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Background (long version of the question)

Since the release of 105 hostages in December in exchange for a weeklong ceasefire, Israel and Hamas have not been able to reach a new deal that would enable the return of some or all of the 133 hostages Hamas is still holding.

In many news reports I have read about the negotiations for a new deal to release more hostages, it is stated that one of the main sticking points is Hamas's insistence that the deal should include a permanent ceasefire, and Israel's lack of agreement to that demand. For example, an April 8 Times of Israel article states (emphasis mine):

One Hamas official speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters said negotiations have been at a deadlock due to Israel’s refusal to agree to a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza, the unrestricted return of all Palestinians to the northern Strip and the lifting of a 17-year-old blockade to allow speedy reconstruction of the coastal enclave.

This makes sense at one level: it seems understandable to me that Israel, having made the decision to eliminate Hamas as a force that threatens the security of its people, is unwilling to agree to a permanent ceasefire.

However, what I don't understand is this: all of these news reports seem to assume the basic premise that Israel must behave "honorably" in these negotiations in the sense that if it agrees to a permanent ceasefire, it cannot subsequently breach the agreement once the hostages are returned. But it seems like an obvious idea (which I have seen thrown around by various people in the Israeli media) for Israel to do whatever it takes to bring the hostages home, including possibly lying to Hamas about its future intentions. In fact, "ceasefires" are ephemeral by nature, and Hamas itself broke an existing ceasefire with Israel when it perpetrated its barbaric attack against Israel on October 7, 2023. Why then would it be wrong for Israel to break a hypothetical ceasefire after the hostages are safely home? Or if it isn't wrong, why is Israel seemingly going against its own interests by being completely transparent about its future intentions of destroying Hamas?

Another way of thinking about the issue is: will anyone seriously argue that it would be immoral or dishonorable for Israel to reach an agreement with Hamas that enables the hostages to be freed and then violate the agreement and continue to fight to destroy Hamas afterwards? Isn't any agreement reached under duress with a terrorist entity holding your people hostage unconscionable and null and void by its very nature?

From a moral perspective the issue seems clear to me. Say someone were to break into your house, kill a part of your family and kidnap one of your family members, and promise to do anything they can to kill more of your family members in the future. Say that this person then offers you a "deal" of getting your kidnapped family member back if you promise to not hurt them but instead give them a helicopter so they can escape. Isn't it obvious that you would be totally justified to go back on your word after your family member is released?

Moreover, if there is indeed a problem for Israel with "dishonorable" behavior such as violating agreements Israel makes with others, how can this be reconciled with Israel apparently having no problem with various other equally dishonorable behaviors? For example, Israel is believed to have carried out numerous assassinations on foreign soil, including on the territories of friendly countries, whose sovereignty it was bound to respect by international law and various diplomatic agreements.

The question (short version)

Why isn't Israel making a false promise to Hamas of a permanent ceasefire in order to reach a deal for the release of the hostages, with the intention of violating the agreement later?

A possible answer

One argument I can think of is that Israel, as a state actor who cares about its credibility in the world, cannot be seen to blatantly violate an agreement, even with a terrorist organization, since presumably that would make it difficult for it to be taken seriously by others when it wants to reach agreements with anyone in the future.

However, I'm not satisfied with this explanation. It seems to me that legitimate counterparties in future negotiations will understand that negotiations with a terrorist organization who is holding over 100 Israeli citizens hostage are not really analogous to an ordinary negotiation. Israel's credibility in the context of reaching agreement with legitimate states or organizations will not take a serious hit. It may be that going back on its agreement may make it difficult for Israel to reach deals with terrorist organizations in future hostage release negotiations. However, one would hope that Israel will never again find itself in a situation as terrible as the current one where so many of its citizens are held hostage. Again, the current situation is so extreme and unusual that I don't think the "loss of credibility" concern is sufficient to prevent Israel from using subterfuge and deceit to get its hostages back if that's what it will take. But clearly I'm missing something about why such a plan is not as simple to execute as I imagine it to be.

