Why Israel agreed to the hostage deal, and how Hamas may intend to exploit it

The cabinet’s 35-3 vote shows ministers believed there was no better arrangement, and were persuaded the war will resume afterward; Yahya Sinwar may have other plans

By DAVID HOROVITZ    NOV 22/23, 3:55 pm

At the very start of Israel’s war against Hamas, an Israeli official told reporters that the IDF would strike Hamas everywhere in Gaza, even at the cost of possibly harming some of the 240 hostages being held there. If the IDF had information on a specific location where hostages were believed to be held, it would not target that location. But otherwise, its operations would not be limited by fears of inadvertently harming the hostages.

As the ground operation continued, however, some war cabinet members made clear that the entire approach to the fate of the hostages had gradually changed. This culminated on Saturday night with war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot privately telling families of the hostages that the release of their loved ones was the first priority of the war, even ahead of destroying Hamas, and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz stating at a press conference that Israel potentially has “decades” in which to destroy Hamas while the imperative to secure the release of the hostages was urgent.

That evolved mindset is at the heart of the agreement approved overnight Tuesday-Wednesday by the full Israeli cabinet: The war is being suspended for four days to enable the release of some 50 Israeli hostages, and the halt in the fighting could potentially be extended by an extra day for each group of 10 more Israeli hostages that Hamas can produce and release.

The fact that cabinet ministers voted 35-3 in favor of the deal with the terror group that seized and is holding most of the hostages, and that organized and led the slaughter of 1,200 people in southern Israel on October 7, underlines how potentially advantageous Israel’s political and security leadership believes the deal to be.

Obviously, Israel would have wanted an agreement to secure the return of all hostages. Ministers were told that there was no such deal to be made.

Obviously, too, Israel would have wanted the IDF to have itself located and rescued all, or at least more of the hostages — without necessitating any deal with the terrorists, any release of Palestinian security prisoners, any halt to the war. But that option, ministers were told, was not available either. Only one hostage has been extricated from Gaza to date — Orit Megidish, three weeks ago, in an extremely high-risk operation — even as the IDF has taken greater control of many of Hamas’s strongholds in the north of the strip. (The case of Nachshon Wachsman. a soldier abducted and held hostage by Hamas in 1994, underscores the difficulty of such rescues. In Wachsman’s case, Israel knew precisely where he was being held, in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, but a rescue attempt proved disastrous, with Wachsman killed by his captors as IDF commandos attempted to break in, and the lead officer in the rescue attempt killed as well.)

Crucial to the near-unanimous support — with only Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit ministers voting against — was the pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the war will resume once the deal is carried out, and that the war’s declared aims remain unchanged: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governance capabilities and the return of all the hostages.

Ministers were also told that the progress of the ground offensive thus far was central to Hamas’s agreement to the deal, and that resuming the ground offensive was crucial to the effort to secure the release of the rest of the hostages.

Given that even some of the coalition’s most hardline elements — notably including Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party — considered the deal to be well worth taking, the question must plainly be asked: Why did Hamas agree to it, even offer it?

Its strategic goal in mounting the October 7 slaughter was to pursue its raison d’etre — killing Jews and ultimately destroying the State of Israel. But it also took hostages in order to secure the release of its terrorists from Israel’s jails. In a 2011 deal, it leveraged its 2006 kidnapping from within Israel of a single captive, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, to secure the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners, some 280 of whom were serving life terms. And yet here, now, it has agreed to release 50 Israelis in return for some 150 Palestinian women and youths, none of whom has been convicted of murder.

This would suggest a Hamas under pressure for a deal. But if so, that is hard to square with reports that Yahya Sinwar, the Gaza Hamas chief who orchestrated the slaughter and is said to have determined the terms of the deal, is euphoric over the “success” of October 7. Presumably, in any case, Sinwar believes he is outsmarting Israel over the deal’s terms and implementation.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza, gestures during a rally in Beit Lahiya on May 30, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/ Flash90)

Many Israeli commentators expect that Sinwar will seek to use the pause to reorganize his terrorist-army — most of which remains intact even though much of its infrastructure in northern Gaza is destroyed or located in areas under IDF control. They suggest that he may also use the pause to emerge from wherever he is hiding, for a “victory picture” to revitalize his army and demoralize Israel.

Some commentators also assess that he is eager to prevent the imminent extension of Israel’s ground offensive into southern Gaza, and especially Khan Younis, where he, other Hamas leaders, and many of the hostages are believed by some to be located.

Thus, they speculate, Sinwar will try to stretch out the implementation of this deal, including by asking for a longer halt to ostensibly track down further hostages, potentially pitting families of those hostages against the government, while attempting to gradually bolster international pressure on Israel to abort the ground offensive altogether.

Tamir Heyman, a former IDF intelligence chief, said Tuesday he believes international pressure on Israel, most relevantly from the US, will actually ease as a consequence of the halt in fighting — with more humanitarian aid going into Gaza — and also that the pause can be utilized by the IDF, too, to refresh and reorganize its forces.

The semantics surrounding the accord are important in this context. The deal is being widely reported as providing for a “ceasefire” — and a ceasefire is generally understood to represent a halt in fighting intended to accommodate discussions on ultimately ending the fighting. Israel’s political leaders, and the government decision on the deal (Hebrew link), by contrast, refer to a “pause” in the campaign.

