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Hamas has mastered the Iranian hostage playbook

Soldiers and emergency teams prepare to receive hostages from an Israeli army helicopter
Soldiers and emergency teams prepare to receive hostages from an Israeli army helicopter

When Hamas launched its devastating attack against Israel on October 7, few gave the Islamist terrorist group much chance of surviving the inevitable backlash the massacres would provoke from the Israelis.

While the Hamas leadership must have given careful consideration to the likely consequences of carrying out the worst terrorist attack in Israel’s history, the prospects of the group’s infrastructure surviving the full force of Israel’s military onslaught were seen as virtually non-existent.

For all the ingenuity that Hamas terrorists displayed during the assault – from weaponising para-gliders to the construction of home-made rockets capable of terrorising Israel’s civilian neighbourhoods – the general assumption was that they would be no match for Israel’s vastly superior firepower.

And yet, here we are, just over seven weeks later, with Hamas still controlling large parts of Gaza, and the Israeli military’s chances of fulfilling its objective of wiping the terrorist organisation from the face of the earth looking more and more unattainable.

It is not that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) lack either the strength or resolve to accomplish their stated objective. Indeed, the reason Israel’s military establishment – including premier Benjamin Netanyahu – were so opposed to accepting any pause in their offensive in Gaza was the firm conviction that any break in hostilities would be to Hamas’s advantage.

But, as the Israeli government is learning to its cost, even when you have one of the world’s most effective military forces, it is still possible to be deterred from achieving a key objective by some unforeseen circumstance – in this case, the power of emotional blackmail.

Even though Hamas provoked the Gaza conflict from a position of weakness compared with Israel’s military might, its expert exploitation of the estimated 240 Israeli hostages it seized on October 7 has the potential to turn the momentum of the conflict in its favour.

Taking hostages in pursuit of wider political objectives is a familiar concept in the Middle East, especially for Iran, Hamas’s principal backer. It has previously used the tactic to achieve spectacular results.

The 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when 66 Americans were taken captive after the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by supporters of the Iranian revolution, ultimately resulted in then US president Jimmy Carter being evicted from the White House. Carter’s fate was sealed when a rescue mission mounted by US special forces ended in failure after a military helicopter crashed into a transport aircraft in the Iranian desert, killing eight US military personnel.

Iran employed the same tactic in Lebanon in the 1980s, seizing scores of Western hostages, to put pressure on the Reagan administration to curtail its involvement in the country’s bitter civil war. The subsequent Iran-Contra scandal, whereby Washington sought to provide arms to Tehran in return for the hostages’ release, seriously undermined US influence in the region.

While Iran has denied any direct involvement in Hamas’s war with Israel, the terror group has clearly mastered the lessons of previous hostage crises in the region to good effect. Israel’s attempts to continue its military efforts in Gaza are being stymied by the constant drip-feed of Hamas hostage releases, with the prospect of yet more to come.

What began last week as a four-day pause in the fighting has subsequently been extended by another two days to allow for the release of further batches of hostages, with Egyptian officials, who have been involved in the negotiations, suggesting that further extensions might be possible.

The possibility of more Israeli hostages being released certainly presents Netanyahu with a difficult conundrum, even if his commanders believe the best way of achieving their freedom is through decisive military force, rather than relying on the goodwill of Hamas.

The fact that the terror group is prepared to release children from captivity, but not necessarily their mothers, demonstrates both its inhumanity and its skilful exploitation of the crisis. The hostile scenes in Gaza that have accompanied the release of some of the Israeli captives, with Hamas supporters booing and jeering, reflects their enduring hatred of Israel.

Yet, with an estimated 150 Israelis still being held, some by rival Islamist militias, the pressure on the Israeli government to persist with the negotiating process until all the hostages are safely home remains intense, even though Netanyahu yesterday vowed to resume the war in Gaza as soon as the current truce expires.

Apart from the highly-effective campaign being mustered by the hostages’ families for talks to continue, support within the Biden administration for Israel’s military campaign is eroding. Washington is already warning the Israelis to limit the suffering of Palestinian civilians in future operations.

With the fate of so many Israeli hostages still hanging in the balance, the ability of Hamas and its backers to reduce the conflict to a state of stalemate cannot be discounted.

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