What a history of hostage swaps can tell us about a potential deal in Gaza - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | What a history of hostage swaps between Israel and Hamas can tell us about a potential deal

Mar 06, 2024 07:17 PM IST

During a peak in conflict, a deal allows both sides to meet their politico-military objectives. So what’s different this time around?

Back in the later months of 2011, Israel released 1,027 (mostly Arab/Palestinian) prisoners, of whom 280 were serving life sentences. In return, Hamas released one captured Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldier, Gilad Shalit. This exchange remains the highest number of prisoners that the state of Israel has ever released in return for a single soldier. The hostage-prisoner swap teaches both parties different lessons each time and contributes to what either party considers as incentives in the following instance. It determines whether to push for or walk away from the deal, which almost always has served as a precursor to a ceasefire.

A person rides a bicycle past photos of hostages who were kidnapped in the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 6, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins(REUTERS) PREMIUM
A person rides a bicycle past photos of hostages who were kidnapped in the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas from Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 6, 2024. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins(REUTERS)

As Israel’s large-scale bombing of Gaza continues and mediators press both the Netanyahu-led Israeli war cabinet and Hamas leadership to accept a deal, around 130 Israeli hostages remain in Hamas captivity. While mediators (Egypt, Qatar, USA) grow increasingly critical of Israel’s intransigence vis-a-vis past proposals for an exchange deal and seek a ceasefire prior to the beginning of Ramzan (March 10th), a look at Israel’s past shines more light on its current priorities.

Since its inception, Israel has had a long history of engaging in deals to exchange Israeli captives for Arab prisoners. A Times of Israel report outlines the most prominent instances: In 1955, it exchanged 40 Syrian soldiers for four IDF soldiers (three of whom were alive at the time of the exchange); in 1983, 4,700 Arabs were being held by the Palestine Liberation Organization were exchanged for six Israeli prisoners; two years later, Israel released 1,150 Palestinians (including those charged with murder) for three IDF soldiers being held by the Syria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Moreover, in 2004 and 2008, Israel released a further 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners as part of its deals with Hezbollah (at a time when Israel was just exiting the 2006 Lebanese War).

The Shalit exchange, however, was unique.

Implemented under a hardline Benjamin Netanyahu as premier, there was already significant push-back within Israel to such a deal. Its Supreme Court had to dispense with multiple petitions seeking to block the exchange. In any case, the Shalit exchange was the last of its kind. For Netanyahu himself, a key incentive for the Shalit exchange was a lack of intelligence on the hostage’s location, rather than an innate belief in the strategic efficacy of the swap as a method that meets Israel’s national interests. Indeed, in a 1986 book that he edited titled Terrorism: How the West Can Win, Netanyahu argued for “a policy that in effect tells the terrorists that we will not give in to your demands. We insist that you free the hostages. If you do not do so peaceably, we are ready to use force.”

While the lopsided nature of the exchange reduced Netanyahu’s appetite for a similar deal in the future, critics had argued that it would incentivise Hamas to attempt similar kidnappings in the future to secure more concessions from Israel. As it so happened, two years following the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas admitted to holding two Israeli civilians in captivity along with the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war, with negotiations for a swap with prisoners extending into 2021 and ending in a deadlock.

Moreover, the November 2023 swap as part of the humanitarian pause in the current war, featured a less skewed hostage-to-prisoner ratio than in the past: 50 Israeli hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Among the prisoners released, Israel has reportedly even re-arrested at least 11 Palestinians, reflecting Tel Aviv’s lack of faith in the strength of Hamas’ bargaining position and hence its reduced incentives to uphold its own commitments.

Implications for the current war

Prior to the current war, holding Israeli captives was more means than objective. For Hamas, the historically lopsided numbers in the prisoners-to-hostage ratio yielded greater confidence in using Israeli hostages as a low-investment, high-return instrument to garner concessions from Tel Aviv. It also acted as a hedge against Israel’s conventional military advantage; Hamas arguably took a page out of Hezbollah’s tactic of ambushes combined with kidnappings to secure new means of leverage.

October seventh, however, while being the same in nature, was significantly different in scale. Hamas’ high casualty terror attack fulfilled a shock-and-awe objective while a high number of hostages worked as a tried and tested hedging tool that would eventually draw Israel to the negotiating table, or act as leverage to dampen the intensity of Israel’s response. Except, the scale of the October 7th attack as well as Netanyahu’s progressively worsening internal political position meant that Israel’s response too would break new records in scale. Essentially, for Netanyahu at least, the context is vastly different than that of Gilad Shalit. The increased scale of the conflict counter-intuitively reduces the Israeli incentive to even match the 2011 number of prisoners. Rather, the much higher number of Israeli hostages allows it more rationale to adopt a kinetic approach (a better casus belli/ justification for war), along with indirect negotiations.

Hence, even if Israel concedes a higher number of prisoners in return for a lower number of hostages eventually, its hyper-kinetic response targeting Hamas in Gaza (and killing over 30,000) would have already served the hardline objective, acting as a better cushion for an eventual swap.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. In Eye on the Middle East, Bashir writes about the Middle East/West Asia region and its larger implications for India. The views expressed are strictly personal.

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