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Hostages or Hamas? Rafah may force Netanyahu’s hand

The prospect of an attack on Rafah could spur critics outside Israel to challenge the strategy of eliminating Hamas over negotiating a hostage deal.
Colin Shindler
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In Tel Aviv this week, relatives and supporters campaigned for hostage release as Israel’s top priority (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Published: 18 February 2024

Last updated: 21 March 2024

The prospect of an attack on Rafah could spur critics outside Israel to challenge the strategy of eliminating Hamas over negotiating a hostage deal.

Last week, Amos Biderman published his daily cartoon in Ha'aretz. It depicted Netanyahu standing alone amidst the ruins of Gaza and sporting a MAGA (Make America Great Again) style hat — albeit in blue and white. The hat was labelled “Total Victory!” Below Netanyahu's feet, hidden from view, deep underground in a tunnel, were the caged hostages, guarded by an armed and indifferent Yahya Sinwar.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words — but never more so than in Biderman's “above and below ground” caricature, illustrating the choice for Israelis: "Which should take priority? The rescue of the hostages or Netanyahu's belief in 'Total Victory' over Hamas?"

All Israelis want to see the return of the hostages — and this is reflected in the “Bring them Home" campaign waged in the Diaspora. What is totally missing in the Diaspora is any commentary which reflects the intense debate in Israel — the primacy of rescuing the hostages over the meaning of “Total Victory”. The Diaspora campaign may be well-intentioned and directed at increasing diplomatic pressure but it omits any consideration of the price to be paid in rescuing the hostages.

Recently the families of British hostages and those with British links visited London from Israel. They told the BBC and other media outlets that unless a deal was struck, it was likely that the hostages might never return. The longer the war continues, the greater the likelihood that the hostages would return in body bags.

Benny Gantz’s threat to attack Rafah before Ramadan if all the hostages are not released can be seen as a reflection of the urgency to secure the immediate return of those held in Hamas captivity.

Netanyahu knows that if he cuts a deal with Hamas to rescue the hostages, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir will leave his coalition.

Netanyahu's supporters have enthusiastically argued that victory is within reach. The war, however, did not end within weeks, as many originally believed. Some now suggest that victory may take months, if not years, to achieve. It has dragged on with an increasing loss of life. This, in itself, is evidence of the IDF's intelligence failure within Gaza — such that the extent of Hamas's labyrinth of tunnels is still uncertain.

Netanyahu's mantra is that only military pressure will produce the release of the hostages. While this is undoubtedly a possibility, only two Argentinian-Israeli kibbutzniks were rescued recently, 134 are still unaccounted for and we will be approaching day 150 in a few weeks.

Gadi Eisenkot, the head of the IDF from 2015-19 and an integral member of the Israeli cabinet, told Israeli TV’s Channel 12 it was unlikely that Hamas would be entirely eliminated - or that the IDF could repeat a rescue along the lines of the Entebbe rescue of hijacked passengers from Idi Amin's Uganda in 1976.  

A recent Israel Democracy survey, headed by the political scientist, Tamar Herman, noted that 51% responded that their priority was the return of the hostages — whereas 36% argued that toppling Hamas was the priority. Significantly, 53% of women respondents wanted the return of the hostages compared to 40% of men. The results further reflected the division of opinion in Israel, with the Centre and the Left preferring the return of the hostages.

A remarkable 77% of respondents who aligned themselves with 'Religious Zionism' on the far Right of the political spectrum had no qualms about supporting first and foremost the elimination of Hamas over the return of the hostages.

Netanyahu knows that if he is willing to cut a deal with Hamas to rescue the hostages, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the representatives of the far Right, will leave his coalition — and raise the possibility of a new election in which the Likud, currently polling at 18 seats, will lose half their mandates.

He also knows that he would be replaced by Benny Gantz and would not receive immunity from imprisonment. He would be forced to accept a future verdict at the end of his trial, arising from charges of fraud, breach of trust and receiving bribes.

A survey noted that 51% of Israelis said their priority was the return of the hostages, while 36% said toppling Hamas was the priority.

