If You Care About the Hostages, Demand a Cease-Fire

Cynical politicians like John Fetterman and Benjamin Netanyahu are trying to pit calls for a cease-fire in Gaza against efforts to bring Israeli hostages home. The reality is a cease-fire is the only way to do just that.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, Israel. (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

“I don’t understand why, to anyone that is protesting or demanding for a cease-fire, let’s be honest here, why aren’t you protesting to bring [the hostages] all home right now? Why aren’t you demanding that Hamas surrenders as well?” Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman recently said, referring to the more than 130 hostages still being held by Hamas after being kidnapped on October 7 last year.

Fetterman’s point is obviously nonsensical: activists in the United States and other Western countries have no power or leverage to influence Hamas, unlike their own elected officials, let alone to make Hamas “surrender.” The statement has to be understood in the context of the almost comical, desperate campaign Fetterman has waged for months to insulate his Senate seat from a future Israel lobby–funded challenge.

But it would be wrong to write this off as just a crank talking point from another cowardly politician. The idea that a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of the Israeli hostages are mutually exclusive — and that the only way to free the hostages is to continue what has now been officially ruled a plausible genocide until “victory” is achieved — is widely held. Some version of it has been articulated at various times by both the United States and Israeli governments, including just yesterday, when Israeli bombardment of the “safe area” of Rafah resulted in two hostages being freed.

“The operation needs to go forward in order to dismantle and destroy Hamas and bring home hostages,” one Israeli military official said in the wake of the rescue mission.

“Only continued military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the wake of the bombing.

But that’s patently untrue. In fact, at this point more hostages have been killed by Israel’s military campaign than have been freed by it. If you want the Israeli hostages returned home safely, as everyone should, the best way to do so is to have a cease-fire in Gaza — and to have the Biden administration pressure Netanyahu to agree to one.

Spreading Illusions

Most recently, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) probe determined that hostage Yossi Sharabi was likely killed when the building he was in collapsed after the IDF bombed the building next to it. Before that, Israeli soldiers shot and killed three hostages who had managed to escape from Hamas, one of whom was waving a white flag and calling for help in Hebrew, because they believed it was a trap — something the IDF officially declared was “the right action” after an investigation, requiring some “painful conversations” between Israel’s defense minister and the families of those they killed.

That’s not counting the fifty hostages that Hamas claims were killed by Israeli airstrikes in the very earliest weeks of the war, or the three that they claim were killed in the recent Rafah air strikes, allegations that can’t yet be verified.

Meanwhile, what has proven by far most effective for getting the hostages released has been a cease-fire — the very thing that figures like Netanyahu and Fetterman, who took to plastering the hallway outside his Senate office with photos of the kidnapped Israelis, refuse to support and try to shame others into opposing. During the week-long cease-fire that was in place last November, 105 hostages were ultimately released by Hamas and returned safely to their anxious families — more than double the fifty that were first slated for release.

Let’s tally up those numbers. Cease-fire: seven days, zero hostages killed, 105 released. War: 129 days, at least four hostages killed, three rescued.

If you actually care about the fate of the hostages, it’s a no-brainer which policy you should be supporting.

Sure enough, some of the loudest voices in Israel itself who are calling for a cease-fire are the very families of those kidnapped Israelis. After all, they’re reading the same news and watching the same footage as the rest of us. They quite logically understand that, since their family members are being held in Gaza, the Israeli government’s indiscriminate bombing and blockade of the territory puts their lives at risk, too. Any of their loved ones could end up like Sharabi or the other hostages killed by the IDF, or like the thousands of Palestinians now starving to death and riddled with infectious disease.

Hostages’ families protested vehemently against the Netanyahu government from the start, furious at the lack of communication, as well as the IDF’s bombardment of the tunnels and bunkers their relatives were most likely being held in. Several of those protesting called for focusing first on getting the hostages home, including by doing a prisoner swap deal, with the uncle of one kidnapped nineteen-year-old warning that “every day the hostages are not released they are in jeopardy.”

