For Netanyahu’s Government, Israeli Hostages Are Just a Propaganda Tool

Israel claims its brutal assault on Gaza is justified by the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. But the Israeli government’s actions suggest that it cares little about the hostages’ well-being — and more about using them as anti-Palestinian propaganda.

Smoke rises from the Gaza Strip on October 29, 2023, as Israel relentlessly bombards the territory where more than 200 of its own citizens are held hostage. (Photo by Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

The Israeli state has gone into overdrive to justify its war on Gaza. Central to Israel’s propaganda campaign is the claim that its siege is intended to rescue the over two hundred Israeli hostages currently being held in Gaza.

Mainstream outlets and public figures alike have repeated this uncritically. Comedian Sarah Silverman recently posted a meme blaming Palestinians for the bombs Israel is dropping on them since, according to her, Hamas could simply release the hostages to end the bombing. Last week, over three hundred famous actors published a letter in support of Biden’s war policy, urging us not to “rest until all hostages are released.”

But if the Israeli government cares so much about its hostages, why is it indiscriminately bombing Gaza? The reality, it seems, is that the hostages are being used as a propaganda tool for Israel’s brutal war.

Israel Is Probably Killing Israeli Hostages

On October 7, during its brutal attack that killed over 1,400 in Israel, Hamas-led forces captured over two hundred Israeli military personnel and civilians as hostages, before retreating back to Gaza. Hamas subsequently offered a trade of the Israeli hostages for the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, 530 of whom have been detained without charge or trial, and 160 of whom are children. Israel has responded with an unprecedented number of indiscriminate air strikes and shellings, hitting hospitals, schools, residential and office buildings, the world’s third-oldest church, and civilians fleeing on supposedly safe roads.

The Israeli government claims that Hamas is using these targets as human shields, under which the group’s bases and military installations are built — therefore making them legitimate targets. But this raises a question: If these are really Hamas hideouts, wouldn’t bombing them be likely kill the very hostages Israel claims it’s trying to rescue?

As of October 16, Hamas claims that twenty-two of the Israelis they took hostage have been killed by Israel’s air strikes. Though it’s impossible to know if this is true, it’s difficult to look at the massive destruction being doled out in Gaza and not think that at least some hostages have died in the bombardment.

While Israel continues to bomb innocent Palestinians as well as the hostages they’re supposedly trying to save, the Israeli state has circulated images of stolen children around the globe in an attempt to justify its war crimes. Last week, after New York congresswoman Nydia Velázquez signed onto a US congressional resolution calling for a cease-fire, pro-Israel activists protested outside her office to get her to abandon the pro-peace position. The activists displayed posters bearing the faces of Israeli hostages with the words “Nydia Supports Terrorism” printed in big bold letters. Similar images of Israeli hostages can be seen postered around New York City subways, college campuses, and other public spaces.

The aftermath of Hamas’s release of some hostages last week illustrated the importance of the captives to Israel’s framing efforts. One of the freed hostages, eighty-five-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, gave a press conference at the Ichilov Hospital, where she was treated after being released, and said she had been held in good conditions. Afterward, a nurse treating Lifshitz reported that hospital staff had been instructed to not speak to the public about the treatment Lifshitz received in captivity, and Lifshitz’s family claims they received the same instructions.

None of this is to suggest Hamas is necessarily treating all of the captives well, or that the hostages shouldn’t be released immediately as part of a cease-fire. But if Israel was serious about rescuing its hostages, it would not be bombing them or cutting off their access to food, water, energy, and medical care. It would not be refusing to trade any of its thousands of Palestinian prisoners for them. (The Iranian government also claimed on October 16 that Hamas would be willing to give up the hostages in exchange for an end to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.)

There are other reasons to doubt the sincerity of the Israeli government. It took until October 15, over a week after the hostages were taken, for Netanyahu to meet with representatives of their families. At the meeting, an attendee unknown to the other family members argued in favor of Netanyahu’s scorched-earth approach, telling them, “[I love my relatives] no less than the rest of you love your own family members. But at the end, we have to look at the people of Israel and the future of our existence here.” Many of the family members in the room and others in the Israeli media have since accused the attendee of being planted to shore up support for Israel’s war policy.

In an interview, Yasmin Porat — an Israeli inhabitant of Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the kibbutzim attacked by Hamas on October 7 — testified that she and other hostages were held by Hamas for two days, until the arrival of the Israeli Defense Forces on October 9. She said that the Israeli soldiers killed Hamas militants and Israeli hostages alike, and an Israeli tank blasted buildings where hostages were held. During the fighting, according to another resident of the kibbutz who was away at the time, “at least 112 Be’eri people were killed.”

Convenient Props

Whatever the Israeli government’s motives, it’s clear that Israel is using the October 7 attack and the hostages to justify a brutal assault on Gaza — perhaps with the hopes of annexing more territory. Last week, Israel’s foreign minister said that by “the end of this war . . . the territory of Gaza will also decrease.” In recent days, the Israeli Intelligence Ministry has been circulating an internal memo proposing resettling displaced Gazans in Egypt. And an Israeli think tank headed by Netanyahu’s former national security officer, Meir Ben Shabbat, has issued a report arguing the war on Gaza provides a “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government,” in order to achieve the “relocation and final settlement of the entire Gaza population.”

In the West Bank, where there is no Hamas presence, Israel has also apparently used the war as an excuse to accelerate colonization, arming settler militias, murdering over one hundred Palestinians, and depopulating two Palestinian towns. In Israel itself, the government is ramping up domestic repression, seeking to ban Al Jazeera and arrest anyone who spreads information that would “harm national morale.”

Israel’s war today is not about fighting terrorism or rescuing hostages. It is about violently advancing its expansionist project, in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself — Palestinian and Jewish lives be damned.