Harold Behr

The cruelty and cunning of hostage-taking

The longer Hamas holds onto the captives, the deeper the divisions within Israel grow and the less the world cares about their plight
Protesters rally, calling for immediate elections and a deal to return the hostages held in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2024. (Pro-Democracy Protest Movement/ Aviv Atlas)
Protesters rally, calling for immediate elections and a deal to return the hostages held in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2024. (Pro-Democracy Protest Movement/ Aviv Atlas)

The seizure by Hamas of non-combatants with the intention of holding them until they can be exchanged for some advantage over their declared enemy is not only an act of immense cruelty but a cunning tactic. With every day that passes, the prospect of the hostages’ safe return recedes further into the distance, yet instead of condemnation and revulsion at their plight mounting, they are, paradoxically, fading from sight. Instead, rage and disapproval swirl around Israel’s campaign to rescue them and defeat the terrorists who masterminded their capture.

The hostages are being held deep in Gaza while their captors dangle the prospect of their release in exchange for unacceptable preconditions. In doing this, Hamas have made fools of all those interlocutors who believe that they are dealing with a humane enemy. Israel has no alternative but to prosecute the war until the last hostage has been recovered. Meanwhile, morale in Israel is at a dangerously low ebb and trust in the ability of the government and the IDF to tackle the problem has been severely shaken.

In the war against an enemy who will never contemplate surrender and who believe in taking no prisoners, Israel cannot afford to call a unilateral halt. Civilian casualties have inevitably been high in the densely populated cities of Gaza and buildings have been reduced to rubble.

Hamas has milked this catastrophe for all it is worth. The blunders of the IDF are seized on and proclaimed as criminal acts. This puts Israel on the back foot in a propaganda war in which admission of responsibility for tragic misjudgments on the battlefield only deepens the charge of criminal culpability. Frequent announcements by Israel that humanitarian aid is being dispensed to the people of war-torn Gaza are being dismissed. Instead, the world’s media are being flooded with harrowing footage of wounded and dead civilians, grieving relatives and desperate people fighting for food.

Yet what choice does Israel have? Despite the temptation to retaliate which has been evoked by the Hamas action, the Israeli response has been characterized by discipline and restraint. But the relentless propaganda of Hamas and other agencies hostile to Israel has ensured that any Israeli measures to safeguard the civil population are ignored.

The accusation being levelled at Israel is one of genocide. This bizarre charge is spreading like wildfire across the globe, an ironic twist of thinking given the clearly stated intention of Hamas to kill all Jews everywhere, starting with Israel. A powerful toxin is infiltrating the minds of friends and allies of Israel, while those countries hostile to Israel and those ideologues with longstanding antisemitic prejudices are happily soaking it into their systems.

The leaders of Hamas must surely be celebrating their good fortune at having tapped into so rich a vein of antisemitic hatred. Far from experiencing the decimation of their fighting forces as a defeat, they are exulting in what they see as a victory on the road to Israel’s annihilation.

As far as the hostages are concerned, Hamas believes that time is on their side. The hostages remain hidden in what must be unspeakable conditions, a situation surely constituting a humanitarian catastrophe of the first magnitude. Meanwhile, the Israeli army is being drawn ever more deeply into the Hamas trap of fighting a house–to–house war against an elusive enemy with no clear victory in sight.

There seems to be no immediate way out of this trap. But in life, there is no such thing as a total impasse. Sooner or later, change, from whatever direction, will break that impasse. In the meantime, compassionate observers have a responsibility to join the relatives and friends of the hostages in keeping their plight to the forefront of public consciousness.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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