By Altaf Moti
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has reached a new level of intensity, as the fate of more than 150 hostages hangs in the balance. The hostages, who were seized by Hamas gunmen from southern Israel, are now being held at secret locations inside Gaza where they face the threat of execution if Israel does not stop its airstrikes. Israel, on the other hand, has vowed to eliminate Hamas as a military threat and has launched more than 2,000 airstrikes on Gaza, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying large parts of the strip. Israel has also imposed a complete siege on Gaza, cutting off electricity, water, fuel and other supplies until the hostages are freed.
This situation poses a near impossible dilemma for the Israeli government, which has to decide whether to attempt an armed rescue mission which is fraught with risks or to wait for longer until Hamas is weakened by airstrikes and then make a deal. Behind the scenes, Qatar, Egypt and possibly other countries are believed to be trying to negotiate a partial release of the hostages. Hamas may be willing to release its women and child prisoners in exchange for Palestinian women and adolescent prisoners being held in Israeli jails. However, Hamas will want to take maximum advantage of any serving military personnel it holds, extracting the highest price for their release if negotiations take place.
This hostage crisis is not unprecedented in the history of the conflict between Israel and Hamas or other Palestinian factions. Over the decades, Israel has freed thousands of prisoners in exchange for captured or dead soldiers or civilians. One of the most notable deals was the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, signed on October 11, 2011. Shalit was a young sergeant in the Israeli army who was captured by Hamas militants in June 2006 after they tunneled into Israel and attacked an Israeli outpost near the Gaza border. He was held incommunicado by Hamas for more than five years, with no visits from the Red Cross or any other humanitarian organization. The only signs of life were three letters, an audio tape and a video tape that Hamas released over the years as proof that he was still alive.
In the exchange, Israel agreed to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit’s freedom. The list of prisoners to be released was determined by Hamas but subject to Israel’s approval. Among the prisoners were some prominent figures such as Ahlam Tamimi and Yehia al-Sinwar, who later became the leader of Hamas in Gaza. The exchange took place on October 18, 2011. Shalit was transferred from Gaza to Egypt where he was handed over to Israeli officials. He then crossed into Israel and was reunited with his family. The Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails and transported to Gaza, the West Bank or other countries that agreed to host them. The exchange was celebrated by both sides as a victory: Israelis welcomed Shalit as a national hero while Palestinians hailed the prisoners as martyrs and heroes.
The Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange was not the first or the last deal between Israel and Hamas or other Palestinian factions. Over the decades, Israel has freed thousands of prisoners in exchange for captured or dead soldiers or civilians.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is affecting the health sector which is struggling to cope with the influx of wounded and sick people. According to the World Health Organization, majority of hospitals and clinics have been damaged by Israeli airstrikes and medical supplies are running low. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is also impacting the education sector, which has been disrupted by the violence and displacement. According to UNICEF, more than 600,000 children in Gaza are unable to access regular schooling and many schools are being used as shelters for displaced families. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is putting the lives of civilians at risk as they face indiscriminate attacks from Israel. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 90% of the casualties in Gaza are civilians, including more than 200 children.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas is a manifestation of the long-standing oppression and injustice that the Palestinian people have faced under the Israeli occupation. The hostage crisis is a desperate attempt by Hamas to break the siege and gain some leverage over Israel which has shown no regard for the human rights and dignity of the Palestinians. Some members ofinternational community has been complicit in the crimes and atrocities committed by Israel and has instead demonized and isolated Hamas as a terrorist organization. They have failed to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law and humanitarian norms, and has instead supported its military aggression and expansionism. The question is: how long will this cycle of violence and suffering continue? What will it take to end the occupation and restore the rights and freedoms of the Palestinians? And what are the moral and ethical obligations of the world to intervene and stop this tragedy? These are some of the questions that need to be answered in order to find a way out of this deadlock.