The uses of hostages

The only way to #BringThemHome is to stop the genocide

Today’s piece comes from a dinner conversation I had last Shabbat, which everyone at the table agreed would be the most useful thing for me to share today. But I want to use the real estate at the top of this newsletter to draw your attention to the most important story I’ve read today — a ProPublica investigation that should be dominating every news outlet in America, which found that Donald Trump is bribing witnesses in the criminal cases against him.

ProPublica reporters Robert Faturechi, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski caveat the story professionally — they did not find evidence (yet) that Trump personally approved the bribes, intent is hard to prove, etc., etc. But it isn’t my story and this a self-run (and reader-funded!) newsletter, so I can jump to the bottom line: Trump’s circle has a long and sordid record of witness tampering. His campaign manager Paul Manafort and political hitman Roger Stone were both convicted on federal witness tampering charges, only to be pardoned by Trump in the weeks leading up to January 6.1 And Trump has personally intimidated witnesses in public. So the idea that all of this is a coincidence and that Trump doesn’t know what his caporegimes are doing, or why, strikes me as the height of absurdity.

In other words, this story is a big deal. Watch this space.

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So, as I recounted at the end of Friday’s newsletter, President Biden had just announced what he called an “Israeli plan” to end the war on Gaza. If all the steps he laid out were followed, the proposed deal would amount to the return of all the Israeli hostages, including the remains of the dead, in exchange for a full and mutual cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and the release of an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Most notably, the implied theory of victory was no longer the “destruction of Hamas” but rather a recognition that, as Biden put it, that Hamas is “no longer … capable of carrying out another October 7th.” This—and the fact that Biden carefully timed his remarks for after sundown on Shabbat in Jerusalem2 —was the most suspicious part of it for those of us who doubted that this was really a Netanyahu plan.

So it was no surprise when Netanyahu, just a few hours later, broke the Israeli governmental version of halacha to reject what was supposedly his own government’s plan, stating: “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel.” The substituting of “Gaza” for “Hamas” as the source of the threat may have been a Freudian slip, though it has been clear that this has been the effective Israeli position since long before Oct. 7. A more telling contradiction was Netanyahu’s insistence that the freeing of all the remaining hostages must precede the war’s end—even though that was precisely the central piece of the deal he was rejecting.

Israel’s position became even more confusing when on Sunday, Netanyahu’s chief foreign policy adviser, Ophir Falk, told the British Sunday Times that Israel had in fact given its initial approval to the deal Biden announced — even though (and stay with me here) there were “a lot of details to be worked out.” The key line: “It’s not a good deal but we dearly want the hostages released. All of them.”

Understanding what the hell is going on here requires a bit of insight into the centrality of hostages to Israel’s vision of this war, and the Israeli (and in some ways the broader Jewish) psyche in general. If you’ve been spending most of your time (rightly, I think) focused on the unimaginable toll in Gaza — the uncounted thousands of Palestinian children killed, brutally maimed, and orphaned; the unconscionable destruction of homes, hospitals, universities, schools, mosques, ancient sites, and more — or have been only marginally aware of the conflict’s particulars, then you may have missed what Israelis and their core supporters believe this war is all about. For them, the over 200 Israeli Jews abducted on Oct. 7 aren’t just a graphic deal of the war. They are the war — the casus belli, the unimpeachable justification for its continuation, and the primary war aim, all rolled into one3 .

Protesters in Tel Aviv yesterday, June 3, after news broke that another four Israeli hostages in Gaza were dead. (Photo by Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This centrality has a lot to do with both Israel’s conception of itself as the world’s only safe haven for Jews, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, as well as the material realities of a country with a Jewish majority population smaller than that of the total metropolitan population of Houston. Everyone is either related to one another or feels as if they are related to one another. So when an Israeli — or a diaspora Jew who feels as if they are in their heart Israeli — hears that an Israeli Jew has been abducted, or worse yet sees a video of someone’s screaming daughter being taken away by masked Arabs on the back of a motorcycle, they feel as if a part of themselves is being taken away. And they tell themselves that they would do — or, more accurately, permit others to do — anything to get them back, as if it were themselves or a close loved one.

The names and details of individual hostages are at the front of Israeli minds — especially those of children like Kfir and Ariel Bibas, the former of whom was abducted at nine months of age. Supporters of the war talk about “Hersh” (Goldberg-Polin) and “Noa” (Argamani) as if they are close personal friends. The latest news and videos of the hostages, including new footage of their abductions, are moments for renewed mass grieving and anger. On TikTok, Zionists and Israel supporters are most easily identifiable these days not by Israeli flag but by the use of yellow-ribbon emojis in their user names — a symbol borrowed from the public outcry over the 2006 capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier taken by Hamas at age 19, who was was held for five years. (Israelis hung yellow ribbons from their cars and front doors to signal their support for Shalit’s release at that time.)

