On October 7, 2023, the citizens of Israel’s communities on the border with Gaza were failed by the state, which neglected its duty to protect them and failed to adequately respond once the event came to light.
In light of that failure, the state has a legal responsibility to bring the hostages, at least the civilians among them, safely home.
The calls for recognizing Israel’s right to self-defense as a sovereign nation, especially in the wake of a shocking terrorist attack, are accompanied by a valid concern that Israel might be required to make significant concessions for the release of the abductees. Under these circumstances, the state and its citizens cannot bear such a burden, particularly in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist incident, a type of tragedy not witnessed since the country’s establishment.
However, two comments should be made here.
First, our duty to return the abductees home, at least the civilians among them, is not only a moral duty, but a legal responsibility.
Regardless of the debate that is taking place regarding prisoner exchange deals, including the moral dilemmas involved, as Israel has seen quite a few times in the past, this is irrelevant to the horrific terrorist attack that the country experienced on October 7, 2023. When it comes to the imperative of safely returning the abductees to their families, there should be no room for hesitation or uncertainty.
The abduction of civilians by a terrorist organization, right within the nation’s own sovereign territory, and on such a large scale, is utterly intolerable. It constitutes nothing short of a national disaster. The foundational social contract between the state and its citizens hinges on the state’s obligation to ensure both national and personal security. In this case, the state flagrantly breached this contract with its own people.
Given these circumstances, the state has no alternative but to return the abductees home safely. It is imperative for the state to employ all available means to achieve this goal, and this effort should be an integral part of Israel’s overarching self-defense strategy initiated in response to the terrorist attack by Hamas. This mission represents the highest-level state interest, forming a crucial pillar of national security, particularly in bolstering the internal cohesion and societal resilience of the state.
Second, the release of the abductees, at least the civilians among them, must be done unconditionally.
I acknowledge that it is unrealistic to expect a terrorist organization to act on moral principles, especially those stipulated by international law and the Islamic religious values it ostensibly upholds (despite being beyond far from them).
However, the State of Israel has a diverse range of diplomatic resources that it can leverage to return the civilian abductees home unconditionally. This is especially true now when the state benefits from substantial international support, legitimacy and recognition, with regard to its inherent right to self-defense in response to the terrorist attack that targeted it.
Now is the time to place our trust in the Abraham Accords. It is incumbent upon the Arab and Muslim nations that have signed peace agreements with Israel to come together on this issue. It should be a matter of paramount concern for these countries, a shared interest that transcends Israel’s individual interest. This can be manifested on two planes.
On the level of official diplomacy, the Gulf countries, especially those who have signed peace agreements with Israel, have unique ties, both economic and tribal. These elements are also valid in their relationship with Qatar, which, as we know, has a particular affinity for Hamas.
Israel must leverage this legitimacy vis-à-vis the Gulf countries that have signed peace agreements with it, but also vis-à-vis the US and other European countries. These countries can exert the necessary pressure on Qatar, so that it will exert the necessary pressure on Hamas to release the abductees – pressure that Hamas cannot withstand, certainly not during a large-scale and long-term war.
On the unofficial level, Saudi Arabia can play a critical role right now. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a leading and prominent leadership position in the Arab world. This status is getting stronger in light of its rapprochement in recent years with the Western countries, the US in the first place, and Israel as well, to the point of advancing talks to sign a historic peace agreement.
The role of Saudi Arabia may be even more acute as it is also a Muslim country, and perhaps the leader of the Muslim world, seeking to renounce terrorism, all the more terrorism with ISIS characteristics, and even more so seeking to stand on the same world stage, alongside Israel, against Shia Islam – as represented by Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
The obligation to return the abductees home safely, particularly the civilian ones, is not only a moral obligation of the state towards its citizens but also, above all, a legal obligation derived from the failure of the state to protect its citizens. Israel must employ its extensive array of diplomatic instruments to guarantee the unconditional release of the abductees.