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    To the outside world, it seems that Israel really wanted to be on the offensive and that it did not care about its hostages or did not have realistic hopes to recover them. It does not explain the current disengagement though.
    – alamar
    Apr 9 at 8:18
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    If you knew more about the Middle East you'd know that there is a long history of hostage-taking and prisoner exchanges between Israel and Palestinian terrorists, of which Hamas's actions are just the latest stage. Israel appears to collect Palestinians in its jails for precisely the purpose of prisoner exchanges, and is well-versed in the procedure, even if there are arguments that it's better to let hostages die than negotiate.
    – Stuart F
    Apr 9 at 8:44
  • Voted to keep open. It is a valid, good, on-topic question. I just provided an answer with multiple well-known facts that support the conclusions. So this close reason is not valid: "Questions asking for the internal motivations of people, how specific individuals would behave in hypothetical situations or predictions for future events are off-topic, because answers would be based on speculation and their correctness could not be verified with sources available to the public." Apr 9 at 13:10
  • @alamar: too soon to tell what the gist behind that is youtube.com/watch?v=SjrNLLMH_fU If they were to go into Rafah, it's probably better for the area right to the north of that to be free of IDF, so Gaza civilians can move there without coming into close contact with the IDF (something that the latter always avoids lately, incl. around humanitarian convoys etc.) Apr 9 at 13:29
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    @wrod There are always possibilities of accidental and deliberate leaks of the official Israeli decision-making process, or publication by the other parties of intercepted official Israeli communications, etc. In the recent history, there are multiple examples of all of the above, too many to list here. I did not find such sources for the current question, true. But that does not mean there are none. Thus, this question could be answered with sources and references. And hence, this question should be kept open. This is why I am voting to reopen the question. Apr 10 at 11:24

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Israel is not simply negotiating with a terrorist organization, it is negotiating with a political organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Every single one of its allies supports Israel with the understanding that there will one day be a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian issue, and that requires trust and understanding between the two sides. Even if Hamas was wiped out tomorrow, ordinary Palestinians would remember that Israel negotiated a ceasefire and then immediately broke its word and continued an offensive that is currently killing thousands of their countrymen.

Quite bluntly, Israel relies quite a bit on the international stage on the good grace and largesse of the United States and is already skating on perilously thin ice with a president who is fighting internal party pressure to cut off aid. A stunt like that would be the final straw.

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  • Thanks, I think this comes closest to explaining the issue, but I find the last paragraph baffling. Why would the US consider Israel's use of a reasonable amount of dishonesty in the face of an implacable and amoral enemy a "stunt" or something to get upset about? Won't any reasonable person in a Western country understand that the goal of getting the hostages back home justifies such subterfuge? I mean, maybe it's understandable that the US is upset with Israel for killing so many Palestinian civilians, but given that the US itself has called repeatedly for the release of the hostages, ... Apr 9 at 18:24
  • ... it's not clear to me why the US should get more upset about Israel saying that it will stop the fighting and then continuing it (and getting the hostages out this way) than it is about Israel simply continuing the fighting without making any commitments. Apr 9 at 18:25
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    @homopoliticus Israel's attack on Gaza is, to say the least, very controversial in the west. I very much think you're mistaken if you believe "any reasonable person" in the west would be fine with them pretending to agree to a ceasefire before immediately returning to the slaughter, without even the excuse of trying to rescue hostages any more. Apr 11 at 15:11
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    @homopoliticus A slim majority of Americans and a large majority of Democrats in the US disapprove of Israel's actions, most while simultaneously condemning Hamas' actions but that's beside the point. Israel has survived on American goodwill and strategic import for 50 years and public opinion is at a breaking point for the party currently in power news.gallup.com/poll/642695/…
    – Gramatik
    Apr 11 at 16:07
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IDK if there's any public discussion about this involving Israeli officials, but while ceasefires are sometimes broken, this is presumably not the last time that Israel expects some of their citizens to be taken hostages by opposing armed groups.

If they were to blatantly break the terms soon after agreeing to them, without some other substantive change in circumstances in the meantime, presumably their credibility would be very low if similar hostage taking were to happen later, e.g. by Hezbollah somehow. Granted, it's not easy to see how something of a similar scale to the Oct attack could easily repeat anytime soon, but something like 100 people (the remaining number of [live] hostages in Hamas hands) is easily the size of an aircraft etc., and while we've not seen that type of hostage taking in recent times, it's not totally out of the question it could happen at some point in the future. (And it doesn't have to be an aircraft, 2.5 busses is the same amount of people. Granted, Hezbollah has been accused of blowing up busses [with Israelis] in Europe, not hijacking them, but such tactics could change.)


And yes, sometimes ceasefires get broken or ignored in the region. E.g., Israel on paper has a ceasefire with Syria (since '74), but bombs Iranian targets there nonetheless because Iran backs Hezbollah etc., which attack Israel. I suppose part of the answer is how soon after a ceasefire you break it, and after what change in circumstances, so you're not seen as totally untrustworthy.

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Israel rejected Hamas's requests and made an offer of their own, so there's negotiation, at least formally.

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/hamas-says-israeli-proposal-fails-to-meet-palestinian-demands%2c-but-is-under-review/75364983

The Israeli offer seems to be a ceasefire of some kind, but appears to be short of other requests by Hamas such as allowing refugees to return to their homes and a permanent end of Israeli military action in Gaza.