There is also a significant religious aspect: the need to be with family, and to reclaim and quickly bury the bodies of the beloved dead, are deeply ingrained principles in Jewish custom and law, as is the hope of freeing those in bondage. A central prayer from the amidah, or standing service held at most Jewish worship sessions, praises God as “matir asurim”—”the One who frees the captive.” A 12th Century C.E. prayer, the acheinu, recited at some traditional, typically European-rite services during the week, asks God to have mercy on “our family, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress, or in captivity — who stand either in the sea or on dry land” and "to take them out from narrowness to expanse, and from darkness to light, and from oppression to redemption, now, swiftly, and soon.”

You may more immediately remember the early days of the war, when posters bearing the faces of the hostages under the word “KIDNAPPED” began appearing not only in Israel but on the streets of American cities. These images, the brainchild of Tel Aviv street artists Nitzan Mintz and Dede Bandaid, drew on a protest art tradition with roots and echoes from fascist Argentina to post-9/11 New York. But they quickly became almost sacred objects themselves.

You probably also remember how, in short order, some antiwar and anti-Israel protesters — who not unreasonably saw the posters as propagandistic justifications for the slaughter of Palestinians — started tearing them down. To critics of the war, the orchestra of wails and handwringing that rose from both Israel’s defenders and much of the American press — which colored these actions as prima facie evidence of deep-seated antisemitism and inhumanity toward Jews — seemed either incomprehensible or disingenuous. And indeed, the purposes of a “hostage poster” hung, say, 7,570 miles from the place where said hostages were known to be held did not make much immediate sense, for any purpose other than justifying continued U.S. support for Israel’s actions.

But, again, if you imagine it from the point of view of someone who thought they were posters of, effectively, their own children—or themselves—the pain might seem more genuine. As is the surging anger among the hostages’ families — as well as within a growing portion of the Israeli public — against Netanyahu’s ongoing refusal to accept a hostage-release deal, even amid pressure from Israel’s preeminent sponsor in the White House.

The power of hostage-taking isn’t a mystery to Palestinian militants, especially in the Hamas leadership — indeed, it was by all evidence the primary purpose of the Oct. 7 attack. There’s background here. In 1994, Hamas militants captured Israeli Sgt. Nachshon Wachsman at a junction east of Tel Aviv in hopes of derailing the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This sparked a nationwide panic. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered a commando mission to free him from the West Bank town of Bir Nabala — a raid in which Wachsman was killed, alongside an Israeli commando and several Hamas gunmen. Though the incident failed to stop the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PA, it diminished the prestige of the Israeli government and raised Hamas’ profile in the eyes of both Israelis and Palestinians.

The 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit meanwhile — undertaken in revenge for the Israeli abduction of brothers Osama and Mustafa Muamar, sons of a Hamas militant — also sparked a nationwide outcry. Immense public pressure for his release eventually forced Benjamin Netanyahu (who, yes, has been prime minister that long) to agree to the 2011 exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Those released prisoners, chosen through mediation by German and Egyptian intelligence agents, included Yahya Sinwar — now the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, widely seen) (and sought by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court) as the mastermind of Oct. 7.

The power of captives is also instictively understood by Palestinians because of their ongoing generational trauma of abduction: As of October 2023, Israel was holding an estimated 5,200 Palestinian prisoners, including 170 minors. That number is now believed to be in excess of 10,000. Those numbers include over 1,300 people, including minors, held in so-called “administrative detention,” in which Palestinians are held not only without trial but without having committed an offense; rather they are held “on the grounds that he or she plans to break the law in the future … by order of the regional military commander, based on classified evidence that is not revealed to them,” according to the Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem. Most of the criminal cases that have been closed against Palestinians meanwhile “been the result of a litany of violations of international law, including due process violations, that taint the legitimacy of the administration of justice by the occupying Power,” in the words of U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Francesca Albanese.

The hopes of freeing some of those held in tortuous conditions in Israeli jails — militant and civilian alike — is a major motivator for hostage-taking operations.

