U.S. Turns to Qatar for Hamas Hostages, Facing Risky Options in Gaza

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By Ketrin Agustine

U.S. Turns to Qatar for Hamas Hostages, Facing Risky Options in Gaza

Hamas is believed to hold at least 199 people in Gaza, a dense territory descending into a chaotic crisis, where many officials believe a military rescue would be dangerous for soldiers and hostages alike.

In the dense warrens of Gaza, Hamas is believed to hold at least 199 people hostage, guarded by gunmen and booby traps, likely scattered and hidden from any would-be rescuers as Israel readies a ground invasion.

Israeli and U.S. commandos have pulled off extraordinary hostage rescues before. But the chaotic environment of Gaza, which is descending into a humanitarian crisis and the base where Hamas launched devastating attacks on Israel this month, has made such a mission unlikely because of the dangers to hostages and soldiers alike.

That has left desperate, complex diplomacy — led by the United States and Qatar, a tiny nation with extensive ties to militant groups — as the best option to save hostages in the eyes of many current and former officials.

In the talks so far, Qatar is acting as a mediator between Hamas and officials from the United States, which like Israel and the European Union considers Hamas a terrorist group. Adding even more complexity to the talks, there are people from more than 30 countries among the hostages.

If Hamas thought taking hostages was a hedge against an Israeli invasion, the group might have misplayed its hand. Although Western and U.S. officials have urged restraint to limit the danger to hostages and Gazan civilians, Israeli leaders have vowed to destroy Hamas, amassing troops and tanks on the border and calling up about 360,000 reservists.

“To sacrifice hostages and soldiers seems to be the psychology today,” said Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011 after more than five years in captivity. “No one is thinking about the day after: What do you do with Gaza?”

A vigil for those killed and taken hostage, in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Hamas killed more than 1,400 people, including in attacks on large groups of civilians.Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

Almost immediately after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which killed more than 1,400 people, Qatar joined the hostage negotiations, drawing on its experience in mediating the release of people around the world.

This week, with Qatar acting as a mediator at Ukraine’s request, Russia agreed to repatriate four Ukraine children. Qatar also recently had a quiet role in freeing two American hostages in Africa, including a nun and an aid worker, according to one former U.S. official, with knowledge of the diplomatic efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. In 2014, Qatar worked behind the scenes to win the release of an American journalist held by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.

The release of that journalist was a bright spot during a grim time, in which members of the Islamic State kidnapped about two dozen Western hostages, some of whom were ultimately beheaded, including another journalist, James Foley.

At one point, American commandos tried to free the hostages at a prison in Raqqa, Syria, but by the time they descended on the city, the captives had been moved.

Several former U.S. officials and analysts said that while that mission was extremely dangerous, it would not compare to the perils of a military rescue operation in Gaza, a densely populated, urban area brimming with weapons, fighters and miles of underground tunnels.

Given those hazards — and that Gaza is increasingly dangerous for everyone, with dwindling clean water, medicine and fuel — U.S. officials believe a military rescue is all but impossible. That means diplomacy remains the central effort.

Palestinians searching through the rubble of a building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Tuesday.Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, that the two countries were working intensively to secure the hostages’ release.

Mr. Blinken then traveled to Israel with Steve Gillen, the State Department’s deputy special presidential envoy for hostage affairs — an office created in 2015, after American families complained bitterly about the Obama administration’s handling of hostages. Mr. Gillen met with Gal Hirsh, a retired Israeli general who was named coordinator for the captives and missing.

The former U.S. official, along with a senior Western official familiar with the negotiations, said there was optimism that Hamas might release the women and children because of international backlash to the abductions.

A senior Israeli miliary official said that based on conversations the United States has had with Qatar, there is a possibility that Hamas could release the approximately 50 dual-nationals separate from any broader deal.

Still, the U.S. military has not been idle — even if a rescue effort remains a remote possibility.

The Pentagon has sent a small team of special operations forces to Israel to assist with intelligence and planning for any operations to help locate and rescue the hostages, a senior Defense Department official said. The military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command has also deployed aircraft and logistics to the region as a precaution in advance of any possible missions, U.S. officials said, but it has not yet sent any operational commando teams to Israel.

“The first priority is intelligence sharing — where are the hostages being held,” said Christopher Costa, a former Army Special Forces officer and White House counterterrorism official.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s prime and foreign minister, speaking in Doha last week.Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One senior U.S. official said there is little information about the whereabouts of the hostages.

The F.B.I., which investigates crimes against Americans overseas and has a major role in hostage cases, also has a small presence at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and strong ties to Israeli law enforcement and intelligence. So far, more than a dozen Americans remain unaccounted for, though it was unclear how many were hostages. The F.B.I. has opened more than a dozen cases for Americans either captured or missing, according to an American law enforcement official.

Christopher O’Leary, a former senior F.B.I. official who ran a multiagency hostage recovery team and dealt with countless kidnappings, said the size and scale of the abductions on Oct. 7 were stunning.

“It is unlike anything we’ve dealt with in the modern era,” said Mr. O’Leary, who now works with the Soufan Group, a security consultancy.

Last year, he attended a conference in Herzliya, Israel, where he and Israeli counterparts discussed complex hostage situations, including the infamous 1985 hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He said the Israelis were acutely aware of the possibility of kidnappings, a past strategy of Hamas, yet they were caught off guard.

“They’re sensitive to the fact that something like that could happen tomorrow,” Mr. O’Leary said.

For the families of hostages, there are frustratingly few reliable details, with possible misinformation trickling out. Hamas has claimed hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, assertions that could not be independently verified. The Islamic State made a similar statement in 2015, claiming an American hostage had been killed in a U.S. bombing, but investigators believe the terrorist group killed the woman.

Demonstrators calling for the release of Avinatan Or, who has been missing since a music festival was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7.Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, claimed on Telegram after the attack that the group had hidden “dozens of hostages” in “safe places and the tunnels of the resistance.”

In another instance, Hamas released a video last week that appeared to show an Israeli woman and two children being freed. The woman, Avital Aladjem, told Israeli news media that she crossed into Gaza but her abductors let her go at the border. They did not tell her why.

Hamas, which was surprised by the attack’s success, according to the senior Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivities, also appears to be pushing back against the widespread condemnation of the abductions.

In discussions with Qatar, the Western official said, Hamas claimed it had not instructed its gunmen to abduct women and children, and blamed common criminals who flowed through breached border fencing for some of the kidnappings. Hamas also told negotiators that it does not hold all of the prisoners, the official said.

In a video that Hamas released of one hostage, Mia Schem, 21, someone appears to be bandaging her arm while the sounds of loud thuds and car horns can be heard in the background. “At the moment I am in Gaza,” Ms. Schem, a French-Israeli citizen says in the video, adding that she is being looked after and that her arm was operated on at a hospital. The video ends with her plea to be returned to Israel.

After the video’s release, the Israeli military said in a statement that Hamas was “trying to portray itself as a humane organization, while it is a murderous terrorist organization responsible for the murder and abduction of babies, women, children and elderly.”

Mr. O’Leary, the former F.B.I. official, described the video as propaganda and a reminder that “Israel can’t rush in with a massive invasion for the risk of harming the hostages.”

“Or at least that is their hope,” he said, referring to Hamas.

Eric Schmitt, Steven Erlanger and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this story.

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