As the world remains transfixed on the Hamas vs. Israel war in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, there is a subplot almost certain to swell in significance to Americans: In addition to the now-27 confirmed U.S.-citizen deaths attributed to the shockingly barbaric Hamas raid into Israel October 7, there are multiple American hostages among the estimated 14 U.S. passport–holders unaccounted for in the Palestinian-run territory.
"I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans being held hostage around the world," President Joe Biden said Tuesday. "We're working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel, including deploying experts to advise and assist with recovery efforts," the president added Wednesday. "Folks, there's a lot we're doing—a lot we're doing. I have not given up hope on bringing these folks home. But the idea that I'm going to stand here before you and tell you what I'm doing is bizarre."
International hostage crises have bedeviled most of the past 10 American presidencies, contributing heavily to Jimmy Carter's 1980 electoral defeat and miring the second term of Ronald Reagan in near-constant scandal. And they were part of the run-up to this story, too, from both the American and Israeli sides.
On Thursday, according to a Washington Post report that cited three House Democratic aides, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told Democratic members of Congress in a private meeting that the U.S. and Qatari governments have agreed to refreeze $6 billion in oil revenue that Iran had previously been given access to spend on humanitarian concerns in exchange for the return of five Iranian-American hostages held in the Islamic Republic (in addition to the release of five Iranians who'd been serving time in America for violating U.S. sanctions). That deal, which awaits official confirmation, came amid re-intensified criticism that Biden's money-for-hostages scheme emboldened and helped indirectly finance the same Iranian government that has long been the chief backer of Hamas in Gaza, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
"When you negotiate and give $6 billion, you create a market for hostages, and the response to that has been Iran and Hamas working together without much of a question," Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), the seventh-ranked GOP presidential primary contender and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a CBS interview Wednesday. "When there's weakness in the White House, there's blood in the streets."
There are American military advisers on the ground in Israel, as well as special forces trained in hostage extraction a short flight away, and an entire U.S. Navy carrier strike group positioned in the Eastern Mediterranean. But that overwhelming firepower is playing second fiddle to an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that has been pulverizing Hamas in Gaza from the air since Saturday, killing over 1,400, according to officials there. (An initial Israeli death count was 1,300.) "We are not contemplating U.S. boots on the ground for any sort of rescue mission," Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said on MSNBC Thursday.
A Washington Post visual-evidence analysis Thursday afternoon concluded that Hamas fighters "took at least 106 people captive during the incursion," of which 64 have since been spotted in Gaza (49 of them civilian), 26 have been seen in unknown locations, and 16 have only been seen in Israel. "The actual number of people taken hostage and soldiers taken prisoner in Gaza by Palestinian fighters is almost certainly higher," the newspaper cautioned. The prisoners are presumed to be held separately and secretly in the vast warren of tunnels underneath the coastal community.
Hamas, which has estimated its abductions in the "tens," is demanding the release of 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli detention and has warned that it will kill a hostage after every unannounced IDF bombing of a civilian target. Israel, which puts the number of hostages at around 150, says (in the words of Energy Minister Israel Katz Thursday), "Not a single electricity switch will be flipped on, not a single faucet will be turned on, and not a single fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home."
Israel has in the past made spectacularly disproportionate prisoner exchanges with Hamas, most notably the 1 for 1,027 swap in 2011 to retrieve soldier Gilad Shalit after five years of confinement. Shalit's abduction, coming as it did just nine months after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza (uprooting 8,000 Jewish settlers in the process), was a profoundly dispiriting episode to Israelis who had hoped that an independent Gaza could live in semi-peaceful coexistence with its former occupier. The size of that ransom is unthinkable now.
The sheer scale and savagery of the deaths already incurred inside Israel, including Americans and other foreign nationals, is likely to mute fixation on the hostages somewhat in the short term. But there is little doubt that the Biden White House in the hours and days before the IDF ground invasion has been engaged in intense and ongoing conversations about U.S. civilians with Israel and with Hamas' go-to intermediaries: NATO ally Turkey, and the strong non-NATO U.S. ally of Qatar (where many senior Hamas officials reside).
As Armin Rosen pointed out in a perceptive Tablet piece Monday, "When Americans are held hostage, an entire policy infrastructure springs into action—one that includes the State Department special envoy for hostage affairs, the FBI, the military, family engagement coordinators, and the intelligence community."
"Hamas will use the hostages in two ways: as human shields and as a source of leverage over Washington," predicted Michael Doran, a former senior National Security Council director, in a quote for Tablet. "As human shields they will prevent Israel from destroying critical infrastructure. As a source of leverage, Hamas will convince Washington to compel Israel to make concessions—on the terms of a cease-fire, the release of prisoners, relaxing economic restrictions on Gaza, delivering payments from abroad, etc. Hamas will parade American hostages before the cameras to beg Washington to bring a halt to Israeli military operations so that the hostages can gain their freedom."
At every stop since Saturday's massacres, Americans and Israelis have compared Hamas to the radical Islamists of ISIS. Therein lies cause for even more sobriety when it comes to hostages. The ISIS-videotaped 2014 beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff (the latter of whom was an Israeli dual national) was the single news event that most penetrated American consciousness in at least the previous five years, changing the course of both U.S. foreign policy (to escalate the war against the caliphate) and the White House's approach to freeing hostages abroad.
It is not hard at this moment to imagine the worst, which propagandists on all sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict understand all too well. But we may be on the verge of seeing U.S. citizens—not just the "handful" or more currently held hostage, but potentially some of the estimated 500 to 600 Americans residing in Gaza—paraded on video under unspeakable conditions, in the middle of a hot war.
As Politico put it Thursday, "The Biden administration has convened a series of meetings across a number of agencies on the fate of the hostages, who are deemed to be in great physical peril—as well as a potential political problem for a president seeking reelection."
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