Faced with risky options for Gaza hostages, US turns to long-time mediator | ET REALITY


In the dense warrens of Gaza, Hamas is believed to be holding at least 199 people hostage, guarded by gunmen and booby traps, likely scattered and hidden from any potential rescuers as Israel prepares a ground invasion.

Israeli and American commandos have carried out extraordinary hostage rescues in the past. But the chaotic environment of Gaza, which is descending into a humanitarian crisis and the base where Hamas launched devastating attacks on Israel this month, has made such a mission unlikely because of the dangers to both hostages and soldiers.

That has left desperate and complex diplomacy – led by the United States and Qatar, a small nation with extensive ties to militant groups – as the best option to save the hostages in the eyes of many current and former officials.

In the talks so far, Qatar is acting as a mediator between Hamas and officials in the United States, which like Israel and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group. To add even more complexity to the talks, people from more than 30 countries are among the hostages.

If Hamas thought taking hostages was protection against an Israeli invasion, the group might have played it wrong. Although Western and American officials have urged restraint to limit the danger to Gaza hostages and civilians, Israeli leaders have vowed to destroy Hamas, amassing troops and tanks on the border and calling up some 360,000 reservists.

“Sacrificing hostages and soldiers seems to be the current psychology,” said Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011 after more than five years in captivity. “No one thinks about the day after: what will you do with Gaza?”

Almost immediately after the Hamas attack on October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people, Qatar joined the hostage negotiations, drawing on its experience in mediating the release of people around the world.

This week, with Qatar acting as a mediator at Ukraine’s request, Russia agreed to repatriate four Ukrainian children. Qatar also recently played a quiet role in the release of two American hostages in Africa, including a nun and an aid worker, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the diplomatic efforts, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. situation. talks. In 2014, Qatar worked behind the scenes to secure the release of an American journalist held by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.

That journalist’s release was a bright spot in a dark time, when members of the Islamic State kidnapped about two dozen Western hostages, some of whom were eventually beheaded, including another journalist, James Foley.

At one point, American commandos attempted to free hostages in a prison in Raqqa, Syria, but by the time they reached the city, the captives had already been moved.

Several former U.S. officials and analysts said that while that mission was extremely dangerous, it would not compare to the dangers of a military rescue operation in Gaza, a densely populated urban area packed with weapons, fighters and miles of underground tunnels.

Given those dangers – and that Gaza is increasingly dangerous for everyone, with dwindling clean water, medicine and fuel – US officials believe a military rescue is nearly impossible. That means diplomacy remains the central effort.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, that the two countries were working intensively to secure the release of the hostages.

Blinken then traveled to Israel with Steve Gillen, the State Department’s deputy special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, an office created in 2015 after American families complained bitterly about the Obama administration’s handling of hostages. Gillen met with Gal Hirsh, a retired Israeli general who was appointed coordinator for the captives and missing.

The former US official, along with a senior Western official familiar with the negotiations, said there was optimism that Hamas could free the women and children because of the international reaction to the abductions.

A senior Israeli military official said that based on talks the United States has had with Qatar, there is a possibility that Hamas could release the approximately 50 dual citizens outside of any broader agreement.

Still, the US military has not been idle, even if a rescue effort remains a remote possibility.

The Pentagon has sent a small team of special operations forces to Israel to help with intelligence and planning any operations to help locate and rescue the hostages, a senior Defense Department official said. The military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command has also deployed aircraft and logistics to the region as a precaution ahead of any potential mission, U.S. officials said, but has not yet sent any operational command teams to Israel.

“The first priority is intelligence sharing: where the hostages are being held,” said Christopher Costa, a former Army Special Forces officer and White House counterterrorism official.

A senior U.S. official said there is little information about the hostages’ whereabouts.

The FBI, which investigates crimes against Americans abroad and plays a major role in hostage cases, also has a small presence at the US embassy in Tel Aviv and strong ties to Israeli law enforcement and intelligence. So far, more than a dozen Americans remain missing, although it was unclear how many were hostages. The FBI has opened more than a dozen cases of captured or missing Americans, according to a U.S. law enforcement official.

Christopher O’Leary, a former top FBI official who led a multi-agency hostage recovery team and handled countless kidnappings, said the size and scale of the Oct. 7 kidnappings were surprising.

“It’s like nothing we’ve faced in the modern era,” said O’Leary, who now works with the Soufan Group, a security consultancy.

Last year, he attended a conference in Herzliya, Israel, where he and his Israeli counterparts discussed complex hostage situations, including the infamous 1985 hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He said the Israelis were well aware of the possibility of kidnappings, a past Hamas strategy, but were caught off guard.

“They’re sensitive to the fact that something like this could happen tomorrow,” O’Leary said.

For the families of the hostages, there are frustratingly few reliable details, and there may be misinformation. Hamas has claimed that the hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, claims that could not be independently verified. The Islamic State made a similar statement in 2015, claiming that an American hostage had been killed in a US bombing, but investigators believe the terrorist group killed the woman.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, claimed on Telegram after the attack that the group had hidden “dozens of hostages” in “safe locations and resistance tunnels.”

In another case, Hamas last week released a video that appeared to show the release of an Israeli woman and two children. The woman, Avital Aladjem, told Israeli media that she crossed into Gaza but that her kidnappers let her pass at the border. She wasn’t told why.

Hamas, which was surprised by the success of the attack, according to the senior Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivities, also appears to be rejecting widespread condemnation of the kidnappings.

In talks with Qatar, the Western official said, Hamas claimed it had not ordered its gunmen to kidnap women and children, and blamed some of the kidnappings on common criminals who breached breached border fences. Hamas also told negotiators that it is not holding all prisoners, the official said.

In a video Hamas released of a hostage, Mia Schem, 21, someone appears to be bandaging her arm while loud thuds and car horns can be heard in the background. “Right now I am in Gaza,” Ms. Schem, a French-Israeli citizen, says in the video, adding that she is being treated and that her arm was operated on in a hospital. The video ends with her request to be returned to Israel.

After the video was released, the Israeli military said in a statement that Hamas was “trying to present itself as a humane organization, while it is a murderous terrorist organization responsible for the murder and kidnapping of babies, women, children and the elderly.”

O’Leary, a former FBI official, described the video as propaganda and a reminder that “Israel cannot rush into a massive invasion because of the risk of harming the hostages.”

“Or at least that is their hope,” he said, referring to Hamas.

Eric Schmitt, Steven Erlanger and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this story.

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