Israel's Million-Shekel Question
It seemed like only a matter of time before Israel's government would be forced to decide between eradicating Hamas from Gaza, or returning all the remaining hostages. It appears that time is near.
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On October 14th, just a week after Hamas’ unspeakable terror attacks, I was talking with my Israeli cousin in his kitchen, and I said to him: “Just watch, Israelis are going to turn against the war, which is exactly what Hamas wants.”
My suspicion wasn’t because a segment of Israelis had become pacifists to no end, but because I thought some of them would wrongly conflate the Israel-Hamas war with their overwhelming distaste for Benjamin Netanyahu and his extreme right-wing government.
Sure enough, this past Saturday, hundreds of protesters poured into Habima Square in Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the Israel-Hamas war, after 12 weeks of battle.
“Get our soldiers out of Gaza now,” read one banner, while another called for “a diplomatic agreement.”
“People on both sides are dying for no purpose,” said protestor Rotem Telem. “I’m afraid they’re telling us we’re winning a war which we lost on October 7th.”1
With those words, you’d think Telem was a Palestinian in Gaza, but she is 100-percent an Israeli Jew, projecting her reasonable resentment of the current governing coalition running Israel onto the country’s more-than-justifiable campaign against Hamas. Yet it is uncanny, foolish, and even reckless to conflate the two.
She and others might not like Netanyahu’s government which, in my view, is dismal. It was dismal way before October 7th. I didn’t vote for this government and on occasion I joined the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in protest of this government’s attempts at controversial judicial reform. Something didn’t feel right about the way in which they hurried to upend such a vital component of Israel’s democracy: its judiciary.
But there is a very clear purpose for this war — to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and hopefully create conditions to ensure more peace and safety for both Palestinians and Israelis — and all indications are that Israel is winning this war by a large margin. The unique environment Israel faces, urban and underground warfare, means the IDF needs more undying support from the Israeli public, not less, to guarantee a resounding victory.
And yet, we knew — or at least I knew — it would come to this, because there is so much hate (much of it warranted) in the “anyone-but-Bibi” camp, and because the unreleased hostages pose such a commanding moral and societal predicament that exceedingly contradicts Israel’s goal of eradicating Hamas from Gaza.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been saying, at least publicly, that there will not be another hostage deal without a lasting cessation of Israel’s military incursion throughout Gaza. From the terrorists’ vantage point, that’s a good place to start negotiating because the hostages are their only point of leverage, albeit an extremely powerful and influential one. And they gleefully know that the hostages are weighing heavy on Israel’s collective conscience, especially after hearing the testimonies of some of the hostages already released.
On Saturday, organizers of the protest movement against the controversial judicial reform declared that their demonstrations were officially resuming this past weekend, rebranding them as a call for returning all the remaining hostages.
A worthy aim, but one that is also deeply self-centered and irresponsible. Self-centered because the protestors are acting out of aggravation from being sidelined for nearly three months, since October 7th, and irresponsible because protests that show a divided Israel only weaken the country’s hand in favorably negotiating for another hostage release agreement.
Conflating the return of the remaining hostages with a call to end the war because you hate the prime minister, as this version of the protest movement has done, is utterly horrible for everyone, not to mention idiotic. It could turn the remaining hostages into a political chess piece, rather than a national consensus that ought to stay outside of politics, which would only put the lives of the remaining hostages and thousands of Israeli soldiers in grave danger.
I suppose that, if you believe Israel can defeat Hamas by cutting off its funding sources, going after its leadership in Gaza or wherever they are in the world, and working with other partners to find a better governing apparatus in the strip, it seems best to return the hostages in the name of a “permanent ceasefire.”
But if a “permanent ceasefire” means that Hamas remains the governing power in Gaza, while its popularity soars in the West Bank and across the Middle East, then Israel would ultimately be mortgaging its security — its existence, really — because of a few hundred people (the hostages and their families).
Of course, these people would never forgive the State of Israel for allowing October 7th to happen in the first place, and I wouldn’t blame them whatsoever. But the needs of a few hundred people should never compromise the needs of a few million. After all, this is known as “tyranny of the minority” in which partisan minorities consistently thwart and even rule over popular majorities.
