Ronald Scheinberg

Hostage-Taking Norms

On Saturday, December 16, 2023, the Associated Press published an article by Laurie Kellman: Women and children first? Experts say that in most crises, it’s more like everyone for themselves. The article generally spoke of the evolution of the adage “women and children first” in the face of crisis situations. The article took an odd turn by discussing how this was being applied in the Hamas-taking hostage situation, where, in fact, women and children were the first of the Israeli hostages bargained for release. Let me quote a paragraph from that article:

“On the Israel-Hamas prisoners-for-hostages deal, the negotiators agreed that mothers and children should not be separated. Hamas, which broke hostage-taking norms by abducting women and children, were more open to their release because they were getting in the way. Not all women were released, however: Some are in the army, and some have died.”

Where to begin?

Firstly, this paragraph asserts that negotiators (presumably Hamas and Israeli representatives) agreed not to separate mothers and children. Really? There were numerous instances where Hamas did, in fact, separate mothers from their children. Hamas was unwilling (no surprise there) to even uphold this basic human decency.

Secondly, this article tells us that Hamas failed to abide by “hostage-taking norms” by abducting women and children. Where, pray tell, can we find these norms of hostage-taking? Is there a hostage-taking handbook or code? The taking of civilian hostages – whether men, women, children or babies – is contrary to all manner of international law, and is abhorrent behavior. There are no “norms” of hostage-taking. To suggest otherwise is to imply that there is “good” hostage-taking (in compliance with the “norm”) and “bad” hostage-taking.

Thirdly, this article asserts that Hamas was more open to the release of women and children because they were “getting in the way”. Getting in the way of what? Terror activities? How does the author have any idea of why Hamas chose women and children to be the first to be released? I would suggest that Hamas chose women and children to be released simply because the release of women and children would garner this terrorist organization plaudits for acting in a sympathetic manner.

Finally, the article’s author stated that “Not all women were released, however: Some are in the army, and some have died”. Some have indeed died, at the hands of Hamas. What is more, there are reports that Hamas would not allow to be released those women who were raped and sexually abused by Hamas, since they could bear witness to these atrocities perpetrated against them.

The need for the Israeli government to have to choose which hostages to redeem from captivity is a terrible Sophie’s choice. Articles like this one do not shed any light on this dire situation and, in fact, trivializes it by attempting to normalize the crime of hostage-taking.

About the Author
Brown University, BA 1980 Harvard Law School, JD, 1983 Commercial Aircraft Finance Lawyer Author: The Commercial Aircraft Finance Handbook (2nd ed., 2019)
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