The Hostage-for-Prisoner Exchange: What Happens Next? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- November 27, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Hamas is releasing Israeli civilian hostages. Israel, in response, is releasing three times as many Palestinians--women and minors. What do the two sides expect will happen when the exchanges are complete?

A. The differences of approach to the current interlude in the war are reflected in terminology. For Israel this is a pause in the fighting--a term that implies that the fighting will be resumed. Unless all of the Gaza Strip is conquered and Hamas dismantled, the war will be a failure. It will be destined to be repeated in the future. Meantime, Israelis will live in constant fear of attack.

In contrast, for Hamas this is a ceasefire. After seven weeks of pounding by the IDF, Hamas wants to render the ceasefire permanent in order to consolidate its remaining assets: pockets of territory in the northern Strip and the entire southern half, alongside its considerable surviving terror army in the south. Hamas appears to be counting on international humanitarian pressure on Israel to desist, sparked by images of widespread death, suffering and destruction on TV screens everywhere.

Then too, the hostage release had barely begun on Saturday when Hamas started to exploit a variety of excuses for slowing it, meaning extending it. As long as it can dangle the possibility of releasing more hostage women and children and perhaps older men as well, Hamas hopes to extend the pause in fighting during which it can regroup and recruit additional international pressure on Israel to render the pause permanent.

Q. And the rest of the world: what does it now expect?

A. In the rest of the world there are, on the one hand, supportive critics and silent boosters of Israel and, on the other, a variety of ideological supporters of Hamas or supporters by omission.

The camp of supportive critics is led by the United States and the democratic West. US President Biden continues to support Israeli destruction of Hamas while increasingly insisting that tactics be adopted that reduce civilian losses. Yet no one seems able to explain to Israel what alternative tactics are available for dealing with a barbaric terrorist army dug in among and below masses of civilian ‘human shields’.

The default suggestion appears to be for Israel to limit the scope and urgency of its offensive, thereby reducing civilian casualties but turning the fight into a war of attrition. Such a strategy is not very successful against terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah. It merely postpones the next mass terror attack. As we witnessed on October 7, this can be far worse.

Israel’s relatively silent boosters are leaders of pro-western Arab countries. They have a great deal to lose if militant Islam triumphs by surviving this war. But they are aware of considerable support for Hamas by their ‘street’, public opinion. Those that have relations with Israel have reduced but not severed them. They may be passing quiet messages of support to Israel’s government and to the IDF; their security ties with Israel remain strong. If they can help without being seen to collaborate--e.g., Egypt, regarding hostage repatriation--they do so willingly.

In sharp contrast, there are many throughout the world who are so distressed by the Gaza civilian death toll that they blame Israel for crimes against humanity and insist it end its offensive. They either lionize Hamas (Russia, Iran, factions on certain US college campuses) or, at a minimum, ignore both what Hamas did on October 7 and what it will continue to do unless destroyed and dismantled. Their condemnations of the war usually begin and end with Israeli bombings; not a word about the events of October 7.

This global bloc, incidentally, includes a variety of professional and amateur ‘peacemakers’ who insist on treating Israel and Hamas as politically equal antagonists. They conveniently ignore the fact that one is a sovereign country that was brutally attacked on October 7 while the other is a barbaric terrorist entity that preaches virulent anti-Semitism and, along with its Iran-led allies, advocates Israel’s destruction.

Q. Still, the IDF confronts multiple combat arenas: southern Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iranian-sponsored militias in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen. The war is taking an economic toll in Israel and a toll in Israel’s image internationally. What are Israel’s options for proceeding?

A. One option that Israel’s political leadership and the IDF reject completely is to cease fighting altogether. Historically, settling into a ‘muddling along’ frame of mind is the enemy of any Israeli military campaign. The Israeli public, which has seen what Hamas Islamists are capable of doing to Israeli civilians--every hostage release is a new reminder--offers near unanimous support for decimating Hamas throughout the Strip. How to do this with fewer Palestinian civilian losses is the challenge the IDF is working on during the current pause.

But there are additional options for fighting this war. They could prove attractive to the extent that international pressure inhibits proceeding in the southern Strip with the same degree of force the IDF employed in the northern Strip. Indeed, if the current pause in fighting extends to weeks due to a Hamas-engineered trickle of Israeli abductees being repatriated, the IDF could turn to these options without prejudice to an eventual renewed offensive in the southern Strip.

A particularly pressing option is to focus on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, a less crowded arena than the Gaza Strip, meaning one where fewer humanitarian concerns are likely to arise. Back on October 7 when the fighting began, Defense Minister Yoav Galant and senior IDF officers advocated attacking to eliminate Hezbollah--an Islamist terrorist army that like Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction--simultaneously with counterattacking in Gaza.

