One morning last week, I awoke to the sound of my baby cooing. Before retrieving him from his crib, I reached for my phone to get the headlines of what transpired in the Israel-Hamas war while I was sleeping. The first headline read, “Gazan Mother’s 3 Children Killed in Strip Blast.” As shock seared through me, I pictured my life being shattered in an instant as my own three precious children’s lives evaporated.
From my home in Toronto, nearly ten thousand kilometres from the gunfire and bombing, I watch these events unfold. I often feel overcome with feelings of horror and helplessness, and understand why so many well-intentioned citizens around the world are advocating for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid for Gazans. The outrage expressed by the international community reminds me of how deeply we care about the suffering of innocents, and how desperately we want this conflict to come to an end. And yet, I am troubled by the unevenness between the fierce cries pleading for a ceasefire and increased aid as compared to the muffled whispers calling for the release of the approximately 240 hostages held by Hamas. Isn’t a dual humanitarian response called for in this situation? Isn’t advocacy for both the release of the hostages and the alleviation of the suffering of innocent Gazans warranted?
In recent weeks, the New York Times has published several powerful Opinion pieces reminding us that the hostages are becoming a footnote in the narrative of the unfolding Israel-Hamas war. Moshe Emilio Lavi, a former captain of the Israel Defense Forces whose brother-in-law is a hostage, wrote a piece entitled, “The Hostages Are Not a Diversion From This War. They’re at the Heart of It.” Alana Zeitchik, a media professional living in Brooklyn wrote, “Six Members of My Family Are Hostages in Gaza. Does Anyone Care?” And Rachel Goldberg, an Israeli mother whose son was taken captive, wrote, “I Hope Someone Somewhere is Being Kind to My Boy.”
How do I make sense of the relatively little global outrage in response to the seizing and imprisonment of 240 human beings by terrorists? Where are the cries from ordinary citizens around the globe urging their governments to pressure Hamas to release the hostages? I find myself wondering if the world thinks the hostages are a lost cause. This past week, we learned that two of the hostages, 19-year-old Corporal Noa Marciano and 65-year-old Yehudit Weiss, are dead. Should we presume this is true of the others as well? Headlines such as, “Biden Hopeful for Hostage Deal” and “Israel and Hamas Near Deal to Free Dozens of Hostages” raise my hopes that at least some of the hostages will be released. Then days pass with no signs of them being set free. Are members of the international community failing to advocate for their release because they think it is so unlikely they are still alive? Are people so deeply aware of the inhumanity of their captors that advocating for them feels futile? Maybe humanitarian impulses directed toward urging governments to provide financial aid feel more likely to effect change.
I have also considered that people may be limited by their inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation. Maybe it is impossible to grasp the infernal reality of what the hostages are enduring. Sadly, these individuals are not the first to be kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists. We have heard similar stories from writers such as Edith Blais, Amanda Lindhout, Stephen McGown, and Robert Fowler who have chronicled their harrowing accounts of being taken captive by terrorists. Are global citizens turning a blind eye to the plight of the hostages in Gaza as a form of self-protection? Is there an unwillingness to contemplate what the estimated 40 children in Hamas captivity are experiencing? Or what has transpired to the estimated 24 Thai agricultural workers who were taken? One of them, Nutthawaree Munkan, is a 35-year-old who is believed to have given birth while in captivity. Her family has shared that it does not have the means to advocate for her. Who is advocating on her behalf?
A few people I know have suggested that the lack of outrage expressed by individuals who think of themselves as activists subtly implies that Israel got what it deserved. For how many people is this sinister possibility true?
Along with my dismay at the quietude of ordinary citizens, I am especially troubled by the near silence of the United Nations (UN) on this issue. On November 15, more than five weeks after Hamas’ attack on Israel, the UN revealed its 10-point plan to “rein in the carnage” in Gaza. Though the UN officially “calls for” the release of the hostages, the organization has not taken meaningful action toward securing their release, nor has it encouraged world leaders to use their influence to try do so. The UN’s Charter describes its commitment to human rights. Has the UN been a vocal proponent of having the International Committee of the Red Cross check the status of, or provide medical treatment to the hostages? Has it drawn the world’s attention to the children who have been abducted by Hamas? What has it done to try and free Nutthawaree Munkan? On November 19, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, reiterated his call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. At the same time, he ought to have called for the immediate release of the hostages. He didn’t. How can the UN, whose stated aim is the pursuit of humanitarian values, be neglecting the most vulnerable?
I contend that the UN’s failure to place hostage release at the forefront of international conscience enables other international leaders to evade their responsibility to do so as well. Articles such as “Justin Trudeau Struggles to Walk a Very Fine Line on the Israel-Hamas War” describe the challenges the Canadian Prime Minister is facing in taking a principled position on the conflict. Canada has responded to the crisis by providing funding for humanitarian assistance, primarily for Gazans. Along with this, the Canadian government ought to be exerting greater efforts to secure the release of the hostages, which includes one Canadian, Judith Weinstein Haggai.
The Israel-Hamas war is replete with discordant narratives. Individuals committed to humanitarian principles ought to be able to align around the moral imperative to advocate for the release of the hostages. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization – by Canada, the United States, Australia, the European Union, Japan, and Paraguay. Members of Hamas have shown their brutality to the world. They have been holding approximately 240 people captive for over a month. A newborn baby may now be among them. I maintain that everyone whose heart breaks – as it should – when they see images of innocent Gazans suffering, should also feel brokenhearted by the plight of the hostages. A fulsome humanitarian response necessitates advocating for their release.