I’m genuinely sorry if this comes off as insensitive, but right now is the time for sophisticated geopolitical strategy, not for acquiescing to Hamas’ only real bargaining chip. Israel cannot be formidable in one of the most volatile regions of the world if it looks and acts like a pushover. And if Israel is not formidable, it is only a matter of time before it ceases to exist.
Let me be clear about my position: If it is at all plausible to bring home the remaining hostages and eradicate Hamas from Gaza, that would be marvelous. But it was pretty obvious to me and many others that when Netanyahu stated these two goals at the beginning of the war, it would be incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to accomplish one of these goals without doing so at the other’s expense.
Thus, the million-shekel question is likely to, sooner than later, confront Netanyahu and the unity government: Do you eradicate Hamas from Gaza and work toward creating a better future for millions of Palestinians and Israelis, even if it means losing some or all of the remaining hostages? Or do you clear Israel’s collective conscience by returning all the remaining hostages and effectively ending the war, one way or another?
It’s easy to opt for eradicating Hamas from Gaza if you don’t know someone (or don’t know someone who knows someone) connected to one of the remaining hostages. And it is gratuitous to judge the remaining hostages’ families and friends for what they’ve been doing and will continue to do until their loved ones are back home.
But one thing is clear: Hamas, even in the isolated Gaza Strip, serves as an existential threat to Israel, because it is one tentacle of the Iranian octopus. Despite the harrowing circumstances of October 7th, and the uncomfortable news that the war will continue to produce, Israel now has an opportunity to destroy one of these tentacles, which would serve as a precedent and stark warning to the others, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis.
No matter what we think of Netanyahu and his hardline coalition, and no matter how much we want to return all the remaining hostages, Israel would be foolish to not take full advantage of this extraordinary opportunity.
Without question, truly going after Hamas dooms the remaining hostages and risks the lives of thousands of Israeli soldiers. It also in all likelihood means that Hamas will unleash the utmost evil, such as publicly torturing and killing hostages, to further terrorize Israeli society and the greater world. But making a deal with Hamas immeasurably emboldens the terror group — in Gaza, the West Bank, and across the Middle East.
You see, Hamas’ October 7th attacks also had two aims: to force a prisoner swap, and to terrorize Jews into feeling unsafe in their own country, so many of them will ultimately leave. Unlike Israel’s goals, those of Hamas are what you would call, under different circumstances, a “positive feedback loop,” a self-perpetuating pattern of behavior where the end result reinforces the initial act.
In some ways, Hamas has already accomplished both of their aims, so long as it is not destroyed. The only thing that the terror group fears at this point is being destroyed by Israel in Gaza. Hamas’ leaders are certainly not worried about the destruction in the strip or about harming the locals who live there; on the contrary, endless images of dead Palestinians are proof to the world that “Israel is committing genocide” — which supports their cause politically, financially, and otherwise.
Right now, Hamas would love nothing more than to return all the remaining hostages in exchange for a permanent ceasefire because this allows them to get rid of their biggest headache in the “war of information.” Even to Israel’s most hateful haters, they cannot justify the kidnapping of innocents, and now they won’t have to.
Thus, getting rid of the hostages gives Hamas a massive advantage over Israel in the international court of public opinion, which would only grow with time and increasingly add more pressure on Israel to discontinue its fighting in the name of “Palestinian death and destruction.”
At long last, the war would go down as a complete, resounding triumph across the board for Hamas and its chief sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it would set a lethal precedent for more massacres, more kidnappings, more terror against Israel and Jews around the world.
If Israel thought it paid an unfathomable price on October 7th, handing Hamas a victory (anything short of their eradication in Gaza) would make it seem like a blip in Israeli history, for the country’s future would become exponentially more bleak. You can call that fear-mongering; I call it forecasting.
It sounds callous, but if given a mutually exclusive choice between vanquishing today’s version of the Nazis or saving the lives of the remaining hostages, Israel must go with the former, because one tit-for-tat war after another is not deterrence in the eyes of terrorists. It’s motivation.
“Protesters in Tel Aviv take aim at Netanyahu government after 12 weeks of war.” The Times of Israel.