What happens if the hostages are dead?

Since the beginning of the war, Israel has pursued the stated twin goals of returning all the hostages and dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities in the Gaza strip. Only one of them – returning the hostages – enjoys wider international legitimacy. Recent reports have Israeli and US officials worried that most of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza may have already died. This raises an important question regarding international calls for a ceasefire: Should an immediate unconditional ceasefire be enforced if all the hostages were confirmed dead?

The Biden administration in particular owes us an answer considering its claims not to have changed its policy of conditioning such demands on the release of the hostages despite withholding its veto to UN Security Council Resolution 2728 seemingly uncoupling the two, and apparently banking everything on a hostage deal currently being negotiated in Cairo.

Depending on whether one favours a ceasefire and how moral intuitions would change if all the hostages had been killed, there are four positions that could be taken:

  1. “Hostage-shmostage”

This is the view that the Israeli war effort is unjustifiable, and hostages do not factor decisively into the determination. It is characteristic of Hamas sympathisers, October 7 denialists and anti-Zionist protesters who have been calling for a ceasefire since before the beginning of the ground invasion. Astoundingly, UN officials and human rights activists appear to subscribe to this view as though labouring under the delusion that Hamas or its protector Iran and financier Qatar were at all impressed by UN resolutions calling for the unconditional release of the hostages.

I have very little to say to these people except that after six months of intense public debate and edification on the issue, they are yet to present an explanation of precisely how they intend to incentivise Hamas to release the hostages after Israel agrees to or is successfully bullied into accepting a unilateral ceasefire. Failing that, they must eternally forfeit any claims to care about international law or innocent civilian lives and admit it was all a fig leaf to cover up their unadulterated partisanship.

Those pretending Hamas could be appeased by an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza or a unified state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, I challenge to read – almost certainly for the first time – Article 6 of the 1988 Hamas Charter which calls for the establishment of an Islamic State in all of Mandatory Palestine: “The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished Palestinian movement, whose allegiance is to Allah, and whose way of life is Islam. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”

The 2017 Document of General Principles and Policies, sometimes referred to as an update of the original charter despite the original never having been revoked, reaffirms in paragraphs 2, 3 and 20: “Palestine, which extends from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west and from Ras al-Naqurah [Rosh HaNikrah] in the north to Umm Al-Rashrash [Eilat] in the south, is an integral territorial unit. It is the land and the home of the Palestinian people. […] Palestine is an Arab Islamic land. […] Hamas believes no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded, irrespective of the causes, the circumstances or the pressures and no matter how long the occupation lasts.”

Those tempted to believe the document – which may be suspected of being a somewhat disingenuous appeal to Western sympathies – represents an endorsement by Hamas of democratic and pluralistic principles, I would urge to measure the group’s commitment to these paragraphs (§28, 30, 40, 42, etc.) against the historical record of nearly two decades of government in Gaza. We know the kind of state Hamas would impose on Israel if it had the power to do so, reality speaks for itself.

  1. “Now more than ever”

According to this view, Israel should not be pursuing the war, but would be justified in doing so if all the hostages had been killed. It is difficult to imagine many people would check this box. Perhaps someone gravitating towards pacifism who thinks Israel should find a non-violent resolution, but who would nevertheless recoil to the point of reversing their position at the appalling thought of Hamas killing defenceless people abducted from their homes six months ago.

But in a sober moment of reflection such a person would have to point out the relevant differences between killed hostages and the victims of the October 7 attacks. Would Israel be any less justified in eradicating Hamas if all the hostages had been killed back then?

In this counterfactual there would have been 1,400 rather than 1,200 victims in October, but no hostages. It seems to me that the rape, torture, and brutal murder which occurred is no less of a crime than would be the killing of hostages and it should be just as motivating to go after the perpetrators. Does the time of death materially impact the moral calculus? What if the hostages were taken completely out of the picture and all we had were the 1,200 victims from October? Is there a magic threshold somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 victims that fundamentally alters the equation?

  1. “Hamas is a political movement”

This view sees Israel justified in – or at least forgivable for – waging war, but only as long as there are hostages to be freed. It would represent more moderate voices who empathise or agree with the goal of retrieving the hostages using military pressure but not with the goal of dismantling Hamas, because Hamas is viewed as a resistance movement acting out of desperation or because the cost in terms of Palestinian lives would be too high or because the effort is at any rate futile since Hamas is an idea that cannot be defeated on the battlefield.

Following this logic, however, if we found out there are no remaining captives alive in Gaza or if Hamas killed all of them tomorrow, the only right thing for the IDF to do would be to immediately lay down its arms. Indeed, if the ethical consideration is so simplistic as to reduce to the body count only, then this would be an almost optimal scenario second only to Hamas releasing whatever hostages are still alive followed by a swift end to the war. Mind you, the difference would be almost negligible since of the original 253 hostages only 133 remain in Gaza – of which a quarter is already presumed dead – and this would equal roughly the average number of civilian Palestinian casualties of 1-2 days of war even after accounting for the number of combatants estimated to have been killed by the IDF.

I defy anyone engaging in this thought experiment to intuit that an immediate end to the fighting would be the appropriate reaction to the killing of the hostages. Quite the opposite, it seems to me an ethical response in the face of such a crime necessitates punitive action. But the sad reality is that this would only be the latest in a long list of Hamas atrocities in need of punishment and – depending on the manner of execution – may not even top it in terms of moral reprehensibility.

It should be obvious that the balance sheet approach of merely enumerating the number of dead on both sides of the ledger is totally inadequate. Intentions clearly matter, if only because they are the most important predictor of future behaviour, and there is a difference between intentionally targeting civilians and tolerating a certain amount of civilian harm in the pursuit of a justified military objective. As I have argued elsewhere the intentions of Hamas coupled with their utter lack of responsibility and inhibition are irreconcilable with the powers of government over a quasi-state.

  1. “Hamas must go”

Finally then, I am compelled to subscribe to the view that Israel should be fighting this war until Hamas is destroyed and the hostages do not factor decisively into this determination. I am implying in particular that Israel cannot accept a hostage deal conditional on a permanent ceasefire, and the international community should not pressure Israel to do so.

To be clear, I have the utmost compassion for the men, women and children still held in Gaza and believe Israel should get out as many of them as possible, given the opportunity, even at the cost of painful concessions like an extended pause in fighting and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners including convicted murderers. This is the debt owed by the Israeli government to the hostages and their relatives whose trust in the country’s defensive strategy was so scandalously betrayed on October 7.

However, the highest priority obligation is safeguarding Israel’s long-term security within its borders. This is the debt owed by the Israeli government to the entire nation.

About the Author
Raffael Singer is an Austrian financial risk consultant and economic researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He holds a master's degree in Mathematics & Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Mathematics from Imperial College London.
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