Perhaps an agreement will be reached. Such agreements have proven short lived though, typically undone at the next escalation cycle. The long history of such cycles justifies a less charitable view, that this pattern is not entirely accidental.

Instead - and this is basically the Palestinian position as I understand it - the pattern of repeating escalations is a product of a strategy of either provoking pretext for each successive military operation, or at least exploiting such incidents for that purpose. With the punitive military operation following each episode, often ending in seizure of a little more control by Israel, in furtherance of long term territorial and demographic goals articulated since the founding of the state (i.e. from the River to the Sea as shown by Netanyahu).

Apart from that, the Question seems to be asking, whether it is justified to negotiate in bad faith with terrorists? The rest of this answer is fuzzy territory. One for the philosophers.

From a practical point of view, if there is a repeated cycle of negotiations with the same party, which can't be avoided, then there is a long term cost to breaking promises.

Whether that cost is a function of moral considerations, depends on whether there are third parties acting as a significant audience, and all the complexities of their response. I.e. those moral considerations are also political. On the other hand, if the response of the audience can be discounted, as was the case for many years in Israel-Palestine, then it's just a raw power relationship. There's still a cost in that case too.

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  • the Question seems to be asking, whether it is justified to negotiate in bad faith with terrorists? Yes, thank you for addressing that. To my mind, it is obviously justified, but the real question (and the main thing I find baffling) is: if it's indeed justified, then why is everyone — the media, the US and basically everyone I've seen commenting on the situation — taking for granted that Israel must negotiate in good faith. I mean, okay, as you and others pointed out there are some practicalities to consider, but from a moral point of view at least the question is a no-brainer. Apr 10 at 5:07
  • @homopoliticus, I think you are wrong, and the West in general. The assumption, is that, you negotiate a deal with Hamas, bring hostages back and then ... miraculously Hamas disappears. That's why they push so hard for negotiations. However, the reality is that, they will not.
    – dEmigOd
    Apr 10 at 5:23
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    @homopoliticus - well to be blunt, as far as the moral-political angle I mentioned goes, the "audience" (who are also Israel's lifeline for weapons) now takes the view, which I fully agree with, that the balance of who is more criminal has now tipped overwhelmingly towards Israel itself. The disconnect is that Israel views the entire Palestinian population as complicit in terrorism, whereas most of the world does not and never has. Israel has a mighty big hole to dig out of now, as 75 years of good will have been undone in a few months.
    – Pete W
    Apr 10 at 13:16
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    The practicalities are also substantial. Firstly because Israeli attempts to eliminate human habitation of Gaza has now made it impossible to ever have peace with the Arab population living in the land many Israelis claim as their own (I.e. talking about the occupied territories). Secondly, because the already tenuous US soft-power position throughout Muslim lands - most of South Asia - is going to get burned down as a side effect. This is no small accomplishment.
    – Pete W
    Apr 10 at 13:20
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It may be that going back on its agreement may make it difficult for Israel to reach deals with terrorist organizations in future hostage release negotiations. However, one would hope that Israel will never again find itself in a situation as terrible as the current one where so many of its citizens are held hostage. Again, the current situation is so extreme and unusual that I don't think the "loss of credibility" concern is sufficient to prevent Israel from using subterfuge and deceit to get its hostages back if that's what it will take.

Frame challenge:

Israel routinely negotiates for the release of individual hostages. For example, ~1 live Israeli soldier or civilian hostage is typically negotiated for ~100 Palestinians, a great deal for the Palestinians. Similar exchanges are negotiated for whole dead bodies or the remains of Israelis, although the exchange rate is much lower for understandable reasons. Several such negotiations are actively pursued by Israel.

We do not know the future for certain. As the saying goes, there is never just one cockroach. This implies that there may be other copycat terrorist acts. Soft targets, such as children, women and the elderly, any civilians, especially during the (many) peace-promoting events, or just the Jews traveling abroad, are attractive as targets, if the goal is anything other than a two-state solution, as is stated in the charter of Hamas as as articulated by many other state and non-state terrorist entities unfriendly to Israel. Think the Munich Olympics or the capture of the cruise ship.

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Pros and cons of removing Hamas

This makes sense at one level: it seems understandable to me that Israel, having made the decision to eliminate Hamas as a force that threatens the security of its people, is unwilling to agree to a permanent ceasefire.

First, let me note that this decision was long in making - it had been discussed and dismissed virtually during every Israel-Hamas confrontation since the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007. The obvious "pro" for this decision is that, as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza, it poses a threat to Israeli population. Moreover, with years this threat has only grown - from the handmade Qassam rockets that could target only the Israeli communities bordering Gaza, to smuggled long-range rockets able to target major population centers, and finally to October 7.