Beyond this, Netanyahu realises that his imagery as 'Mr Security' was shattered by the mass killings of October 7. Those who overlooked his political peccadillos because he was the guarantor of their personal safety are no longer willing to entertain his staying in power. He has instead attempted to shift blame onto the military leadership, who indeed will have to answer pointed questions for the intelligence failure in any future inquiry. For Netanyahu, “the buck doesn't stop here”.

During the conflict, he has attempted to project a persona of Churchillian resilience over Chamberlainesque appeasement. And no doubt he has looked back to the absolutism and determination of his predecessors on the Right, Vladimir Jabotinsky's Revisionists and Menahem Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi.

Yet Netanyahu has been inconsistent on the question of prisoner release in the past. In 1985, he opposed the release of 1,150 Palestinians for three soldiers held by the Popular Front for Palestine: General Command. In 2011, as prime minister, he embraced Gilad Shalit on his release from years of captivity in Gaza in return for 1,127 Palestinian prisoners.

It can be argued that he did so in the national interest and that circumstances were different in each case. It can also be argued that each decision was based on his own political predilections at those points in time.

The total elimination of Hamas is an important goal but is it an attainable one? If one member of Hamas survives, is this less than “Total Victory”?

Despite the Hamas claim of 30,000 Palestinian deaths in the war, the number of its combatants killed is never stated. According to US intelligence reports a month ago, Hamas has lost between 20% to 30% of its fighters. Even if this figure has increased substantially during recent weeks, will the remnant of Hamas that remains pose an existential threat to Israel?

Hamas may have butchered 1,300 Israelis but it did not destroy Israel on October 7, 2023. It is also likely that following an inquiry, the IDF will be restructured with a new leadership and innovative security steps will be taken to ensure that October 7 never occurs again.

So has the Diaspora now reached a turning point in this terrible conflict, whereby discussions over the dinner table will see the light of day? Will there be Diaspora voices echoing the call of the hostages' families for a deal?

has the Diaspora reached a turning point ? Will there be voices echoing the call of the hostages' families for a deal?

The senior rabbi of the Masorti movement in the UK, the much-respected Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, broke the ice last week by issuing a statement on the possible assault on Rafah. He wrote:

“The calculated barbarity and strategic cruelty of Hamas’s military, and the presence of its forces in tunnels beneath Rafah, are beyond doubt. It suits them, and Iran, cynically to provoke Israel, then blame it for the terrible consequences.

“But over a million Palestinian civilians, most already in flight from the north of Gaza, are now trapped with nowhere to go. In countless references, Judaism has throughout its history stressed our duty to refugees and the helpless. International humanitarian law calls for the protection of non-combatants. How can we be unmoved by their grief and suffering?”

This coincided with President Biden's reiteration of his warning that without a credible humanitarian plan to evacuate civilians safely, attacking Rafah is unconscionable. Rabbi Wittenberg's comments, buried in a shul newsletter, unexpectedly went viral — and invited much praise as well as invective.

Rabbi Wittenberg went where others feared to tread. But isn't this the task of rabbis to interpret Judaism and Jewishness for all and to rise above the received wisdom of the times?

Netanyahu has accused his internal critics in Israel of wishing to prevent “the IDF from winning”. Despite this slur, it is quite probable that the prospect of an attack on Rafah will be the straw that breaks the camel's back — it may well galvanise a chorus of Jewish and non-Jewish voices outside Israel to challenge Netanyahu's approach.


Despite talk, neither Netanyahu nor the Israeli Army are eager to operate in Rafah (Amos Harel, Haaretz)
As time runs out for the hostages, Netanyahu is toughening his stance to increase pressure on Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' leader outside Gaza, is demanding non-starters and the chances of reaching a deal appear to be diminishing

Why Rafah is a key flashpoint in the Gaza war (Brad Dress, The Hill)
Israel’s war in Gaza is approaching a new inflection point as forces prepare to enter the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which is temporarily home to some 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering from the war. 

Gaslighter-in-chief Netanyahu sows division by preaching 'unity' (Allison Kaplan-Sommer, Haaretz)
The fact that criticism of Netanyahu came from brave Yom Kippur War veterans seems to matter as little to him as when it comes from the families of hostages held in Gaza. When it comes to fighting for his political survival, all opponents are fair game


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