A Hezbollah option could now be back on the agenda. Recent reports that Russia, via the Wagner mercenary group, may soon be supplying advanced SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, thereby threatening the Israel Air Force’s control of the skies over Lebanon, could conceivably hasten an Israeli decision, supported by the US.

Then too, the 60,000 or so Israelis evacuated from homes near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon are potentially just as capable of pressuring the Netanyahu government to strike decisively at the Islamists attacking their villages as are the Gaza periphery evacuees. Indeed, the latter are primarily kibbutzniks identified with left-center political parties that are not represented in this government, which is hardly devoid of right-religious political and entitlement considerations even during wartime.

Another option could be to prosecute the war elsewhere against the Iran-led Axis of Resistance, for instance against the Houthis of northern Yemen who have been attacking Eilat with missiles and drones and, most recently, attacking Israeli-owned ships. The Houthis now loom as a threat to Israeli shipping and commerce with Asia.

Q. Indeed, Hezbollah, Iran and additional Islamist militias like the Houthis are watching closely how Israel fights this war . . .

A. Yediot Aharonot military commentator Yossi Yehoshua put it bluntly: “All the enemies are following what is happening here. To frame the issue cautiously, preferring a ceasefire over continuing the fighting because of the need to repatriate a handful of hostages does not improve our deterrence”. Put differently, Israel’s readiness to pause the war out of concern for the welfare of every Israeli hostage does not necessarily impress our Islamist enemies.

Q. Some speculate and hope that all or nearly all abducted Israeli women and children held by Hamas, up to around 75 in number, as well as non-Israelis (e.g., Russian and Thai citizens) will be repatriated in the current round. That leaves mainly Israeli men, including soldiers, in captivity in Gaza. If this is the case, will hostage-release negotiations via Qatar continue?

A. Not necessarily. A recent poll by the liberal Israel Democracy Institute found that nearly 50 percent of Israelis oppose even the current hostage deal. Every anti-Israel welcome celebration in the West Bank for released Palestinian women and youth--at a rate of three Palestinian female and under-age Palestinians for every Israeli woman and child hostage--strengthens this sector of right-wing Israeli opinion, which is heavily represented in the Netanyahu government. Every Israeli is today aware that Gazan Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar, a brutal Islamist leader, spent more than 20 years in Israeli prison before being released in a notorious exchange of more than 1,000 terrorists for a single soldier.

Indeed if, as in the past, Israel’s release of terrorists as a means of buying the freedom of Israeli hostages sparks heightened Palestinian violence, then the only way to gain the release of more than 100 Israeli men held by Hamas will be to fight the war down to the last Hamas underground hideout.

Another, apolitical reason to cease negotiating and press ahead with total reoccupation of the Strip could sometime soon be the need to confront Hamas’s admission that it does not hold all the remaining hostages in the Gaza Strip. Some are in the hands of Palestinian Islamic Jihad or even tribal clans. A few have apparently been murdered, or have simply disappeared.

Then too, conceivably IDF losses (currently, 60 killed in action) will increase radically in the southern Strip. International and/or Israeli-public pressure to find another approach to neutralizing Hamas could grow. In this contingency, it is precisely the two fascist-Kahanist parties of the far right in the Netanyahu government that will threaten to bring it down if it does not pursue the fight to the finish, regardless of loss of life and international condemnation.

Never mind that these parties’ leaders never or barely served in the IDF and are bereft of strategic know-how. They are busy preaching the death penalty for all Palestinian terrorists and belittling the secular kibbutzniks held by Hamas. They are fully exploiting this war to whip up ultra-militant support among the public, including in the IDF.

Q. Finally, how would you summarize the war seven weeks in, now that it is paused, from the Israeli and Hamas standpoints?

A. Israel is on the right track yet has a long way to go toward decisive victory. It is proceeding methodically, minimizing its losses. Rocket attacks from Gaza, especially aimed at heavily populated areas in Israel, have been radically reduced. Hezbollah in Lebanon is still on the agenda. So is the southern Gaza Strip.

US-led international support, including arms supply, is critical.

The humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, including mounting civilian losses, is Israel’s Achille’s heel.

As for Hamas, it has failed to generate an all-out Islamist war against Israel. Its losses are huge, yet its command structure has survived. It still has a territorial base in the southern 60 percent of the Strip. It still enjoys popular support among Palestinians and Arabs elsewhere.

Any normal country that loses 40 percent of its territory (the northern Strip), 20-30 percent of its armed forces (killed and wounded, by Israel’s count), and a large portion of its livable dwellings, would be considered defeated. But not the Hamas terrorist state of Gaza.

This is not over.