A press conference featuring relatives of missing U.S. citizens in Tel Aviv on Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Friedman)
A press conference featuring relatives of missing U.S. citizens in Tel Aviv on Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Eliyahu Friedman)

Without a cease-fire, Israeli hostages won’t be coming home

I am praying for the return of the estimated 220 hostages currently held by Hamas in Gaza. Obviously, I am not alone.

My Facebook feed is crowded with their faces, as well as photos of the haunting Shabbat tables set for them in Tel Aviv, Rome and Sydney. I’m on email lists with heartbreaking messages seeking connections to the State Department or anyone who might help. More than 600 rabbis  and many more ordinary Jews signed on for a communal day of fasting and prayer on Oct. 12 on behalf of the hostages.

This concern is deeply right — and deeply Jewish. As the great Jewish legal code, the Shulchan Aruch, puts it: “Anyone who delays redeeming captives, where it is possible to do so, it is as if they spilled blood.”

Yet I wonder why most Jews, both in the United States and Israel, miss the obvious point: If you want the hostages to return, you should demand an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, and open negotiations between the two parties.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza won’t save the hostages. It puts their lives at risk.

Hamas’ release of Judith Raanan and Natalie Raanan on Oct. 20 and of Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz on Oct. 23 demonstrates that the group — however despicable its massacres on Oct. 7 — is interested in negotiations. It also demonstrates that the United States (and Israel, if it so chooses) can deal with Hamas through Qatar. In some sense, we already knew that, because Israel negotiated the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

In fact, the Israeli government has repeatedly negotiated cease-fires, transfers of funds, humanitarian assistance and numerous other questions with the Hamas-run government of Gaza for more than 15 years.

Despite Israeli rhetoric about this foe as absolute evil — “human animals,” as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it, apparently justifying collective punishment for 2 million Gazans — Israel can and does make deals with Hamas all the time.

In the last two-plus weeks, however, Israel has not aggressively pursued such negotiations. Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the deal for Shalit, said early on: “Israel has no intention, at least not in any time in the near future, of negotiating with Hamas.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adviser Mark Regev denied on Oct. 23 that Israel would trade fuel for hostages. The situation continues to change rapidly, though hopes for a larger hostage release seem to have foundered.

The problem is that Israel has other aims. When Netanyahu spoke about the Israel Defense Forces’ military campaign, two days after Hamas’ attack, he went into specific detail about the operation’s five goals — none of which were retrieval of hostages. Netanyahu knows, because he is realistic and savvy, that rescuing the hostages is not an attainable military goal. Indeed, it conflicts with Israel’s military goals. He is managing the Israeli public’s expectations.

Israel can and does make deals with Hamas all the time.

The New York Times has reported that the Biden administration has been pushing Israel to delay a ground invasion in order to save the hostages’ lives. If tanks roll into Gaza City to fight an urban guerilla war with Hamas in underground tunnels, the odds that civilian hostages survive are extraordinarily low.

Already, two weeks of aerial bombardment have reportedly killed more than 4,000 people in Gaza, 40% of whom are women and children. And the IDF has struck numerous civilian buildings, including mosques, hospitals and schools. Such continued strikes place hostages at great risk too, as does cutting off basic supplies like electricity, water, food and medicine.

Even if many American and Israeli Jews are essentially indifferent to Palestinian suffering — and to what I see as war crimes — they should recognize that aerial bombardment and siege also threaten the lives of the hostages they are praying for. It strikes me as extremely confusing, and even incoherent, to pray for the release of hostages, while cheering for an army dropping bombs on them.

If you want to save the hostages — Israeli Jews, Jewish foreigners and non-Jewish foreigners alike — the only path is a negotiated cease-fire. Such negotiations need not even preclude a later military operation against Hamas. Past cease-fires certainly have not done so.

The absence of this obvious point underscores, for me, that American and Israeli Jews are mostly concerned with something other than saving these lives: deterring future violence, punishing evildoers or simply seeking revenge

I see things differently. Fifteen years of Israeli bombardment and siege have not deterred much of anything. And if everyone got the revenge they were entitled to in Israel and Palestine, the results would be very grim indeed.

At the core, the problem of the hostages poses a choice: violence or negotiation?

Of course, kidnapping civilians is a horrid, detestable war crime, for which I condemn Hamas. And yet, with particular potency, the situation of the hostages also dramatizes the basic situation of civilians across Israel-Palestine.

Two million Palestinians are essentially captives in Gaza. Told to flee by the Israeli army, they evacuate only to be bombed again. Millions of Israelis, too, are captive to constant rocket attacks. And outside of Gaza, Israel is arresting and imprisoning record numbers of Palestinians.

This situation underscores a basic truth that the left knows: There is not now and has never been a military pathway out of this situation. This isn’t a moral point. It is the simplest, most brutal and most realistic fact about Israel-Palestine.

Whatever you think about the other side and its morality, if you want to free hostages, then you must negotiate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of J.

Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik

Raphael Magarik is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. He earned his Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley.