Two Israeli hostages released as efforts intensify to free people held by Hamas

Israeli couple survived 20 hours with Hamas hostage-takers before dramatic rescue

Diplomatic efforts to free more than 200 people held hostage by Hamas were intensifying on Monday as reports from the region suggest a significant number – perhaps up to 50 – may be freed imminently.

Though Israel continues to intensify its bombardment of Gaza in an attempt to exert more pressure on Hamas, experts warn that negotiations are likely to be the only way to obtain their freedom.

Two elderly Israeli women were freed late on Monday, after an Israeli American mother and daughter were released on Friday – in both cases after mediation by Qatari officials – but 220 are thought to remain held in Gaza. All were taken captive during the 7 October Hamas attacks on Israel in which 1,400 people, mainly civilians, were killed.

Hamas said it had freed Yokheved Lifshitz and Nurit Yitzhak, who also goes by the name Nurit Cooper, for humanitarian reasons, in response to mediation by Qatar and Egypt.

In a statement confirming her mother’s release, Sharone Lifschitz, Yokheved’s daughter, said: “While I cannot put into words the relief that she is now safe, I will remain focused on securing the release of my father and all those – some 200 innocent people – who remain hostages in Gaza.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has demanded the unconditional release of all hostages held in Gaza as Israel continues the bombardment that has so far killed more than 5,000 people, according to local health authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory.

Military experts have said there is almost no chance that a military effort to rescue the hostages would succeed. The ruined urban environment in Gaza, the presence of large numbers of civilians, a lack of clear intelligence and the scattered locations in which hostages are thought to be held would make the risk to them and rescuers unacceptable, they said.

“There is no experience of rescuing hostages from Gaza in the past. In any circumstances, a kinetic tactical solution is very sensitive and the last thing we want to do if we want to maximise the chances that the hostages will stay alive,” said Timor Israeli, an Israeli special forces veteran who now teaches hostage rescue techniques in the US.

Analysts say the Israeli government is caught between its pledge to “crush” Hamas and its promise to bring back families alive.

“The Israelis want their people back but also want to deal a crippling blow to Hamas from which it will never recover. These two objectives are probably in conflict. If they want [the hostages] back, they will have to negotiate,” said Dr HA Hellyer, of Washington DC’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and London’s Royal United Services Institute.

Israeli officials have said they have cut off supplies of food and fuel to Gaza to force Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007, to make concessions and free hostages.

A trickle of humanitarian aid has now been allowed to reach Gaza but is only a fraction of what the territory’s more than 2 million people need, aid agencies say.

Experts said the tactic of piling pressure on hostage-takers was risky and could make the task of intermediaries harder.

“Negotiators will want to contain the situation, isolate the hostage-takers and begin negotiations … what we call “manipulation of anxiety” by putting on tremendous pressure may just cause people to crack and overreact,” said Zorka Martinovich, who spent 18 years as a hostage negotiator with the FBI.

“It can be calibrated but that is very difficult to do. It is easy to put on too much pressure, which has unpredictable consequences.

“With hostage-takers, you are up against their perceptions. It’s much more about what they imagine is going on, not what is actually going on.

“Any threat should be taken seriously but generally hostages are more valuable alive than dead. The release of even two is encouraging. It’s a positive indicator.”

Hamas has made a series of demands for the hostages. Officials of the organisation have said the captives could be exchanged for some or even all of the thousands of Palestinians in prisons in Israel.

Hamas has also called for fuel and other supplies to be reconnected to Gaza, the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and a suspension of Israeli airstrikes and shelling in return for the release of some or all of the hostages.

“There are ongoing discussions with the Qataris about different pockets of individuals,” said Christopher O’Leary, an expert with the Soufan Group and former director of hostage rescue and recovery for the US government.

“Hamas is not a monolithic organisation. Different groups – women and children, elderly, wounded, foreign nationals and Israeli civilians – are all going to be treated differently. Where Hamas are likely to dig their heels in will be people in uniform.”

Analysts suggest that the number of hostages taken on 7 October exceeded Hamas expectations.

“Even taking 20 hostages would have been an achievement for Hamas. What happened took the Israelis by surprise but also, I think, took Hamas by surprise. Any plans were probably predicated on taking only a fraction of that number of hostages. I don’t think they were prepared for this, and I don’t see how Hamas can formulate any kind of strategic response at the moment,” said Hellyer.

O’Leary disagreed. “Hamas is a terrorist organisation that is very experienced in hostage-taking and very calculated in how it will proceed. Hamas understands the leverage it has with just one hostage and when they have 230 that is substantial,” he said.

“The release of the two US hostages was not for humanitarian reasons, as [Hamas] claimed, but to eclipse some of the horrors from the attacks a couple of weeks ago and demonstrate that they are a legitimate partner in any negotiations.”

It is also unclear if Hamas holds all the hostages. Some may be held by other smaller extremist factions or by criminal gangs, complicating negotiations further.

Many of the hostages were citizens or dual nationals of countries around the world, including Israel’s closest allies. At least some of the 10 US citizens still unaccounted for after the 7 October attack are believed to being held in Gaza. There are also 17 Thais among the hostages, and eight Germans. Seven British nationals and seven French citizens are still classified as missing, and some of them are believed to be hostages too.

Several countries are involved in negotiations. Qatar has taken the lead in negotiations, but Hakan Fidan, the foreign minister of Turkey, said “a variety of countries” had also asked Ankara to intervene to help free their citizens, Al Jazeera reported.

“We have started discussing … with the political section of Hamas,” Fidan said. “We’ve been putting a lot of effort to make sure that children and foreigners especially are released.”

Israel has faced multiple hostage crises. After initially making concessions to hijackers at the beginning of a wave of such attacks in the late 1960s, Israel pioneered the use of special forces to free hostages. In 1972, Israeli units successfully stormed a plane hijacked by a Palestinian extremist faction that had landed at Lod – later Ben Gurion – airport. Among the soldiers participating was Netanyahu.

That operation was led by his brother, Yonathan, who was killed during the famous operation four years later that freed Jewish passengers seized from a hijacked Air France plane and held at Entebbe airport in Uganda.

More recently, Israeli governments have been forced to release prisoners to obtain the release of hostages or the return of the remains of soldiers.

Plans were drawn up for rescuing Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was kidnapped in 2006, but the risks were seen as too high and these were shelved, Israeli said.

In 2011, the Netanyahu government agreed to release 1,027 mostly Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit.