I once helped free an Israeli hostage from Hamas, and I know this time it's different

Negotiations rely on trust, and that will be in short supply after everything that's happened

Up to 150 people were taken hostage by Hamas in an unprecedented attack against Israel on October 7. PA
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In the words of Gilad Erdan, Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, what happened on October 7 was “Israel’s 9/11” – the most severe fatal attack by Palestinians against Israel, since its birth in 1948. More than 1,200 dead women, children, men – mostly civilians, including entire families.

Dozens of others – as many as 150 – were taken by the militants back into Gaza, where they are being held hostage. As one of the negotiators who in 2011 helped to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held in Hamas captivity for five years and four months, I know that the success of any negotiations to safeguard hostages’ lives relies on trust.

Back then, it was the trust built between me and Hamas’s interlocutor, and the trust each of us had with our own parties (in his case Hamas, in mine Israel’s intelligence services) that ultimately saw Mr Shalit freed in exchange for more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel.

It’s important to say that I opened the back channel to negotiate for Mr Shalit’s release a week after his abduction, but negotiations only became real five years later, when both sides realised there were no other options.

This time it is different – and much harder – because of the sheer number of hostages and also because of how difficult it will be to establish trust, given everything that has happened this week.

The communities overtaken in this latest attack by Palestinian militants from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups from Gaza, claiming to act in the name of resistance, were not the religious right-wing settlements of the West Bank. These were communities of mainstream Israel – secular, centre left-wing places where many peace activists lived. Many of the residents believed Israel should employ Palestinians from Gaza in order to help to bring the Gaza economy out of abject poverty and end the blockade on the strip and then maybe peace could develop.

There were two colossal surprises from last Saturday’s attack. First, no one could have imagined the ease at which Israel’s border was breached. Israel has invested billions of dollars in fortifying that border with fences, underground concrete and steel walls blocking tunnels, and all kinds of sophisticated electronic monitoring.

These were communities of mainstream Israel - secular, centre left-wing places where many peace activists lived

The second surprise was the brutality of the killing spree of the Palestinian fighters – killing whole families, burning down homes with people inside and the ghastliest mass murder of young people at an open-air music and dance festival, where 250 of them were gunned down by Palestinians riding pick-up trucks with heavy weapons – a scene, in the eyes of many Israelis, right out of the ISIS textbook.

The easy breach of the border was made possible because Israel’s army, called the Israel Defence Force, has in recent decades been transformed into Israel’s Occupation Police Force.

During the Jewish holiday weekend, when the attack took place, most of the forces that should have been on the Gaza-Israel border were stationed in the West Bank, protecting Jewish settlers so they could celebrate while the majority of people living there – the Palestinians – were under closure, surrounded by celebrating settlers and soldiers.

The second failure was the collapse of Israel’s intelligence – known to be one of the most capable in the world. The well-planned and executed Hamas attack, which took out Israel’s electronic surveillance, coupled with a barrage of rocket fire and explosives along the border fence, eliminated the prospect of a rapid response from the limited forces that were nearby.

I have been told by Palestinian sources that the original plan was to attack two army bases along the border and capture some soldiers to hold as hostages in order to demand the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israel’s jail – numbering about 8,000. This is a promise that Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has made repeatedly over the years. Mr Sinwar himself spent 22 years in an Israeli prison, and was released in the prisoner exchange deal that freed Mr Shalit.

The ease with which the border was breached led to the mass crossing by forces from Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other armed Gazans seeking revenge against Israel along with hundreds of heavily armed Hamas fighters.

In a conversation I had with a senior Hamas official in Gaza just after the attack he said that after 75 years of suffering, of losing our homes, being humiliated, living in the world’s largest prison, we say enough. We are not willing to live under occupation any more and we are willing with our brave fighters to pay the price for our freedom.

When I asked him about the brutality of the killing spree and hostage taking he responded that “when you treat people like animals for 75 years don’t be surprised when they act accordingly”.

There is very little reason for hope now. Israel is traumatised and in pain. The determination to remove Hamas from power, meaning killing as many Hamas operatives and leaders as possible, has never been more real. “Finishing the job” has been a slogan over the past 18 years since Israel left Gaza in 2005. But everyone in Israel – and in Gaza – knew it was only a slogan, and that Israel had no real intention of “finishing the job” because that would mean the reoccupation of Gaza.

This is no longer the case, and there seems to be a deep resolve to site as the ruling body in Gaza by military force, even if it means enormous civilian casualties in Gaza, Israeli soldiers killed and many of the hostages killed as well.

There are no viable negotiations for freeing the hostages at this stage because neither Israel nor Hamas seem interested in such negotiations. Hamas say they will not negotiate until there is a full cessation of what they call “Israeli aggression against Gaza”. They are also demanding a complete release of all of the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. That for Israel is a non-starter.

For Israel, the military operation seems to have taken precedence over any hostage talks, and the government does not want to reward Hamas with the prize of freeing prisoners. Israeli public opinion also seems braced for the sacrifice of many of the hostages if it means the final goal of eliminating Hamas as the ruling body in Gaza is completed.

Perhaps there is a small point of light at the end of the tunnel. There is a chance, maybe very small, that the trauma of this war will be a wakeup call for Israelis and Palestinians alike, just as were the horrific bombings in Belfast before serious negotiations began on the Good Friday Agreement.

Perhaps Israelis and Palestinians will finally be forced to come to terms with the reality of the existence of two peoples, equal in numbers, who are living on this land they each call their own.

Maybe both peoples will recognise that, rather than investing our energies, resources, and lives on killing each other, we should sit down and figure out how to share this land. The basis for that is the realisation that everyone here should have the same right to the same rights. No people can agree to live forever under a foreign occupation. No one could tolerate forever the conditions under which the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza have lived for 75 years.

Israel cannot have all of the land and also have peace. Palestinians have to come to terms with the existence of Israel and the Jewish people’s connection to this land. No side will eliminate the other – we are both going to continue to live here. We are going to have to sit down together and figure out how we can do that.

We need help which would be best coming from the countries of the region that have peace with Israel. The burden is on us – Israelis and Palestinians – we have to want it more than our friends around the world. Maybe on the other side of this horrible war we will find a new resolve to finally end this conflict.

Published: October 12, 2023, 2:15 PM