October 13, 2023
IntelBrief: The Hostage Situation in Gaza Adds Layers of Complexity to the Conflict
An already complex situation is made far more complicated by the presence of an unknown number of hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza following last Saturday’s devastating terrorist attack in Israel. While the exact number of hostages is still unknown, Israeli authorities believe that approximately 150 individuals are being detained and held as hostages. Hamas has made threats to execute some of the hostages being held. Although speculative, the Government of Israel is most likely attempting to assess and corroborate the probability of Hamas following through with this threat before changing or altering its military strategy. The priority with regard to the hostages is to identify each victim fully, attempt to locate and track them inside Gaza, identify and track the captors holding each hostage, and establish their pattern of life. This will be challenging, as Hamas is likely to disperse hostages among multiple locations and even use some as human shields. Next, the Israelis will seek to place intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets over Gaza to illuminate the captor network fully and to develop initial concepts of operations to affect their recovery to include in extremis options if needed. Concurrently, the Israelis will likely start negotiating with the assistance of a third party that possesses legitimacy in the region, a small group of countries that could include Egypt, Qatar, and/or Türkiye. Given the range of foreign nationals possibly being held as hostages, it will be imperative that negotiations and media messaging are synchronized across foreign partners.
According to National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby, of the seventeen Americans currently unaccounted for after the attack, the number that the Biden administration believes are currently being held by Hamas is “very small—like less than a handful.” Many of those Americans unaccounted for are believed to be dual Israeli-American citizens. The fact that the hostages are being held in an active war zone and in an area currently under heavy Israeli Air Force bombardment makes this a fairly atypical case and one fraught with danger for the safety of the hostages. The United States is required to respond to a situation where U.S. citizens are being held hostage. Major reforms followed the execution of U.S. hostages by the so-called Islamic State in 2014, prompting a government-wide review that sought to establish a more agile American policy response to hostage-taking, alongside significant organizational and structural changes to ensure coordinated government action in the face of a hostage-taking event. A key outcome of the reforms was to shore up the government’s coordinated response to hostage-taking across policy, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military strands of work. Notably, this established several new entities within the revamped hostage recovery enterprise: the Hostage Response Group (HRG), which worked in support of the National Security Council (NSC) and was based in the White House; the interagency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell (HRFC), which was located within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) but received participation from across the federal government; and a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), designated to lead the government’s diplomatic response and based out of the State Department. It is through the office of the SPEHA that the U.S. government interagency will lead the effort to assemble a multilateral fused response that will cooperate and coordinate amongst international partners and, if needed, elements of the private sector. The office is headed by well-respected diplomat and former U.S. Special Forces officer Roger Carstens, who has worked for both the Trump and Biden administrations with bipartisan support. Yet, the response is going to take time, as myriad factors are considered when crafting a timetable for joint planning and joint response.
According to the Wall Street Journal, an estimated 500 to 600 U.S. citizens live in Gaza, with some currently seeking safe passage out, most likely through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. For its part, Cairo has hinted that any deal must be a two-way street, with civilians allowed to exit under strict criteria and humanitarian assistance allowed to enter. And even for those civilians who are permitted to exit, there would have to be tight restrictions surrounding their eligibility (likely limited to dual citizens of certain nations), in order to prevent a mass exodus or a refugee situation that could spiral out of control and overwhelm border authorities. Israel has cut off access to electricity, water, food, and fuel, compounding an already dire situation in the territory. From the perspective of international law, siege warfare can be a violation of the Geneva Conventions if the rights of the besieged non-combatant population are violated. Non-combatants/civilians must be granted the right to leave unless fighting is in progress. Wounded, sick, infirm persons and pregnant women should be evacuated from the besieged area. Safe passage of medical personnel, medical supplies, and religious clergy must be guaranteed. Starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited. If the civilian population is suffering undue hardship because of a lack of supplies essential to their survival, impartial humanitarian relief action must be taken.
The hostage portfolio could well turn out to be the impetus for modest yet still important progress on humanitarian issues, at least as a starting point to alleviate some civilian suffering. Footage released on Wednesday appeared to show Hamas releasing a female hostage and two children. In some hostage situations, there is a question about whether the hostage takers are who they say they claim to be and have the access they claim to have. Releasing hostages is a way to prove that access, and, in some ways, could be interpreted as a confidence-building measure for subsequent steps. And while talks over hostages could help jumpstart engagement on related issues, primarily humanitarian assistance, any negotiations beyond that discrete issue are likely a non-starter at this point in the conflict. Traditionally, if/when Israeli citizens/soldiers were kidnapped by Palestinian groups or Hezbollah, the Israeli government would treat the matter transactionally and pursue an exchange of prisoners or detainees. However, there are more historical cases, such as the July 1976 raid in Entebbe, Uganda, which demonstrates Israel’s willingness to take unilateral action when necessary. This brings with it a whole host of risks, including to the life of the hostages themselves, whose very presence is an obstacle to Israel Defense Forces offensive operations in Gaza.