By mistake, the public discourse has solidified the perception that Israel's handling of Hamas can either be a full and complete military operation – or a hostage deal.
In truth, it is a combined operation. Based on past experience in dealing with Hamas, especially with its psychopath leader Yahya Sinwar, there is no doubt that without the unprecedented action by the IDF to occupy Gaza (at this stage, most of the territory north of the Gaza River has been occupied), not even one hostage would have been returned.
On the other hand, without the return of hostages, especially infants and children, we cannot say that the Gaza war will end even in a tie (as the result of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 is considered). Even if Hamas is defeated and Yahya Sinwar sends a letter of apology in Hebrew to Benjamin Netanyahu before his death, we will not be able to forgive ourselves, as a society, for missing the opportunity to bring them back alive.
In other words, the first deal and the accompanying ceasefire are an extension of the military operation and a partial implementation of it, just as 'war is the continuation of policy,' the fundamental chapter taught to cadets in every military academy worldwide (from 'On War,' the book by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz).
The United States, Qatar, and Egypt are involved in this weekend’s deal. It seems that even Minister Orit Strook from the far-right Religious Zionist Party was convinced that it was an achievement when she raised her hand in support during the government’s vote.
Question: And yet, are there no repetitions of the serious mistakes made in past prisoner release agreements, including the agreement to free Gilad Shalit, in which Yahya Sinwar himself was released along with 1,056 other Palestinian prisoners?
Answer: It can be asserted (and rightly so) that the Shalit deal was one of the most significant strategic mistakes ever made by Israel. Still, the deal meant to take place this weekend is justified, or at least unavoidable.
As a rule, Israel has struggled and fared poorly in negotiating with terrorist organizations. Since the days of the heroic Operation Entebbe in 1976, we have switched to paying exorbitant prices, starting with the release of 1,151 prisoners in exchange for three soldiers taken hostage in the First Lebanon War, in the infamous Jibril Deal of 1985, which sowed the seeds for the first intifada – and up to the Shalit deal, where numerous murderers were released. Not only Sinwar.
The difference between the 2011 deal and this week is enormous. Not only in the ratio of those released – 1:3 compared to 1:1,057 – but also in the level of the threat they pose.
Before the Shalit deal, the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, anticipated a toll of hundreds of lives in terrorist attacks as a result of releasing terrorists and vehemently opposed the deal until his replacement. He was mistaken—the cost was much higher.
This time, there is no such tangible threat. Moreover, the deal exploits the fact that from Hamas' perspective, holding mothers and children as hostages, is a liability no less than an asset, at least in terms of propaganda.
Question: What about the (minimum) four-day ceasefire? Will the IDF not lose momentum because of it? Will we not pay with soldiers' lives for the days Hamas will get to regroup ahead of renewing the battles?
Answer: The ceasefire will also serve the IDF for refreshing, additional intelligence gathering, and reorganization, but there is no doubt that the IDF will lose momentum because of it. Hamas will indeed exploit the ceasefire to recover and organize for the resumption of hostilities. This could result in casualties for us.
The IDF understands this well but believes that it will be possible to renew the conflict from where it left off—and with greater advantage. The next goal is expected to be the completion of the occupation of the northern part of the Gaza Strip and operations in the south, mainly in the area of the city of Khan Yunis. Most of the hostages are likely held there, and maybe also Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif.
Question: What if Hamas 'extends' the search for hostages, claiming that they are not in its hands? It may request to repeatedly prolong the ceasefire, effectively leading to the end of the war without it collapsing completely?"
Answer: This seems to be the desired scenario for Hamas, which will exploit the ceasefire not only to prepare for renewed attacks on IDF forces but also to broadcast new horrific images to the world that will increase political pressure on Israel, leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.
On the other hand, Israel has a diplomatic green light to continue operating against Hamas in order to destroy it, primarily from the United States and other Western and moderate Arab nations. It is reasonable to assume that Hamas will try to 'extend' the relaxation, but above all, the hope is to receive at least 50 living hostages according to the agreed-upon deal.
The political echelon may very well face a dilemma within a few days, no less challenging than the one faced on Wednesday, but the next decision will be in its hands.
Hamas has a ready excuse to prolong the ceasefire: It claims to only hold 210 hostages. This can be believed, as it corresponds to the estimate in Israel, according to which the Islamic Jihad has about 30 additional hostages, including children. Israel is trying to shift the responsibility for the return of the hostages held by the Islamic Jihad onto Hamas as well, but it is not certain that it will succeed.
In any case, it is difficult to envision the government concluding the war without achieving the goals of destroying Hamas and toppling its rule, in addition to bringing the hostages home. At least some of them. This won't satisfy public opinion in Israel. Therefore, most likely, the fighting will renew.
Question: Does bringing the women and children home reduce the chances of bringing back the other captives, including soldiers, alive?
Answer: On the one hand, a mechanism is created that may lead to the future return of additional groups of hostages. On the other hand, in the process, Israel may have lost the momentum of (perhaps) getting Hamas down on its knees and demanding the release of all captives without choosing between them.
On the one hand, getting 50 hostages back is preferable to risking the lives of all 240. On the other hand, without Hamas holding infants and children captive, the international pressure is lessened in its view. There is also the concern that the ceasefire will cost more combatant lives with the resumption of hostilities.
Either way, each member of the cabinet faced a human dilemma this week of biblical proportions: a question of human life, under conditions of uncertainty about the future. The Judgment of Solomon, times 50. Soon, the prime minister and government will be required to make additional tough decisions.