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Israel-Palestine conflict: Why do terror groups like Hamas take people hostage? Explained

Hamas has taken nearly 200 people hostages since the recent war that broke out on October 7, the highest in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It has now reportedly demanded the release of 6,000 Palestinian prisoners lodged in Israeli jails.

Aveek Banerjee Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Gaza Published on: October 17, 2023 23:19 IST
Over 1,400 Israelis have been killed by Hamas
Image Source : AP Over 1,400 Israelis have been killed by Hamas

Amid the devastating war in the Middle East, the Hamas militant group has demanded the release of at least 6,000 Palestinian prisoners lodged in Israeli jails in exchange for the 199 hostages it has kidnapped in its brutal attack on October 7, repeating an age-old tactic in times of conflict.

On Monday, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) claimed that Hamas and other Palestinian militants are holding 199 hostages in Gaza-- at least 44 higher than previous estimates. Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, said that the families have been notified.

The hostages include high-profile members of the Israeli military and foreign civilians. Some of them have been killed in Israel's relentless bombardment of the Gaza Strip, said Hamas officials. This has not only complicated the Israeli operation in Gaza, but also threatens to expand the conflict to other countries in the Middle East and beyond.

The practice of taking hostages is not a new phenomenon in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the past, several Israeli soldiers and civilians have been kidnapped to force Israel into making large compromises, mostly to get thousands of Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails.

A bargaining chip

According to the Geneva Convention, taking hostages has been designated as a serious war crime and a violation of the rules of international law in cases of armed conflict. Despite that, the history of hostage-taking is a long one, which has been witnessed in countries like Iraq during the Gulf War and Iran.

Similarly, the Israel-Palestine conflict has seen its share of people being kidnapped and held captive, accompanied by threats of execution. A notorious example would be the 1972 Munich massacre, where nine Israeli athletes participating in the Munich Olympics were abducted by militants from the Palestinian group Black September, while two others were killed immediately.

Hostages are generally taken to force the other side to fulfill certain obligations. The hostages are basically used as bargaining chips in the conflict between Hamas and Israel. In 1972, the Black September militants demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. All of the hostages were killed when the rescue operation by West German police failed, along with five militants.

The practice of taking hostages is broadly done to negotiate for political concessions, and in many cases, bring international attention or inspire further terrorism. The perpetrators of the Munich massacre similarly sought to bring attention to the Palestinian cause, and it had a lasting impact on how the West viewed terrorism.

Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal and others

Although Israel refused to release Palestinian prisoners in the Munich massacre, they agreed to facilitate safe passage to four Black September militants in the same year in exchange for six Israeli hostages taken in the Israeli embassy of Thailand.

Since then, Israel is known to have made huge compromises to ensure the release of captured Israelis. In 1983, they released over 4,000 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for six Israeli captives held by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). The next year, close to 300 Syrian prisoners were released for getting six Israeli prisoners and five bodies.

In 1985, Israel freed over 700 Lebanese prisoners after Hezbollah terrorists hijacked the Athens-Rome TWA flight 847 and demanded the release of Shia Muslims held in the Jewish state. The prisoner exchange deal was made for the return of 39 American hostages.

The trend continued in the 1990s and early 2000s as the abduction of Israeli civilians and soldiers increased drastically during the first and second intifada (uprising). Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Israel was forced to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including 78 convicted of terrorism, in exchange for the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit, then 19 years old, was attacked and captured by Hamas militants in 2006. He was held hostage for five years before being released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange deal, despite heavily bombarding the Gaza Strip. The case exposed Israel's vulnerability to demands made by terrorist groups and continues to pressure the Netanyahu-led government to take appropriate action.

The Gilad Shalit case also proved that despite bombarding the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory remained a major headache for Israeli forces, as they were unable to locate Shalit despite having robust intelligence agencies.

Other hostage crises in the world

Obviously, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the only one which involves mass kidnapping. In 1979, a major diplomatic standoff emerged between the United States and Iran when at least 66 Americans including civilians and diplomats were held hostage by Islamic revolutionaries. At least 52 of these hostages were released after 444 days in captivity.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein captured hundreds of foreigners and held them hostage, during the Gulf War in 1990 in hopes of deterring international action against him. He later ordered them to be released citing requests by other Arab leaders.

In 1996, at least 500 hostages were held by the guerilla militant group Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru at the Japanese embassy in Peru. The hostages included high-level diplomats, government and military officials, who were eventually released after a raid by the Peruvian Armed Forces.

In 1999, the Pakistan-based Mujahideen hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814 and held over 170 passengers hostage, demanding the release of terrorists Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh and Masood Azhar. The hostages were released after a week when India agreed to release the terrorists.

In 2002, American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by terrorists while he was reporting in Pakistan. After presenting a range of demands for the US to release Pakistani detainees and a shipment of fighter jets, Pearl was beheaded and a video of his execution was publicly released.

While many countries, including the US and the United Kingdom, have a policy of 'no negotiations' with terrorists, they are known to have engaged in backdoor negotiations in moments of crises.


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