Months later, these families were, mortifyingly, still having to make the same arguments to a far-right Israeli government that’s clearly more interested in bombing Gaza than getting their relatives back home. In one case, they did so in a fiery meeting with Netanyahu that they had to fight to even get, where some family members angrily objected to his government’s reported plan to flood with seawater the Hamas tunnels their loved ones were being held in. Contrary to the Netanyahu government’s official line, a family member of one of the recently rescued hostages has said that getting the hostages home safely is the “only mission.”

It’s not just the families. One member of Israel’s Knesset emphatically echoed their demand, saying, “All the six-thousand [Palestinian prisoners held by Israel], a complete cease-fire, I don’t care, at any price, any price, bring them home now.” A member of Netanyahu’s own cabinet, former general Gadi Eisenkot, admitted last month that “the hostages will only return alive if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting,” and that claiming they could be freed any other way — such as through the “total victory” that even US officials have told Israeli officials won’t happen — “is to spread illusions.” So did one of the freed hostages himself, who warned Netanyahu in a press conference that “if you continue the way you do, the destruction of Hamas, there won’t be any hostages to release.”

Saving the Hostages Means Pressuring Israel

Even after these two hostages were rescued — a highly publicized effort that the Israeli government clearly hopes to use to justify pressing on with the war — the families continued to call for a cease-fire agreement. One rescued captive’s son-in-law urged Israeli leadership to “be serious and strike a deal,” which “the Israeli people need . . . not yesterday, not tomorrow, today.” The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the most prominent group pressing for making the return of hostages a top priority, stressed that “the Israeli government must exhaust every option on the table to release them.”

In fact, after many months, there was a tentative deal on the table: a six-week-long pause in fighting, during which one Israeli hostage would be freed for every three Palestinian prisoners (who, despite that designation, are closer to hostages themselves), followed by several more rounds of pauses and prisoner swaps until all the hostages are back.

But Netanyahu decidedly didn’t exhaust this option. Quite the opposite: he explicitly rejected it, saying there’s no alternative to “complete victory.” Now Netanyahu is proceeding to bomb the city of Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians are crammed in after being told by his government it was where they should go to be safe. In fact, as of the time of writing, Israeli officials aren’t even bothering to show up to the latest round of talks to get the hostages released.

This is precisely the dilemma for anyone genuinely interested in the safety of however many hostages are still alive and in Hamas’s clutches: getting them home safe requires the United States to pressure Israel to agree to a cease-fire and a prisoner swap, because the Netanyahu government does not care about rescuing the hostages.

The ruthless Netanyahu’s political career and, quite likely, prospects for staying out of prison both hinge on continuing the war as long as possible. Even if he was willing to risk both to end this war, he cannot, because his far-right coalition partners have threatened to topple his government if he makes any kind of deal with Hamas.

For those right-wing ministers, the goal of the war isn’t to bring back the Israelis being held captive but to depopulate Gaza so it can be resettled and annexed by Israel, as their public statements and their recent attendance of an ultranationalist conference pushing that exact plan make very clear. One of them has openly said he places no particular value on the hostages’ lives, suggesting that nuking Gaza could be an option and, when reminded of the Israelis being held prisoner there, remarking that “in war we pay a price” and asking, “Why are the lives of the hostages . . . more important than the lives of the soldiers?”

This divide was well illustrated by a November confrontation that saw incensed family members angrily object to a far-right MPs’ proposal to impose the death penalty on Palestinian terrorists on the grounds it would endanger their loved ones, and far-right ministers yell back that they did not have “a monopoly of pain.”

Pay No Heed

A cease-fire, in other words, is the objectively pro-hostage position, a fact that activists should be shouting from the rooftops. And given the political realities of Netanyahu’s government, there’s likely no other way to get one than for Biden to pressure Israel the same way that, for example, Ronald Reagan did to end its bloody war on Lebanon: by threatening to, and actually following through on, withholding arms transfers to Israel.

In the meantime, don’t listen to hacks like Netanyahu and Fetterman, who are cynically using the plight of the Israeli hostages to push for a policy driven by their own political ambitions and that most of the hostages’ suffering families don’t support: continued, open-ended war and no cease-fire until “complete victory.” It’s a disastrous policy that has already caused the deaths of several Israeli captives and will mean the deaths of many more. But a cease-fire could still bring them back.