From America, the images are deeply emotional, and also devastating. The news clips of Jewish grandmothers and children in wheelchairs being led by Kalashnikov-toting, face-masked Hamas terrorists into Red Cross vehicles are terrifying. That 70 Israeli women and children, and dozens of other foreign nationals who were held hostage underground for more than 50 days have been released is a blessing. But their release also comes with a chill, knowing that there are still over 100 Israeli soldiers and men being held by Hamas and other Islamic militant groups.
The pause in fighting over the last several days – which is expected to continue through early next week with more hostages released in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons – has boosted Israel’s morale, and has helped begin the healing process after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. That day the country’s social contract – which above all calls for the protection of its citizens in a Zionist state – was in tatters after the government and large sections of the IDF did not respond to the attack, where thousands of well-armed Hamas terrorists burst across the Gaza border and butchered, dismembered, raped, burned alive and murdered at least 1,200 Israelis before dragging another 240 hostages into its underground tunnels.
The ray of light with the hostage release comes with a sober reminder of how Hamas treats its captives. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that many Israelis, including children, were held in cages. Most lived on one meal of rice and pita a day – at best. Hamas also forced children – at gunpoint – to watch the atrocities they committed and filmed on Oct. 7. Many slept on chairs. Most were held in near darkness. And some, like Kfir Bibas, who is 10 months old, and his 4-year-old brother Ariel and parents Yarden and Shiri, 34 and 32, respectively, were traded to another Islamic militant group in Gaza. On Wednesday, Hamas announced that the two children and mother had been killed.
This is the enemy that Israel is facing.
In the coming hours and days there will be talks to extend the pause in fighting, and Israel has signaled a willingness to accept that break, in return for the release of more Israelis held hostage. Hamas needs this break in fighting to reorganize, and stay in power. The respite is widely welcomed among Israelis, who believe the first step toward healing is the return of all hostages.
The pause in fighting and the return of some of the hostages has allowed Israelis to further ponder the state of the country since Oct. 7. Distrust in the government appears to be at an all-time high. Much of the work to relocate, feed, clothe and house victims who were dislocated after the Oct. 7 massacre is not being overseen by the Israeli government. Rather, it is being done by private citizens who have banded together to care for fellow Israelis.
The war has brought about a clarity about who should lead Israel. According to an Israeli poll earlier this month, 76 percent of Israelis believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should resign immediately or at the end of the war. While Israel’s defense minister, military chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet have all taken responsibility for the Oct. 7 security lapses, Netanyahu has been silent on the issue. Israelis chide him for not attending the funerals of the murdered, being absent at shivas, and barely acknowledging the relatives of the hostages.
But Israel’s political future, and its investigation into what went wrong on Oct. 7, will have to wait until after the war. Soon, Israel will be faced with a dilemma: even if all the female and child hostages are released in the coming days, Hamas will still hold a trump card: the Israeli soldiers and other Israeli men that are still in captivity. Hamas will only release those captives in exchange for thousands of Palestinians convicted of violent crimes and murder. There is precedent for these one-sided exchanges. The last one occurred in 2011, when Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in 2006, was exchanged for 1,027 prisoners held in Israeli jails.
That swap included almost 300 prisoners serving life sentences for planning and perpetrating terror attacks. Yahya Sinwar, who had been convicted of murdering four fellow Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel, was also released in the deal. He is now the head of Hamas in Gaza. While he was still a prisoner, Israeli doctors treated Sinwar for a brain tumor and saved his life.
If history is a precedent, Israelis have little choice but to make the deal – if it is offered. And that could drag out for months or years. Hamas still holds the bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, slain in the 2014 war, and two other captives, 29-year-old Avraham Mengistu, and a Bedouin-Israeli citizen, and has shown no interest in returning them.
Israel does not have months to negotiate for the release of the soldiers and the other Israeli men. It also cannot wait weeks if it wants to destroy Hamas. While the pause might not greatly impact the IDF’s ability to eliminate the Hamas infrastructure, world opinion is not on Israel’s side. Each day, pressure grows for a permanent ceasefire. (Even as Israeli hostages were being released this week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, called for a permanent ceasefire.)
If Israel stops the war, then it will be seen as a clear Hamas victory – which will ripple from Gaza City to Ramallah to every world capital. In this scenario, Israelis will never feel safe again in their country – knowing that the barbarism that took place on Oct. 7 could happen again. They also know that there is no real Palestinian democracy movement, and a poll this month reported that 75 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank support the Oct. 7 massacre, and 86 percent reject coexistence with Israel.
That’s why Israel will resume its military operations soon. The country is united in its goal to secure its borders. Israelis know the price they must pay for the country’s existence. They know there will be more funerals of soldiers; more missiles over Tel Aviv in the short run; more hatred spewed by the Hamas butchers in Gaza. And in a matter of weeks or months, they know they will run Gaza. They have no other choice.
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor of the Jewish Journal. Email him at email@example.com.