But there are also multiple "cons" - removing Hamas cannot be achieved without significant battle losses for Israel - since October 7 Israel lost more than 260 soldier, not counting those who were killed on October 7). As a reminder - the 100+ casualties incurred in 2006 invasion of Lebanon were largely considered as excessive and, combined with the failure to achieve the war objectives, where treated as a defeat, both inside and outside of Israel. Trying to remove Hamas also means lots of innocent Gazans killed ("collateral damage"), a lot of damage on international stage, and serious economic slow-down. I think all of these are obvious by now.

What happens if Israel agrees to a ceasefire now?
Of course, the ceasefire with an irrational actor like Hamas cannot last forever... although, given the beating that they have taken, the anger of the Gazan population against them, and the loss of support in the Arab world, the ceasefire might well last for a few years.

However, there will be assurance measures accompanying any ceasefire and prisoner exchange, which will likely involve full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. This means that, if Israel were to re-invade Gaza, it will have to start from the very beginning... but in a worse situation - it won't have the international sympathy that it had in the wake of October 7, it will have to suffer more casualties to retake the positions that were hardly won in the last six months, it will cause more Palestinian casualties, etc.

Moreover, Hamas may also play this game (and even more likely than Israel to do so) - it may liberate most hostages, but keep a few most precious ones - soldiers, or little children. Then Israel will find itself with neither of the two objectives achieved (release of hostages and elimination of Hamas.)

There is no doubt that Hamas would declare great victory, and Israel will look beaten - which will mean significantly reducing Israeli deterrence in respect to attacks by other armed groups.

Bigger picture
There is also bigger picture - Israel is not in war with Hamas only, but with a host of Iran-sponsored groups. Although this scarcely finds mentioning in western media, there is a real war going on Israeli-Lebanon border, between Israel and Hezbollah - this has by now resulted in several hundred deaths (mostly on the Lebanese side) and nearly 200,000 displaced persons (about half of them in Israel.)

There are also reports about the increasing pro-Iranian activity in Jordan and even possible regime overthrow, which could transform Jordan into another pro-Iranian Islamist state, determined to fight with Israel. At best we will likely see emergence of Hamas/Hezbollah-like terrorist groups.

Conclusion
I won't judge here whether Israel's far-fetched decision to go for removing Hamas was a wise one. But as of now, Hamas may still last for some time, and Israel faces a choice between alternatives, which are all bad.

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If you phrase it like that you also have to ask yourself, why would Hamas believe Israels claim of a ceasefire? Looking at previous deals around hostages involving Israel a promise of ceasefire was usually not among the (major) things Israel offered in exchange for hostages. What they typically did offer was releasing a lot of prisoners in exchange. I would think this is precisely because a ceasefire is a promise that does not come with long term guarantees. The prisoners on the hand, once their back in their home countries can not just easily be taken back.

So, similar deal in the current hostage negotiations. Israel could offer a ceasefire but it is not going to get them much. If they want Hamas to release hostages they have to offer something else that they can't easily renege on.

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  • Maybe, but publicly Hamas insists on a promise of 'permanent' ceasefire before even negotiating for the remainder of the hostages. Apr 9 at 10:10
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    @thegodsfromengineering A cynical person would say that that's because they don't actually want a ceasefire, so they're demanding something they know they won't get in order to have an excuse not to agree to one.
    – Bobson
    Apr 9 at 11:10
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    @thegodsfromengineering The ceasefire is on their list of demands, it is the first of 4 points and I would argue the only one that Israel may actually consider. I don't think Israel will even seriously consider the other 3 (and probably shouldn't).
    – quarague
    Apr 9 at 11:18
  • I did indeed ask myself why Hamas would trust a ceasefire commitment, which is why I'm confused about why they're insisting so strongly on it, and about why Israel is resisting the demand so strongly. The demand for the release of prisoners sounds more logical, and that should be a tougher frog for Israel to swallow. Apr 9 at 18:30
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https://cmsedit.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2024/march/ceasefire-falls-apart-israeli-students-return-to-school-in-war-torn-south

Avivi, founder of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, warns against a permanent ceasefire saying, "If it's a short ceasefire in order to get hostages, that's something that can be done. But anybody who says permanent ceasefire, it's basically saying to Israel, ‘Israel, you should lose the war’ and we're not going to lose the war. We're going to win decisively against Hamas.”

A permanent ceasefire, even if they were to break it eventually, would just have the effect of strengthening Hamas and increasing the likelihood of another Hamas massacre of Jews in the future. While it is difficult to see how Israel can eliminate Hamas, implementing a permanent ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and possibly organize another attack against Israel. At least, that's what Israel believes.

Also, breaking a permanent ceasefire would jeopardize Israel's negotiating and diplomatic power since no one will trust anything they say anymore, including potential allies such as Saudi Arabia, which is crucial to Israel's security interests.

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