Israel’s Priority Is Killing Gazans, Not Freeing Hostages

This war would look very different if Israel’s principal aim was to free the hostages. But Israel’s assault on Gaza was never about the hostages.

A Palestinian woman checks the rubble of a home hit by Israeli bombing in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 20, 2024. (AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration is repeating the lie that Hamas is the only obstacle to peace in Gaza and the hostages returning home. “There would be a cease-fire tomorrow if Hamas would release the hostages,” Joe Biden said at a recent fundraiser in Seattle. “It’s up to Hamas; if they wanted to do it, we could end [Israel’s military campaign in Gaza] tomorrow.” This week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “The world should be calling on Hamas to come back to the table and accept a deal” before reiterating the president’s claim.

Biden’s remarks came just a few days after Israel torpedoed a cease-fire and hostage release deal immediately after Hamas agreed to it. Israel then announced that it would proceed with its planned invasion of Rafah and bombed the city. After its invasion of Rafah caused a break in further negotiations, Israel fully cut off talks on May 10. Israel was never negotiating in good faith: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on April 30 that Israel would invade Rafah “with or without a deal” to release the hostages. Israel’s official demands reflect this — the country refuses to accept a permanent cease-fire.

After Netanyahu’s rejection of the latest proposal, it’s clearer than ever that Israel’s war isn’t and never was about the hostages. Biden’s continued support for Israel demonstrates that the hostages aren’t a priority for the United States, either.

A Convenient Excuse

If the hostages were a priority, Biden and Netanyahu would listen to the hostages’ families. Hamas has repeatedly offered to release the hostages in exchange for a cease-fire and Palestinian prisoners, including as early as October 7 and October 9. Family members of the Israeli hostages have repeatedly urged their government to accept those offers, but Israeli leaders always rebuffed them, claiming that military force is the best way to free the hostages.

“We need to rely on the army that will bring them all home safely,” Israeli president Isaac Herzog said to the hostages’ families in October. Netanyahu told them, “The greater the pressure, the greater the chances [of freeing the captives].” That’s the excuse this time, too. In a statement, Netanyahu claimed invading Rafah would “apply military pressure on Hamas, with the goal of making progress on freeing the hostages and the other war aims.”

The best chance of getting the hostages back is through a cease-fire and prisoner-exchange deal like the one Israel just rejected. The worst thing for the hostages’ well-being would be for Israel to continue its assault on Gaza. Israeli forces have shown that they’re more likely to kill hostages than rescue them.

Hamas abducted about 250 people on October 7. As of mid-May, the group holds 132 in captivity. Hamas released four hostages in mid-October and 105 during a temporary cease-fire in late November in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Outside of the cease-fire, Israeli forces have rescued just three hostages in seven months (one in October, and two in February) but managed to kill three in one day. In December, Israeli troops shot three hostages dead in broad daylight while they were shirtless and waving a white flag.

Israel announced that thirty-six of the remaining hostages are dead. It didn’t disclose the causes of the deaths but admitted that one was killed during a failed rescue operation (Hamas said he was killed by friendly fire; Israel hasn’t said one way or the other). Hamas claims that Israel has killed dozens more hostages by bombing Gaza. There’s good reason to believe them. Israel has prosecuted a historically destructive bombing campaign featuring carpet-bombing tactics and the prodigious use of two-thousand-pound bombs which “turn earth to liquid.” Several freed hostages said they were almost killed by Israeli bombardment.

Palestinian Hostages

Hamas is much more eager to release the hostages than Israel is to bring them home. After all, the main point of Hamas’s October 7 attack was to get enough hostages to eventually free in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. This is from Hamas’s official statement on the attack:

Operation Al-Aqsa Flood on Oct. 7 targeted the Israeli military sites, and sought to arrest the enemy’s soldiers to pressure the Israeli authorities to release the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails through a prisoner exchange deal.

Hostage taking and prisoner swaps in the context of Israel and Palestine date back to 1968. More recently, several exchanges have occurred between Israel and nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, including in 2004, 2008, and  2011. In March, Netanyahu slammed a proposal to exchange Israeli hostages for a thousand Palestinian prisoners as “ridiculous,” even though Israel freed more than a thousand prisoners in exchange for one Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.

Of the prisoners Israel agreed to release as part of the November cease-fire and hostage exchange, 80 percent hadn’t been convicted of any crime. Most were women and children. An NBC investigation found that they “were either charged with crimes that had not yet been prosecuted, or were detained under a practice known as administrative detention.” What’s administrative detention? B’Tselem explains:

In administrative detention, a person is held without trial without having committed an offense, on the grounds that he or she plans to break the law in the future. As this measure is supposed to be preventive, it has no time limit. The person is detained without legal proceedings, by order of the regional military commander, based on classified evidence that is not revealed to them. This leaves the detainees helpless — facing unknown allegations with no way to disprove them, not knowing when they will be released, and without being charged, tried or convicted.

In other words, administrative detainees are de facto hostages. So Israel held thousands of Palestinians hostage before Hamas took hundreds of Israelis hostage on October 7. In September, Israel broke the thirty-year record for the number of Palestinians in administrative detention, with 1,264. Now Israel holds 3,424 Palestinians hostage in administrative detention. This is only a fraction of the total 9,088 Palestinians that Israel has incarcerated as “security prisoners.”

Israel is holding more hostages than Hamas. Administrative detainees are held indefinitely without charge or trial. This chart has two blue columns. The much bigger one shows the 3,424 administrative detainees held by Israel, who are de facto hostages; the other shows the 132 hostages held by Hamas. The vast majority of Israel’s administrative detainees are Palestinian. Figures as of May 2024. Data: Israel Prison Service, HaMoked, BBC, WSJ.

The Biden and Netanyahu administrations are colluding to make Hamas appear intransigent on releasing the hostages. This illusion depicts Israel as a reluctant hero, as opposed to an opportunistic murderer — it makes it seem like Israel has no choice but to continue its assault on Rafah and the rest of Gaza. Selling this assault as a hostage-rescue mission is dishonest and morally bankrupt. In effect, US and Israeli leaders are using the hostages as political cover for genocide.