Asked about the deal, the pause in fighting it involves, and the potential impact of that pause on restarting the war, IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari said such agreements were the preserve of the political echelon, and was adamant that the IDF would be able to pursue and achieve the war’s stated objectives.

For his part, Netanyahu reportedly told ministers on Tuesday night that the expansion of  the IDF’s ground offensive into Khan Younis was “not a matter of whether but of when.”

November 23, 2023 | 10 Comments »

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  1. @EvRe1

    What is there not to understand?

    At best, Israel (the government/politicians/officials) grits its teeth, so to speak, and follows the orders of the US.

    At worst, Israel is in cahoots with the US and is working together with it toward the TSFS.

    There is a trend among Israelis to obtain foreign citizenship not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren, and to me it felt kind of disloyal.

    However, these people were right!

    The lives of the dual citizens are being treated as much more precious and a foreign citizenship (especially an American one) can be a lifesaver which, to my mind works as a kind of psychological warfare against the Jewish state.

    BTW, the number of the terrorists exchanged in return for the 50 hostages may be as many as 300, and is likely to increase (I think).

  2. d Reuveni &Adam

    This is nonsense. Israel need NOT wait for Hamas to start hostilities. I don’t knowhow you decided THAT.

    As soon as the hostage exchange is over, look to Israel to carry on exactly where it stopped, as well as having prepared further during the break

  3. Avigail Idan, 3-year-old hostage singled out by Biden, expected to be released
    Idan, who holds American citizenship, has become a symbol of sorts for the nearly 40 children believed to be held captive by Hamas after US President Joe Biden discussed her plight with Qatar’s Emir.

    https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-774601?utm_source=ActiveCampaign&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Netanyahu%3A+I+told+the+Mossad+to+act+against+Hamas&utm_campaign=November+23%2C+2023

    Now you know why.

  4. @Adam: you are 100% right. Pausing for 4 days means that we need to depend on Hamas to restart the fighting. They will probably attack from Lebanon in the hopes that they can rejoin from Gaza when the dumb Israeli generals are looking the other way. Netanyahu’s promises to continue pursuing Hamas will be forgotten as soon as he is convinced or convicted to retire, and then we are left with US indoctrinated generals or religious leaders with self-centered interests as seen so far. This war is lost.

  5. A terrible betrayal. Assures that Hamas will remain in control of Gaza. The Israelis are pathetic simps for acquiescing in the iden -Blinkien plan.

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  6. What Natanyahu and his old military leadership – Gantz, Galant, Halevi, Eizenkot, etc. did is awful. It’s a nightmare. How many IDF soldiers will be killed as a result? 150-300 palestinian “peaceful women” for only 50 Israelis? What about the others? The old story, total humiliation and loss. Same generals, who destroyed the army and let Oct. 7 massacre happen, are now doing this again. Terrible…

  7. A terrible betrayal. Israel will eventually “suspend” the war and Hamas will continue to rule Gaza. The war will prove to be just another instance of “lawn mowing,”

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  8. What Natanyahu and his old military leadership – Gantz, Galant, Halevi, Eizenkot, etc. did is awful. It’s a nightmare. How many IDF soldiers will be killed as a result? 150 palestinian “peaceful women” for only 50 Israelis? What about the others? The old story, total humiliation and loss. Same generals who , who destroyed the army and let Oct. 7 massacre happen, are now doing this again. Terrible…

  9. Still unclear: “Obviously, Israel would have wanted an agreement to secure the return of all hostages. Ministers were told that there was no such deal to be made.. ” Who told them there was no such deal to be made?

    “Obviously, too, Israel would have wanted the IDF to have itself located and rescued all, or at least more of the hostages — without necessitating any deal with the terrorists, any release of Palestinian security prisoners, any halt to the war. But that option, ministers were told, was not available either” Who told them that?

    It would appear that those who are saying there was no other way to get the hostages back safely would be either US agents or Hamas agents/the Qataris.

    Neither the US nor the Qataris can be trusted, but somehow the government trusted them.

    While extricating hostages is extremely difficult, if Israel completes its mission in Gaza, essentially destroying all the places Hamas wants to hide, so that their only hope of survival is to give up the hostages, in that situation where Israel is controlling all the variables, I think it would not be as dangerous, compared with when the variables are controlled by Hamas as in their attempt to extricate Nachson Wachsman.

    It is unclear who is controlling whom in the hostage discussion that took place. Is Israel in control or are the terrorists in control of the deal?

    If Israel is in control of the deal, and wanted the deal they must have believed the deal would be advantageous to Israel, more advantageous than proceeding without the deal. Perhaps there is more information the public is not privy to, that would explain their thinking. If the terrorists are in control then the deal signals Israeli weakness.

    What is interesting is that all accounts of the fighting in Gaza so far indicate that Israel is indeed winning this war, and carefully identifying the hiding places and tunnels, the hospitals and the means the terrorists used to hide their weaponry in hospital supply rooms, etc. However, I found out that the Hamas terrorists simply put on hospital uniforms and melted into the hospital. I do not know if this is a true account or an unverified fact.

    But so far Israel is having success and I am not surprised that Hamas wants to make a deal. I actually think it is a sign that Hamas is getting nervous. If Hamas felt confident they could destroy the IDF, they wouldn’t be making any deals.

    Hamas are getting women who are in Israeli prisons who are not murderers, but these women are criminals and it is unclear what they will do once released.

    I am glad that Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to destroy Hamas.