostage safety and recovery compared to its war aims. Though IDF-inflicted casualty figures have been inflated by Hamas in the past, a Hamas spokesperson claimed last week that fifty hostages had been killed by Israeli airstrikes. While Israel’s bombing campaign could be responsible for such deaths, some have speculated that Hamas could seek to cover up its own executions of hostages by blaming hostages’ deaths on airstrikes. Moreover, there is a potential threat that Lebanese Hezbollah could further escalate its involvement in the conflict through its own hostage-taking, utilizing the practice as a limited-scale tactic to show solidarity with Hamas without engaging in a full-scale war. Hezbollah was believed to have been involved in the kidnapping of foreign nationals during the height of the Lebanese civil war. Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant have both said that only the pressure of a high-intensity military campaign can bring Hamas to the negotiating table. Quoting a 2002 journal article on Israel’s hostage-taking response policy, a U.S. Department of Justice web page notes that “Israel has one of the toughest policies concerning hostages, and no Israeli government has ever capitulated in such incidents.” Yet, over the years, Israel has made numerous hostage exchanges with non-state armed groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Palestinian groups. Perhaps the most notable exchange occurred in 2011 when Israel released over a thousand Palestinian prisoners to secure the release of a single Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas five years earlier, but it was hardly an isolated incident. Hostage diplomacy continues to occur at the highest levels, bringing in decision-makers, diplomats, and intelligence officials from the region who have dedicated significant resources to an essential policy issue.