Q&A on the Hostage Issue
Q: Is there a possible deal to be made with Hamas that could bring all of the hostages home – alive and those already dead?
A: Yes. This is the deal:
1. An end to the war
2. Israeli withdrawal to the international border
3. All of the hostages in exchange for all of the Palestinian prisoners
Q: Isn’t the Hamas demand to first end the war, withdraw all Israeli forces from Gaza and only then begin negotiations on the Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners?
A: Yes, that is what they are currently demanding. I am putting out a proposal that eliminates the time wasted and while at this time is not acceptable to Israel, once Hamas indicates that it would be acceptable to them, there is a chance of increased public pressure in Israel to made this deal possible. The idea is that the all for all deal is agreed on together with the Israeli agreement to end the war and to redeploy its forces on the international border.
Q: How would it work?
A: Israel will propose the above deal to Qatar and Egypt. Negotiations with Hamas would be on the terms and places of release of the Palestinian prisoners. Israel will demand that the release of hostages and prisoners be done in one batch – all for all at once. It could take a whole day or even several days, but it should not be stretched over a longer period of time. Israel should insist that it be done quickly.
Q: What other technical details are important in the deal?
A: Israel and Hamas would cease fire at an agreed date and time. Israeli withdrawal of forces would not happen until the ceasefire is in place and is holding. Israel will begin to withdraw its forces from Gaza to the international border. While that is happening, Hamas will provide Egypt and Qatar with a list of all of the hostages – dead and alive – all of them. Israel will provide Egypt and Qatar with a list of all of the prisoners. When the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza is completed, the exchange of prisoners and hostages will begin.
Q: Why would Sinwar agree to such a deal, aren’t the hostages his life insurance policy?
A: There are a lot of so-called experts sitting on the panels on Israel’s television stations all claiming to know exactly what Sinwar thinks and what he wants. The truth is that none of them know for sure. Everyone is basically guessing (including me) based on our own assumptions of who he is and how he thinks. It is not even 100% clear that the decision making is solely in his hands, although it seems very likely that he and Mohammed Deif have the final word. It is also fair to assume that Sinwar and the Hamas military command have surrounded themselves with hostages to serve as human shields, but we do not know that for sure.
Q: But if there is a deal, would they really free all of the hostages dead and alive or would they hold onto some as a kind of insurance policy?
A: Again, we have no way to know for sure. That will be the role of the mediators – the Egyptians and the Qataris and the International Red Cross. The exchange itself can be done in stages during the day or days designated and this would be monitored in real time by everyone involved. Prisoners would be released by Israel on an agreed to basis and schedule and would be staged in a way to increase the chances of complete implementation of the deal. For instance, the most valued prisoners by Hamas would be released last.
Q: What is Sinwar’s priority – his personal survival and the survival of the Hamas control of Gaza or the freeing of Palestinian prisoners?
A: We don’t know for sure. My assessment is as follows: Sinwar was the most important Hamas prisoner released in the Schalit deal in 2011, even though from the Israeli point of view, he was not that important, because he was imprisoned for killing Palestinian collaborators and not for killing Israeli Jews. Within Hamas, Sinwar was considered to be the most important prisoner. When he was freed and left many of his comrades behind in prison, he took an oath that he would free all of the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. He said that he would empty the Israeli prisons. He has repeated that promise in every important speech that he has made over the past 12 years. I have been negotiating with him, through Ghazi Hamad, since 2014, first for the bodies of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin and the for the release of Avera Mengisto and Hisham A-Sayed. From my experience with him, the only thing that interested him and the only thing that he was willing to discuss was the release of prisoners – especially those serving life sentences for killing Israelis. Israel offered money, electricity, water, jobs and more. Israel was willing to release several hundred prisoners, but not one who killed Israelis. For years the talks were deadlocked. Sinwar was uncompromising on this issue, and so was Israel. My analysis of Sinwar is that the keeping of his promise to release all Palestinian prisoners is his life’s mission – a holy mission as far as he is concerned. In my assessment, this is more important to him than his own life. He is prepared to die but he is not prepared to give up on the release of prisoners. Clearly, most people in the Israeli military-security establishment do not agree with me.
Q: If Sinwar’s survival is more important to him than the prisoners, can a deal be made?
