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The hostages’ fate is splitting Israel

Demonstrators outside the Kirya defense complex in Tel Aviv this week. Credit: Getty

November 22, 2023 - 12:00pm

It appears that the release of 50 Israeli hostages held by Hamas since 7 October is imminent, but the politics around the fate of those remaining in captivity is becoming more rancorous. 

Yesterday, security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called for the passage of a bill, originally introduced eight months ago, that would result in mandatory death sentences for those convicted of terrorism. He argued that this would prevent future kidnappings, as there will be no Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails to exchange.  

This nearly caused a riot inside the Knesset, as members of some of the families of the hostages condemned Ben-Gvir and called for the withdrawal of the bill. 

Gil Dickmann, cousin of Carmel and Jordan Gat, who were kidnapped from Kibbutz Be’eri, asked: “Why today? This death penalty when our kids are there? I already turned to you last week and begged you to stop […] You don’t understand what this does to us.”

In response, Ben-Gvir attempted to hug Dickmann, who later wrote on social media, “My look here says everything. I told you, don’t hug me. You still hugged me. I told you not to endanger our loved ones. You did anyway. All for the image.” He accused Ben-Gvir of risking “the blood of our families” for political gain. 

Yordan Gonen, sister of Romi Gonen, who was taken from the Nova music festival, criticised the timing of the debate, which seemed designed to jeopardise the hostage deal: “I am shocked that they don’t notice that the bill is completely against the release of the abductees safe and sound.” Chen Avigdori, whose daughter Noam and wife Sharon were both abducted, was more direct: “Stop talking about killing Arabs, talk about saving Jews!”

This incident reflects the broader divide in Israeli politics and society, between those who prioritise the return of the hostages even at the expense of strengthening Hamas, and those who argue that concern for the hostages should not interfere with military objectives.

One group representing some of the families of the kidnapped called for the release of a significant number of the 7,000 Palestinians held by Israel — around a third of whom are known to be members of Hamas — in exchange for the hostages. 

In contrast, government minister Amihai Eliyahu, recently in the news for musing about a possible nuclear strike on Gaza, argued that “we have to be cruel” and “not think too much about the hostages […] I hope and pray for their return, but there are costs in war.”

Two days ago, 107 relatives of the hostages arrived at the army headquarters in Tel Aviv for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and were initially denied entry — ostensibly because only 99 were invited — leading to a temporary sit-down protest outside. 

After eventually being granted an audience, representatives of the families explained that while they understood there were two objectives — the return of the hostages and the destruction of Hamas — these goals were contradictory, and asked Netanyahu to prioritise the return of the kidnapped, to which he agreed. 

Late last night, the religious parties which form part of Netanyahu’s coalition supported the exchange, leaving only the settler parties, led by Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, in opposition. 

Nonetheless, despite government approval of the pending exchange, the issue remains heavily divisive. As some of the hostage families who had previously supported the Netanyahu government have become more Left-wing in recent weeks, so too has support for returning the hostages become seen as a Left-wing stance. 

Already, this has led to violent reactions from hardline supporters of the Government: less than a week after the initial massacre and kidnappings, Eli Albag, whose 19-year-old daughter Liri is held captive in Gaza, was attacked by a passer-by at a protest in Tel Aviv, who called him a traitor and said: “I hope your daughter dies.”  

As the international community attempts to present a united front, Israel itself remains divided. By pursuing military aims, the hardliners in Netanyahu’s government may jeopardise the safe return of those in captivity. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, the political split over the fate of the hostages is only going to grow.


David Swift is a historian and author. His next book, Scouse Republic, will be published in 2025.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago

The current hostages have a face, a backstory, and weeping families. Those who will be killed in the future by Hamas prisoners released now are faceless and unknown. Nobody thinks it will be them, or their child. But assuredly, releasing multiple Palestinian prisoners for every one Israeli returned ensures that there will be more hostages, and more victims. The media focus on the most vocal, and most camera friendly, family members to undermine Netanyahu, and, effectively, to promote Hamas’s agenda.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Very well said. The media live in a happy fog into which the realities of terrorist butchery and war are not permitted to intrude. They see what they want to see. They are blind to the larger truths.

Last edited 7 months ago by Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
7 months ago

I would question the use of the term “hardliner” to describe individuals who are skeptical about doing deals, i.e. “negotiating” with terrorists, especially Hamas, one of the most notorious and treacherous gang of thieves the world has ever seen. Having said that, all decent people mourn the losses suffered by Israeli families and hope and pray that the hostages will come home safely. How best to achieve that hope when dealing with butchers is an agonizing problem – even for so-called “hardliners”.

N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago

Israel looks like getting the worst of this exchange deal. 150 Palestinian prisoners for 50 Israeli hostages. Why not a one-for-one deal? Anyone seriously think that Hamas will not use the ceasefire to regroup/re-arm, perhaps move the remaining hostages well out of reach? Giving in to Hamas’ demands can only lead to future hostage taking. If the tactic yields results why wouldn’t they? Remember how hostage taking played out in Lebanon.
The timing of a bill which would bring in mandatory death sentences for terrorists may not be ideal but the law itself sounds like a very good idea.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago

I’m of the opinion that Israel should release whoever they need to get the hostages released, give Hamas however long a ceasefire they want, and when that period ends, resume exterminating them like the vermin they are. The hostages and civilian casualties are unfortunate, but every war has civilian casualties. This one will have a lot because it was part of Hamas strategy. We should not lose sight of that.

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
7 months ago

It has always been a weakness of Israel to grant concessions in return for hostages. Hamas would never make that mistake.

El Uro
El Uro
7 months ago

We are betrayed and sold
PS. BTW, I saw those demonstrators in Tel Aviv. Most of them were professional demonstrators and there is no need to convince me otherwise, I have lived long enough in this world

Last edited 7 months ago by El Uro
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
7 months ago

Tunnels. Tunnels. Tunnels.
Stop talking about killing “Arabs”. Stop bombing civilians. It’s not helping. When you need to bring down buildings, do it in such a way that the civilians are loudly warned first. Make it all public; let the world see what you’re doing. Publish maps of the tunnels you’ve destroyed. Make a spectacle of demolishing the tunnels.
Without the tunnels Hamas is helpless. You can pick off the guilty ones later.