What will happen to the Israeli hostages held by Hamas? Their lives hang in the balance but both Israel and Hamas view the conflict as existential—there is little room for compromise.
Intense fighting continues, and a mass rescue is unlikely. As a condition for renewal of negotiations, Hamas demands a complete and unlimited cessation of Israeli military activity. Israel remains unwilling to accept a lasting cease-fire, fearing it will lead to protracted hostage negotiations and leave Hamas in place.
The outcome will of course depend on circumstances. Here are five scenarios—not predictions or prescriptions, but an assessment of alternate futures to consider.
Another pause in the fighting, and further exchanges. Obtaining the release of the most vulnerable hostages—children and their mothers, the elderly, and the infirm—has been a priority of Israeli negotiators from the beginning. It was also felt that Hamas would be more inclined to free those who are more difficult to care for and therefore more likely to die in captivity. To Hamas, this group represents a potentially declining asset as well as a PR challenge.
Both Israel and Hamas view the conflict as existential—there is little room for compromise.
The exchanges broke down when, instead of releasing 10 women still held hostage, Hamas offered to discuss the release of elderly men. Israel viewed this as a stalling tactic or suspected that Hamas was reluctant to release more women, who would reveal further details of sexual abuse in captivity. Hamas, for its part, has claimed that Israel refused to discuss offers to release other hostages.
Although the situation is fluid, a future pause in fighting that leads to another hostage exchange may be difficult. Many of those still held are Israeli military reservists, who Hamas wants to keep. Hamas may also be reluctant to release more Israeli American dual nationals because they provide the group with greater leverage in its dealings with Israel.
On December 21, Hamas reportedly rejected Israel's most recent offer of a seven-day truce in return for the release of the remaining women and children and elderly men, demanding instead that Israel end its offensive before any further negotiations.
Also, in the previous exchange, Hamas was trading at a rate of one Israeli hostage for three Palestinian prisoners. Continuing at that rate would gain the release of only a few hundred more prisoners when Hamas demands the release of thousands of Palestinians held by Israel.
Piecemeal releases; local rescues: Before the pause, Hamas had released four hostages. One hostage was rescued, and there has been at least one failed rescue attempt. The bodies of five hostages have been recovered, but Israeli authorities believe that at least 20 more have been killed. In mid-December, Israel admitted that IDF soldiers had mistakenly killed three hostages who had escaped their captors—an appalling tragedy. It is not known exactly how many hostages remain alive.
In 1976, Israeli commandos carried out a risky but successful rescue of more than 100 hostages. Their plane had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
A single rescue of this sort is unlikely in Gaza, as the hostages are scattered in different locations and are held by different groups. But Israeli soldiers may corner some Hamas captors with hostages, creating local standoffs in which the Israelis try to persuade the captors to give up their hostages and surrender or overpower them with force. This sort of scene has yet to play out in the fighting in Gaza.
Protracted negotiations are probably what Hamas was aiming for on October 7, when it instructed its attackers to bring back hostages. By holding a large number of Israeli and foreign hostages, Hamas would be able to put Israel under intense pressure, forcing it to agree to a temporary cease-fire and hostage negotiations, which Israel feared Hamas would then draw out to a permanent cessation of hostilities. Even if Gazans suffered tremendous casualties in the interim, as an organization, Hamas would survive.
Like Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas sees holding hostages as a strategic weapon. To sabotage peace negotiations, Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier in 1994. An attempted rescue failed, and the hostage was killed. Hamas kidnapped another Israeli soldier in 2006, survived the subsequent Israeli offensive, and ultimately released him five years later in exchange for Israel's release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Even before October 7, Hamas had been holding two Israelis for nearly 10 years.
Death does not bring release. Hamas still holds the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014. The bodies of three more Israeli soldiers killed during the October 7 attack were also brought back to be used as future bargaining chips.
A final massacre could happen if the war continues—as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned it will—until Hamas is eliminated and the captives are released, but these two goals seem contradictory. It is hard to see how the hostages survive the elimination of Hamas.
Right now, Hamas's commander in Gaza may believe that internal and external pressure will force Israel to suspend its military operations before its forces get close to uprooting the group. But if Israeli forces get close, then what?
Backs to the wall, facing life imprisonment or imminent death, in a final demonstration of defiance and commitment, Hamas leaders might order the massacre of the surviving hostages—a legacy of murder and martyrdom meant to ensure the continuation of a forever war.
The “Bangkok solution.” Fifty-one years ago this month, members of Palestine Liberation Organization's “Black September” group—the same organization that seized Israeli hostages at the Munich Olympics in 1972—took over the Israeli embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. The terrorists threatened to kill the Israeli hostages unless their demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel were met. Israel would not agree, which meant that the only remaining option was to kill the hostages and face death or accept a counteroffer.
In hostage negotiations, rarely are there good options—just bad and less bad. The case of the remaining hostages held in Gaza offers no easy resolution.Share on Twitter
After 19 hours of negotiation, two senior Thai diplomats and the Egyptian ambassador persuaded the captors that they had achieved their mission, having attracted worldwide attention to their cause, and so, in return for being flown out of the country, alive, the captors agreed to free the hostages. This deal came to be known as “the Bangkok solution.”
While no one can say whether similar circumstances will arise when a Bangkok solution might again be an option, it provides a framework of the sort of deal that might be contemplated in advance.
In early December, the “Commanders for Israel's Security,” a group of more than 500 former Israeli defense and intelligence officials, proposed just that, a deal in which Israel considers offering Hamas leaders (and possibly fighters) expulsion, along with a number of Palestinian prisoners, in return for the release of the remaining hostages.
In hostage negotiations, rarely are there good options—just bad and less bad. The case of the remaining hostages held in Gaza offers no easy resolution. Yet history may point to an acceptable way out.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and author of books and articles on hostage negotiations.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on December 21, 2023. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.