A: From the Israeli point of view, the war cannot end with Sinwar alive and still in control of Gaza. That is what I understand from the Israeli officials. My assessment is that Sinwar believes that he will be alive at the end of the war, he will exit the tunnels and the bunkers and still be the leader of Hamas in Gaza. I hear from other Hamas spokespeople that they are convinced of their victory and of Israel’s defeat. Hamas believes that international pressure on Israel will bring about an end to the war before Israel has accomplished its war goals. Furthermore, they believe that the more Israel hits them and destroys Gaza, the more support Hamas will have in Palestine and in the neighboring Arab and Muslim countries. But it is also important to know that Sinwar has said, in his own words, that he knows he will die a shaheed (martyr) and it is important for him to die fighting Israel. This is why there has never been and there will never be deterrence against a force like Hamas. For them death as a martyr is the entrance to paradise, which is eternal. Life on earth is short and dying as a martyr for Palestine, for Allah, for Al Aqsa is the most important mission in life – it is the essence of life. People who view life in this way, the sanctification of death for a holy cause cannot be deterred and are not afraid of dying.
Q: Wouldn’t giving in to Hamas’ demands to end the war, withdraw from Gaza and release about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners be a victory for Hamas and isn’t that dangerous?
A: Yes, it would be a clear victory for Hamas. And a victory for Hamas is dangerous for Israel, for Palestine and even for Jordan and maybe for Egypt. Therefore, it must be a very short-lived victory. Bringing the hostages home is a victory for Israel, there is no victory for Israel if the hostages are not brought home. Ending the war and withdrawing from Gaza does not eliminate the possibility of Israel renewing the war the day after the hostages are returned. Certainly, it is easier to continue the war while it is ongoing and the Israeli army is in Gaza. Redeployment out of Gaza to the international border and then renewing the war is complicated and possibly can demoralize the army, the government and the country to remobilize the support and the energy need to complete the mission. But the motivation to complete the task of ensuring that Hamas will not continue to rule Gaza and will not have the military capabilities of ever attacking Israel again must be achieved. A victory for Hamas is existential for Israel, and therefore, Israel will be able to renew the war effort after the hostage deal is complete.
Q: Isn’t releasing so many Palestinian prisoners dangerous for Israel?
A: Yes, it is. Of the estimated 10,000 prisoners (more than 5,000 arrested in the West Bank since the beginning of the war) there are 559 prisoners convicted of murdering Israelis and serving life-sentences. There are also about 130 terrorists who were captured inside of Israel after October 7 and hundreds of Hamas and Jihad fighters have been captured inside of Gaza and brought into Israel since the beginning of the war. There is nothing that precludes the possibility of rearresting the released prisoners who continue to endanger Israel. There is nothing that prevents Israel from taking severe measures against any released prisoner that engages into terrorism action against Israel. That is why I propose the all of the released prisoners should be released to the West Bank where Israel has to ability to monitor and to rearrest any of the released prisoners that are dangerous to Israel. In the Schalit deal, all released prisoners were obligated to sign an undertaking that they would not return to terrorist activities. No one took that paper very seriously, but it did enable Israel to rearrest about 70 of those released prisoners in 2014. The same could be done now. The many employees of the Israeli Prison Authority along with the Shin Bet and the Israel Police can be deployed to monitor all of the released prisoners because so many of the prisons would be vacated and their jobs redundant.
Q: Wouldn’t rearresting the prisoners be a breach of the agreement between Israel and Hamas?
A: Yes, it would be a breach of the agreement, but so what? This is not a contract or agreement which has any validity in international law or common international relations. We have two parties, the State of Israel and Hamas that have absolutely no trust between them and no reason to trust each other. Why should we expect such an agreement to be unbreachable?
Q: Wouldn’t Hamas demand some form of guarantee that Israel would not renew the war after the deal is done and the hostages and prisoners are released?
A: Yes, but who would give such guarantees and why would Israel respect them? Who exactly would provide guarantees to Hamas that Israel would not renew the war? Egypt? Qatar? The US? Iran?? Why would Egypt provide such guarantees when Egypt also perceives Hamas as an enemy? And if they did, they would surely know that Israel cannot allow Hamas to continue to control Gaza and to threaten Israel. Such a situation is a danger to Egypt as well. The US would be in no position to provide guarantees to Hamas who is considered by the US to be a terrorist organization. Qatar is a country which has supported Hamas for years and hosts its leadership and has no diplomatic relations with Israel. So, I think we can remove the worries about guarantees.
I am more than willing to answer other questions that the readers of this post have. If you have questions, please post them and I will try to answer.