Israel confirms ‘significant number’ of Israeli civilians and soldiers kidnapped by Hamas

Gaza militia members are demanding the release of all Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the return of the captives. In the past, the Jewish state has paid a high price in swaps for soldiers, living or dead

A group of militia members transport an elderly Israeli woman captured in the Kfar Azza kibbutz, in Israel, on September 7, 2023, in the Gaza Strip.
A group of militia members transport an elderly Israeli woman captured in the Kfar Azza kibbutz, in Israel, on September 7, 2023, in the Gaza Strip.Hatem Ali (AP)
Antonio Pita

The Israeli Army confirmed Saturday afternoon what could be seen in footage shared early in the morning: that the unprecedented and surprise operation by armed groups in Gaza has not only caused at least 100 deaths, but dozens of militias who managed to infiltrate Israel (by taking advantage of gaps in the border wall, knocking down openings with excavators or flying over it with paragliders) have also kidnapped civilians and taken soldiers as prisoners of war.

Military spokesperson Lt Col Jonathan Conricus said that a “significant number” had been captured, while the spokesperson for Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, put the number at dozens, adding that the group includes “senior officials and soldiers.” In propaganda images, not everyone appears to be alive. The militants also still have hostages in the communities of Ofakim and Bari, where elite Israeli forces have been deployed.

The footage circulating online shows scenes that until now would have seemed like fiction: four Israeli civilians being taken to Gaza by force; many others on the ground with their hands behind their heads; a young woman being pushed into a vehicle; a confused elderly woman on the Gaza Strip amid the collective enthusiasm. One group can also be seen forcibly removing two soldiers from a military vehicle and another throwing a soldier, apparently dead, to the ground before trampling him next to the car.

These are people that the militias could have easily killed, since they took control of several communities in the area and even introduced Israeli armored vehicles into the Gaza Strip. The decision to capture the civilians and soldiers was no accident.

“To our prisoners, I say, your freedom is looming large. What we have in hand will see you set free,” Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera, referring to the around 4,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, according to the Israeli human rights NGO Btselem. The Islamic Jihad, which also claimed responsibility for several kidnappings, said that “all captives in the hands of resistance organizations will be held until all our prisoners are released from jails.” That’s according to the group’s spokesperson, Dawood Shihab, who said Saturday that Israel have detained Palestinian “women and children,” “so there will be no consideration” for whether the captives are “adults, women and children.”

Over the decades, Israel has freed thousands of prisoners in exchange deals. In some cases, these have been the typical prison swaps that take place after a war. For example, prisoners were exchanged after the fighting following the creation of Israel in 1948, the Six Days War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But others have more to do with the awareness that this is Israel’s weak spot.

“I think that they wanted to kidnap a few people, to negotiate over them, and not to get into the threat of their collapse — of their ending,” Israeli political analyst Avi Issajarof told The Times of Israel. But he argued that the scale of Saturday’s operation has changed the equation so much that negotiations “under or over the table” are no longer possible.

The kidnapping of soldiers is a particularly sensitive issue in Israel. Military service is mandatory for both men (up to three years) and women and there is a kind of tacit agreement in which the state asks its young people to don a uniform in exchange for the certainty that, if something goes wrong, it will not abandon them to their fate. Or, at the very least, it will do everything possible to ensure that they receive a dignified burial.

In 2011, for example, Israel agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single soldier, Gilad Shalit, who Hamas was holding in Gaza. Two years earlier, it even released 20 Palestinians in exchange for proof that he was still alive.

Reclaiming the bodies of fallen soldiers is also important to Israel. This was seen in 2008, when Israel freed five prisoners and returned the bodies of 200 Lebanese people and Palestinians to recover the remains of two soldiers that the Hezbollah militia had captured in an operation that triggered the bloody 33-day war between Israel and Lebanon. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Israel, not due to the number of prisoners it had to release, but because one of those inmates was Samir Kuntar, the mastermind of one of the most brutal attacks on Israel, who had been sentenced to 542 years in prison for three murders. His impressive and triumphant reception in Beirut added salt to the wound. Kuntar was later murdered in 2015.

Given the cost of those prisoner exchange deals, if Hamas releases the number of hostages that it presumably holds, it could free all Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. But Saturday’s attack has made such an outcome unthinkable: it would be an unacceptable sign of weakness for Israel. And, more importantly, Israel is preparing to embark first on a “forceful, prolonged campaign,” as the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear in a conversation with U.S. President Joe Biden.

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