Israeli authorities also clearly understand the power that hostages have over their people. It is almost certainly what was behind the so-called Hannibal Directive (or Hannibal Protocol), an Israeli military policy that called for soldiers to use massive amounts of force to prevent one of their comrades from being captured. According to former Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, until the directive’s revision in 2016, many Israeli commanders interpreted the Hannibal Directive to mean that they should kill their own soldiers rather than allow them to be taken prisoner. But in some corners, the older interpretation may still hold. Indeed, the pervasive fear of having hostages taken, and an understanding of the significant leverage they put in the hands of the hostage taker, may explain the widespread reports of excessive force used by Israeli security forces on Oct. 7.—excessive force that some Israelis believe was responsible for the death of their loved ones that day.

This puts Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli government with a tricky hand to play. On one hand, a nationwide moral imperative to do anything to bring home the hostages is a powerful force, one that he can (and has) mobilized to cement support for his war and to excuse the mass murder of over 36,000 Palestinians and counting.

On the other hand, the fact that those military operations have not only failed to rescue the hostages but killed many of them (including three shot and killed by IDF soldiers), and the fact that the only significant release of hostages to date happened as the result of negotiations has not been lost on the hostages’ families in Israel. Throughout the war, there have been repeated incidents of Israeli hostage family members screaming at Israeli officials to cut a deal to end the war and bring their relatives home. In April, the ex-spokesman for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, Haim Rubinstein, told the Times of Israel, “We later found out that Hamas had offered on October 9 or 10 to release all the civilian hostages in exchange for the IDF not entering the Strip, but the government rejected the offer.”

If true — and there’s little reason to doubt it is — then from the beginning Netanyahu and Hamas have been playing the same cynical game: using men, women, and children who were abducted on Oct. 7 to further their own political ends, for as long as they possibly can. It would also put the lie to the argument that all of the fighting and killing has been necessary to put pressure on Hamas to release the hostages. The value of hostages in past negotiations explains why Hamas would only be willing to free them for the highest achievable price. It is also a reminder that, as soon they are free, Netanyahu and his war coalition will lose a significant amount of the leverage have to strong-arm the Israeli public — who they need not only for moral support but as a source of personnel through conscription — into continuing to back the war.

Major fractures are now, inevitably, appearing even in the furthest right parts of Netanyahu’s coalition. Just today, Israeli media reported that right-wing religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are demanding that Netanyahu accept the ceasefire deal more or less along the lines outlined by Biden. (The head of UTJ, Housing Minister Yitzchak Goldknopf, posted on X, “there is nothing of greater value than life and the commandments to redeem the captives … therefore, we will support any proposal that brings about their release.”)

On the other hand, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who represent the MAGA-like religious-nationalist wing, have threatened to resign if Netanyahu accepts a deal anywhere short of the “destruction of Hamas” — an all-but-militarily-impossible objective that would likely necessitate the annexation and ethnic cleansing of most or all of Gaza. Which is what both of those ministers actually want.

Netanyahu on the other hand, as Biden correctly observed in an interview released today, just wants whatever will keep him in power. But admitting what he is doing — and the role the hostages play for him in that — would cause whatever support he has to evaporate immediately. And that’s how you get here: the Israeli government simultaneously proposing, and rejecting, and signaling it may be open to accepting its own “bad deal” with revisions — all the while stringing a confused and perhaps credulous American president and public along. These poor hostages have to be many things to many people — sources of leverage; symbols of peoplehood, family, and hope; objects of war. But in the end, they’re just what they — like the entire population of Gaza they are now living among — were before Oct. 7. They’re just people, with all the frailties and contradictions that entails.

 

1  Stone told Randy Credico, a New York radio host and comedian who he tried to put him in touch with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli.’” As AP and ProPublica both put it, Pentangeli is a character in The Godfather Part II who lies to a Senate committee investigating organized crime. What neither of them mention is that the more complete of Pentangeli, a.k.a. Frankie Five Angels, in the film is that, after surviving an assassination attempt ordered by Michael Corleone, he intends to testify against the mob boss, only to be cowed into silence at the last minute by the appearance of his brother from Sicily — a reminder to Frankie of his vow of omertà. Frankie lies to the committee, then slits his wrists in a bathtub on Corleone’s orders, after being told that killing himself will ensure his family’s safety. This is what I think of when I hear the phrase “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli.’”

2  Biden even made a point of checking his watch at the start of his remarks.

3  Hamas, PIJ and other militants also abducted at least six Bedouins with Israeli citizenship (one of whom was killed in Gaza by the IDF), as well as thirty-two Thai and two Filipino civilians (the latter of whom were released). Suffice it to say they have all factored to a far lesser extent in the Israeli imagination.

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