Gaza becomes a political trap for Netanyahu

Isabel DeBre

AP  /  October 8, 2023

JERUSALEM – The capture of dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians — elderly women, children, entire families — by Hamas militants has stirred Israeli emotions more viscerally than any crisis in the country’s recent memory and presented an impossible dilemma for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government.

The Islamist militant group’s 2006 seizure of a sole young conscript, Gilad Shalit, consumed Israeli society for years — a national obsession that prompted Israel to heavily bombard the Gaza Strip and ultimately release over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis, in exchange for Shalit’s freedom.

This time, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have abducted dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers as part of a multipronged, shock attack on Saturday. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group smaller and more brazen than Hamas, said Sunday that it alone had seized 30 hostages.

Their captivity raises the heat on Netanyahu and his hawkish, far-right allies, who are already under intense pressure to respond to the killing of over 700 Israelis in the Hamas attack so far. Netanyahu’s vow to unleash the full force of the Israeli military on Hamas has raised fears for the safety of Israeli civilians spread in undisclosed locations across the densely populated Gaza Strip.

“It will limit the directions and areas that the IDF can be active,” Michael Milstein, a former head of the Palestinian department in Israeli military intelligence, said of the hostage situation. “It will make things much more complicated.”

Locating Israeli hostages in Gaza — something Israeli intelligence agencies failed to do in the case of Shalit — poses further challenges. Although Gaza is tiny, subject to constant aerial surveillance and surrounded by Israeli ground and naval forces, the territory just over an hour from Tel Aviv remains somewhat opaque to Israeli intelligence agencies, experts say.

“We don’t know where Israelis are sheltered,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu. “But this whole issue of captured Israelis will not stop Israel from bombing Gaza until Hamas is destroyed.”

Hamas already has said it seeks the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — some 4,500 detainees, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem — in exchange for the Israeli captives.

The fate of prisoners for Palestinians is perhaps just as emotional as it is for Israelis. With an estimated 750,000 Palestinians having passed through Israel prisons since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, most Palestinians have either spent time in Israeli jail or know someone who has. Israel sees them as terrorists, but Palestinians view detainees as heroes. The Palestinian Authority self-rule government, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank, devotes some 8% of its budget to supporting them and their families.

“The release of any prisoners would be a huge deal for Hamas,” said Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “It would cement Hamas’ position in the Palestinian street and further diminish the strength and legitimacy” of the Palestinian Authority.

But Netanyahu’s government — with its powerful far-right religious ministers, including West Bank settlers — have fiercely opposed any gestures they view as capitulating to the Palestinians. There is “absolutely no chance” that the current government would agree to the release of Palestinian prisoners, said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“The radicals and extremists in this government want to flatten Gaza,” she said. Netanyahu on Saturday dismissed an offer by Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, to form an emergency national unity government.

It was a clear sign that Netanyahu “has not given up on his extremist nationalist government,” she said.

To win last year’s election while standing trial for corruption, Netanyahu relied on the surging popularity of his far-right allies who seized on perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity.

Israel’s powerful finance minister, settler leader Bezalel Smotrich, demanded at the Cabinet meeting late Saturday that the Israeli army “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration.”

“In war you have to be brutal,” he was quoted as saying. “We need to deal a blow that hasn’t been seen in 50 years and take down Gaza.”

But the risk of Israeli civilians falling victim to relentless Israeli bombardment or languishing for years in Hamas captivity while Israel gets dragged into an open-ended campaign could also be politically ruinous for Netanyahu.

“This is a serious dilemma,” said veteran Israeli political commentator Ehud Ya’ari. “The fear is that if and when a ground operation kicks off, Hamas will threaten to execute hostages every hour, every two hours, and that will become a really heated debate.”

Israel’s tumultuous history has revealed the extreme sensitivity of public opinion when it comes to hostages — and therefore what a potent weapon abduction can be in a country where 18-year-olds are conscripted for military service, and the army prides itself on never abandoning its own.

“If we allow our people to be taken like this, we have no country, no government and no army,” said 58-year-old Tali Levy in the southern city of Ashdod near the Gaza border, who has several friends missing.

Families of Israelis missing after Saturday’s Hamas attack held a news conference Sunday evening that was televised live during prime time. Shaken relatives, some of them holding back tears or weeping, called on the government to bring home the captives.

In the past, Israeli society’s inability to tolerate its citizens being held captive has ignited massive public pressure campaigns, inducing governments to agree to disproportionate exchanges. This included the Schalit deal in 2011, and Israel’s release of 1,150 jailed Palestinians in exchange for three Israeli prisoners in 1985.

While military analysts remained divided on how Netanyahu would find a way out of his dilemma, the answer was painfully obvious to Israelis whose loved ones were taken hostage.

“I want them to do everything possible, to put their politics and the whole situation aside,” said Adva Adar, whose 85-year-old mother, Yaffa, was captured on video being hustled across the border into Gaza on a golf cart crammed with gunmen. Her voice cracked as she started to cry.

“She doesn’t have a lot of time left without her medicine and she is suffering very much,” she said.