Dealing with Dangerous Choices for Gaza Hostages, U.S. Turns to Longtime Mediator

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Within the dense warrens of Gaza, Hamas is believed to carry no less than 199 folks hostage, guarded by gunmen and booby traps, possible scattered and hidden from any would-be rescuers as Israel readies a floor invasion.

Israeli and U.S. commandos have pulled off extraordinary hostage rescues earlier than. However the chaotic atmosphere of Gaza, which is descending right into a humanitarian disaster and the bottom the place Hamas launched devastating assaults on Israel this month, has made such a mission unlikely due to the risks to hostages and troopers alike.

That has left determined, complicated diplomacy — led by america and Qatar, a tiny nation with in depth ties to militant teams — as the best choice to save lots of hostages within the eyes of many present and former officers.

Within the talks up to now, Qatar is performing as a mediator between Hamas and officers from america, which like Israel and the European Union considers Hamas a terrorist group. Including much more complexity to the talks, there are folks from greater than 30 nations among the many hostages.

If Hamas thought taking hostages was a hedge towards an Israeli invasion, the group might need misplayed its hand. Though Western and U.S. officers have urged restraint to restrict the hazard 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 troopers appears to be the psychology at the moment,” mentioned Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the discharge of the Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011 after greater than 5 years in captivity. “Nobody is considering the day after: What do you do with Gaza?”

Nearly instantly after the Oct. 7 Hamas assault, which killed greater than 1,400 folks, Qatar joined the hostage negotiations, drawing on its expertise in mediating the discharge of individuals around the globe.

This week, with Qatar performing as a mediator at Ukraine’s request, Russia agreed to repatriate 4 Ukraine youngsters. Qatar additionally lately had a quiet position in liberating two American hostages in Africa, together with a nun and an support employee, in accordance with one former U.S. official, with data of the diplomatic efforts, who spoke on the situation of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations. In 2014, Qatar labored behind the scenes to win the discharge of an American journalist held by an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.

The discharge of that journalist was a vivid spot throughout a grim time, through which members of the Islamic State kidnapped about two dozen Western hostages, a few of whom have been in the end beheaded, together with one other journalist, James Foley.

At one level, American commandos tried to free the hostages at a jail in Raqqa, Syria, however by the point they descended on the town, the captives had been moved.

A number of former U.S. officers and analysts mentioned that whereas that mission was extraordinarily harmful, it will not evaluate to the perils of a navy rescue operation in Gaza, a densely populated, city space brimming with weapons, fighters and miles of underground tunnels.

Given these hazards — and that Gaza is more and more harmful for everybody, with dwindling clear water, medication and gas — U.S. officers imagine a navy rescue is all however not possible. Which means diplomacy stays the central effort.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken mentioned at a information convention in Doha, Qatar, that the 2 nations have been working intensively to safe the hostages’ launch.

Mr. Blinken then traveled to Israel with Steve Gillen, the State Division’s deputy particular presidential envoy for hostage affairs — an workplace created in 2015, after American households complained bitterly in regards to the Obama administration’s dealing with of hostages. Mr. Gillen met with Gal Hirsh, a retired Israeli common who was named coordinator for the captives and lacking.

The previous U.S. official, together with a senior Western official acquainted with the negotiations, mentioned there was optimism that Hamas may launch the ladies and kids due to worldwide backlash to the abductions.

A senior Israeli miliary official mentioned that based mostly on conversations america has had with Qatar, there’s a chance that Hamas might launch the roughly 50 dual-nationals separate from any broader deal.

Nonetheless, the U.S. navy has not been idle — even when a rescue effort stays a distant chance.

The Pentagon has despatched a small workforce of particular operations forces to Israel to help with intelligence and planning for any operations to assist find and rescue the hostages, a senior Protection Division official mentioned. The navy’s secretive Joint Particular Operations Command has additionally deployed plane and logistics to the area as a precaution prematurely of any potential missions, U.S. officers mentioned, however it has not but despatched any operational commando groups to Israel.

“The primary precedence is intelligence sharing — the place are the hostages being held,” mentioned Christopher Costa, a former Military Particular Forces officer and White Home counterterrorism official.

One senior U.S. official mentioned there may be little details about the whereabouts of the hostages.

The F.B.I., which investigates crimes towards People abroad and has a significant position in hostage instances, additionally has a small presence on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and powerful ties to Israeli regulation enforcement and intelligence. To this point, greater than a dozen People stay unaccounted for, although it was unclear what number of have been hostages. The F.B.I. has opened greater than a dozen instances for People both captured or lacking, in accordance with an American regulation enforcement official.

Christopher O’Leary, a former senior F.B.I. official who ran a multiagency hostage restoration workforce and handled numerous kidnappings, mentioned the dimensions and scale of the abductions on Oct. 7 have been gorgeous.

“It’s not like something we’ve handled within the fashionable period,” mentioned Mr. O’Leary, who now works with the Soufan Group, a safety consultancy.

Final yr, he attended a convention in Herzliya, Israel, the place he and Israeli counterparts mentioned complicated hostage conditions, together with the notorious 1985 hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro. He mentioned the Israelis have been conscious about the opportunity of kidnappings, a previous technique of Hamas, but they have been caught off guard.

“They’re delicate to the truth that one thing like that would occur tomorrow,” Mr. O’Leary mentioned.

For the households of hostages, there are frustratingly few dependable particulars, with potential misinformation trickling out. Hamas has claimed hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, assertions that would not be independently verified. The Islamic State made an analogous assertion in 2015, claiming an American hostage had been killed in a U.S. bombing, however investigators imagine the terrorist group killed the girl.

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

In one other occasion, Hamas launched a video showing to indicate an Israeli girl and two youngsters being freed. The girl, Avital Aladjem, informed Israeli information media that she crossed into Gaza however her abductors let her go on the border. They didn’t inform her why.

Hamas, which was stunned by the assault’s success, in accordance with the senior Western official who spoke on the situation of anonymity given the sensitivities, additionally seems to be pushing again towards the widespread condemnation of the abductions.

In discussions with Qatar, the Western official mentioned, Hamas claimed it had not instructed its gunmen to abduct ladies and kids, and blamed widespread criminals who flowed by means of breached border fencing for a number of the kidnappings. Hamas additionally informed negotiators that it doesn’t maintain all the prisoners, the official mentioned.

In a video that Hamas launched of 1 hostage, Mia Schem, 21, somebody seems to be bandaging her arm whereas the sounds of loud thuds and automotive horns will be heard within the background. “In the intervening time I’m in Gaza,” Ms. Schem, a French-Israeli citizen says within the video, including that she is being taken care of and that her arm was operated on at a hospital. The video ends along with her plea to be returned to Israel.

After the video’s launch, the Israeli navy mentioned in a press release that Hamas was “attempting to painting itself as a humane group, whereas it’s a murderous terrorist group liable for the homicide and abduction of infants, ladies, youngsters and aged.”

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

“Or no less than that’s their hope,” he mentioned, referring to Hamas.

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