Free Hamas Leaders to Free Hostages? The Bangkok Solution Is Gaining Steam.


Feb 16, 2024

Israeli women, one covered with an Israeli flag, stand in front of a wall of photos of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 03, 2023, photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Reuters

Israeli women, one covered with an Israeli flag, stand in front of a wall of photos of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 03, 2023

Photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on February 16, 2024.

Israel reportedly has offered to allow Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar and other Hamas commanders safe passage into exile, which could weaken Hamas's hold on Gaza, in return for the release of all the Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

Although the circumstances are very different, the offer recalls much earlier resolutions of hostage crises.

Fifty-one years ago, four armed members of Black September, a terrorist group created by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), took over the Israeli embassy in Bangkok. They threatened to kill the Israeli hostages unless Israel released 35 Palestinian prisoners and the sole survivor of the Japanese Red Army terrorist team that attacked Tel Aviv's Airport in May 1972, killing 26 people and wounding 80 others.

Black September was the same organization that a year before had assassinated the prime minister of Jordan and just three months before the attack in Bangkok had seized Israeli hostages at the Munich Olympics. The Munich hostage standoff ended in a shootout resulting in the deaths of all of the hostages. Bloodshed looked likely in Bangkok.

However, deft diplomacy by Thai officials, assisted by the Egyptian ambassador, persuaded the terrorists to release their hostages in return for their own guaranteed safe passage out of the country. The outcome came to be known as the “Bangkok solution (PDF).”

The Bangkok solution closely resembled the resolution of an earlier hostage situation in Canada. In October 1970, members of the Quebec Liberation Front kidnapped a provincial cabinet officer and the British trade commissioner. The kidnappers' demands included the publication of their manifesto, the release of 23 prisoners, the delivery of $500,000 in gold bars and a plane to take them to Cuba.

Canada rejected all of the demands except the publication of the manifesto. As authorities intensified their search for the terrorists' hideouts, the cell holding the Canadian minister announced his “execution.” More than a month later, police surrounded the terrorists holding the British diplomat. To avoid his murder, the Canadian government agreed to let all members of the cell holding him fly to Cuba in return for his release.

These cases have relevance to the current conflict in Gaza, although the circumstances are very different. The siege in Bangkok involved just four terrorists and six Israeli hostages. It was over in a day. The negotiations were tactical. None of the potential outcomes constituted an existential threat to the parties involved. In contrast, the current situation in Gaza involves strategic calculations during a desperate war in which national survival outweighs the fate of the hostages.

The current situation in Gaza involves strategic calculations during a desperate war in which national survival outweighs the fate of the hostages.

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Yet, there are some parallels. Palestinian groups in 1972 had initiated a new bloodier phase of terrorism. In retaliation for the Munich incident, the Israeli government embarked upon a campaign of assassinating terrorist leaders wherever they could be found. On Jan. 2, 2023, a top Hamas leader and his lieutenants were killed by a drone strike in Lebanon.

In December 2023, the Commanders for Israel's Security, a group of more than 500 former Israeli defense and intelligence officials, proposed a deal in which Israel considers offering Hamas leaders (and possibly Hamas fighters) expulsion, along with several Palestinian prisoners, in return for the release of the remaining hostages, which might be seen as a large-scale Bangkok solution.

But many uncertainties remain.

It is not clear that Sinwar would accept the offer of safe passage. Israeli forces may know roughly where he is hunkered down, but he is not surrounded and may draw protection from the presence of at least some of the hostages. Faced with an imminent assault and almost certain death, he could trade hostages for his own life. Or in a final act of defiance, he could choose “martyrdom” and order the murder of the remaining hostages, thereby guaranteeing enduring hostility between Israelis and Palestinians.

While Sinwar is revered by many as the symbol of uncompromising Palestinian resistance, it is not clear what effect his departure would have. Would his acceptance of safe passage demoralize those left behind to fight? Would Sinwar's commanders follow his order to release all prisoners, or would they use them as bargaining chips for their own safe passage? Might die-hard lieutenants sabotage any agreement? This possibility might be reduced by expanding the offer.

It is not clear whether the offer of safe passage applies only to Sinwar, or to others as well. The report said “Hamas leaders,” suggesting that several Hamas officials could leave. The proposal put forth by the Commanders for Israel Security suggested that an offer might include Hamas leaders, Hamas fighters and even some Palestinian prisoners.

That figure could amount to thousands and puts it closer to the deal made with PLO leader Yasir Arafat for the departure of PLO forces from Lebanon in 1982. In that case, more than 10,000 PLO combatants evacuated the country under the protection of a multinational force of American, French and Italian soldiers (PDF). A similar deal in the current situation would effectively end Hamas rule in Gaza, giving Israel the victory it seeks.

The obstacle to a large-scale evacuation of Hamas combatants, while attractive to Israel, is where they would go. Sinwar and a handful of commanders might find asylum in Qatar or Turkey, where Hamas leaders are already based. But what country would be willing to take in thousands of Hamas fighters, whose presence would pose a security problem, be politically destabilizing and potentially expose the host to Israeli action in the future?

Over the years, Palestinian fighters, who tended to set up autonomous states within states have been driven away by Jordan, fought with other factions and Syrian forces in Lebanon, and were kept under tight control by Tunisia. The Egyptian government is hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Hamas emerged, and fears that the presence of Hamas militants would be destabilizing. Palestinian solidarity does not guarantee welcome.

The biggest obstacle to resolving the hostage issue, however, is the strategic calculations of Israel and Hamas. Israel remains determined to destroy Hamas and believes that only continuing military pressure will bring about the ultimate release of all the hostages. Hamas remains determined to hold the hostages to guarantee its political survival.

Hostage negotiations by themselves will not end the war.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of RAND and author of numerous books, reports, and articles on terrorism-related topics.

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