“She basically called to tell us goodbye,” Sasha Ariev says of her younger sister Karina. The 19-year-old Israeli soldier contacted her family on the morning of Oct. 7 from an Israeli military base near the Gaza border where she was stationed and which, moments earlier, had been breached by Palestinian militants. “If she won’t live, she asked us to continue our life,” Ariev says. “That was the last time we had some connection from her. The last message was, ‘The terrorists, they are here.’”
A few hours later, the family’s fears were confirmed. A six-second video clip published on the messaging app Telegram showed Karina in a jeep, her face bloodied, with unidentified men shouting in Arabic in the background. “This was our last confirmation that she is alive,” Ariev says of the video, which they took to the police. An Israeli military official later confirmed to the family that Karina was being held by a “terror organization.”
As Israel continues to reel from the weekend’s surprise assault by Hamas militants—in which at least 1,300 Israelis were killed in what was the deadliest attack in Israel’s history—many families, including Ariev’s, have been left in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, at least 150 of whom are believed to have been taken into Gaza as hostages. While the Israeli authorities have not publicly detailed the identities of the kidnapped, they are thought to include soldiers and civilians, young and old, foreign and dual nationals. In an address on Monday, President Joe Biden said that it is “likely” American citizens are among them.
“Nobody knows the exact number,” says Ory Slonim, who has advised seven Israeli defense ministers on negotiations concerning soldiers who have been declared missing in action or prisoners of war. Since Oct. 7, he and other former hostage negotiators have been aiding hundreds of families whose loved ones are believed to be among those missing. Slonim says that since Hamas has not revealed how many Israeli citizens it has, deducing how many hostages there are has come down to a process of elimination. The missing—whose bodies have not been recovered—are presumed to be among the hostages in Gaza, though bodies may have been taken as well.
In terms of scale and wrenching drama, the crisis has no precedent. But hostage-taking has long been a feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a nationalist militant movement established shortly after the Six Day War (after which Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem), pioneered airplane hijackings as a means of advancing its aims.
The goal then was strategic. “It was a huge part of those movements’ ability to gain attention on a world stage, to coerce massive concessions from not only the Israeli government, but also the U.S. government and other actors around the world,” says Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University who specializes in hostage diplomacy.
But in time, taking Jewish Israelis prisoner emerged as a tactic, one that leveraged a captive for concessions. In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinian prisoners to win the freedom of three captured Israeli soldiers. And after being abducted in 2006 from a post outside Gaza, IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was held captive by Hamas for five years until 2011, when Israel agreed to release more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to win his release. One of those prisoners was Yahya Sinwar, the current Hamas leader.
That history may explain why Hamas dragged Israelis back to Gaza on Oct. 7. But their numbers are only one of the challenges facing their captors. “Kidnappers have a strong preference for adult male, able-bodied captives because captivity is very difficult and if the point is to keep the hostage alive so that you can exchange them for a concession, it’s better as the hostage-taker to be holding on to someone who is likely to survive captivity,” Gilbert explains. The Israelis now being held captive range from the elderly to small children. That, Gilbert says, “raises the question of how much of the Hamas strategy here is indeed to keep the hostages alive for concessions.” Or if Hamas has a strategy at all. Some analysts have posited that the militant group may not have anticipated the ease with which it ultimately breached the barrier between Gaza and Israel or the extent of its assault’s success. As such, it could prove just as unprepared for the scale of Israel’s response—a Pyrrhic victory Hamas may yet come to regret.
Israel’s initial response was a complete siege on Gaza (which includes cutting off all electricity, water, food and fuel supplies), airstrikes, and the mobilization of some 300,000 reservists in what many regard as a prelude to a wider ground invasion. All three pose risks for the hostages in Gaza, not least because Hamas has threatened to kill a civilian hostage for each Palestinian home Israel bombs without prior warning. (Some Hamas officials have since walked back that threat, with one telling the BBC that the hostages would be treated in a “human, dignified way.”) The militant group claimed that 13 hostages, among them foreigners, were killed as a result of Israeli bombardment of the Strip.
Slonim, the former hostage negotiator, dismissed the notion that the Israeli government could heed Hamas’s demands to release all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails—of which there are roughly 5,200, according to the Ramallah-based NGO Addameer, including 170 children—in exchange for the hostages’ release. The Israelis held in Gaza “ are not prisoners of war,” he says. “They are just people who are hostages and there is no need for any price.”
But Gershon Baskin, the co-founder and former co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research think-tank who served as an intermediary in the negotiations to release Shalit, says there are deals to be made. “Israel should announce that any Gazan who brings hostages to the border will be granted amnesty and passage to the West Bank,” Baskin said in a post on Friday. He also suggested that Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar apply pressure on Hamas to release all the hostages, with Turkey and Qatar threatening to expel Hamas’s top leadership from their countries if they don’t.
All Ariev wants is for her sister to be returned safely. “We do not care about bombing Gaza, going there in an on-the-ground operation,” she says. “The only thing that we want now is that my sister, my parent’s child, comes home.”