We’ve been hearing a lot about the hostages being held by Hamas, and in particular the cry “Bring them home”, or in some cases, “Bring them home now!”. The expression in one or the other of those forms is all over news sites and social media in Israel.
While these calls have been building, they’re not new. Several weeks ago, I drove by a group of people set up on Kaplan Street in Tel-Aviv with signs to the same effect, and last week I saw – from the other side of highway 1 – a group of people marching along the highway toward Jerusalem to promote the same message.
In both instances, I wondered about the demonstrators’ intended audience. Hamas? Hamas wants those Israelis as leverage, and isn’t going to just release them because some other Israelis are vocal in expressing concern for the hostages. Fellow Israelis? None of us have forgotten about the hostages, and none of us are about to forget about them. Foreign governments? Unless their own citizens are among the hostages, foreign governments don’t care either – and it’s not a given that they even care much about their own citizens.
This leaves the obvious target: our own government here in Israel. Because that’s the body that in principle can be swayed to do something.
But then the question arises, what do the demonstrators want our government to do? To refrain from doing to Gaza what the Allies did to Dresden, the thinking being that bombing all of Gaza to nothingness would surely result in the death of those hostages who might remain alive? To keep the hostages in mind in prosecuting the war, and thus to take an approach that might result in rescue of at least some of the hostages? The government already decided not to take the Dresden approach, and instead to methodically take over Gaza, presumably, among other considerations, for exactly those reason, despite the high cost in soldier lives that that approach entails (60 some to date).
Which means that what the demonstrators want is for the government to do whatever it takes to get the hostages out now, i.e. to negotiate with Hamas and to give them whatever they want, and the sooner the better. Indeed, on the 10 AM news on November 19 on Reshet Bet, I heard a family member of one of the hostages say that part out loud: that the primary purpose of this war is to get the hostages back. And today, the rumor of an imminent terrorists-for-hostage swap is all over the news, including in TOI.
I disagree, strongly, for several reasons.
First, we’ve seen this negotiate-with-terrorists-and-trade-terrorists-for-hostage show before, and it’s never worked out well for Israel. There has been a string of these going back to the 1980’s, but the most recent example is the Gilad Shalit trade, in which over 1000 Hamas terrorists held by Israel were released in exchange for a single Israeli soldier. As is well-known, Shalit was taken prisoner by means of a tunnel, and among those terrorists released was Yihyeh Sinwar, the mastermind behind the October 7 massacres. In same way that giving a dog a bone for a particular behavior encourages more of that behavior, all the exchange accomplished was to encourage more tunnel-building and more terrorism, resulting in the largest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust and more hostage taking. If Israel was willing to pay over 1000 terrorists for one hostage in 2011, what will it be willing to pay for over 200 hostages today? What will Israel pay for 1000 hostages the next time?
Apart from encouraging repeat behavior in the future, the Shalit exchange, like all such exchanges, also served as a reward per se to Israel’s enemies, which is why such exchanges are morally repugnant. “Whoever sheds human blood, by human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed; for in the image of God was humankind made.” (Genesis 9:6). The terrorists shouldn’t even be left breathing. That they not only are kept alive, but are then set free, is a stain upon Israel and an insult to their victims and their victims’ families.
I assume that the groups demonstrating for hostage release consist primarily, but not exclusively, of relatives of the people who were kidnapped on October 7. I am not unsympathetic. I have a wife, parents-in-law, children and grandchildren here, four of whom are currently on active duty (with one in Gaza as I write). And I would be devastated if any of them were to be taken hostage by terrorists.
But I also look at the big picture. Trading terrorists for hostages today is a proven recipe for more attacks and more hostage-taking in the future. It would be the height of irresponsibility toward the millions of other Israelis, not to mention a smear to the memories of those who have died and slap in the face to those who survived the October 7 attacks (which includes rape victims), to free those terrorists to secure the release of some hostages today, when doing so will ensure more kidnappings and more attacks against those millions in the future.
Moreover, in the context of middle east, Israel needs to reestablish deterrence against further attacks. That doesn’t come from rewarding terrorists.
The first priority of this war has to be to make sure that Hamas ceases to exist, that there are no more weapons in Gaza and no more people in Gaza willing to use those weapons. Only that way will Israelis be able to return to a normal life, one in which they don’t have to run to bomb shelters because their neighbors to the south are raining rockets on them. Only that way will we be able to rebuild the communities along the Gaza border, and not have to worry about incendiary balloons destroying their crops, or about being shot at with guns while harvesting the crops that remain.
The second priority has to be to bring the terrorists to justice. That may occur with the killing of terrorists in the field during battle, or it may occur later, after the terrorists are captured, tried and, where appropriate, put to death, as was done to Eichmann. But it must happen.
Assuming there are still hostages alive – and to date, no proof has been offered that shows how many of the 240 or so are in fact still alive – should we try to get the hostages home if that can be accomplished while meeting the war’s two primary goals? Of course. But we should not try to bring them back at any price. Not at the price that Hamas wants.
The dead and survivors of October 7, and today’s hostages, are the price of Shalit deal twelve years ago. It wasn’t worth it. And trading for today’s hostages won’t be worth tomorrow’s Israeli dead or the price required of us for tomorrow’s hostages.