How will Israel’s captives be released? Here are some scenarios

Hamas and its affiliates hold 239 captives taken during the bloody atrocities of October 7.

Their families have launched a campaign to have them brought back in a deal and the IDF continues its operation in the Gaza Strip and pushing to bring them back as part of a deal.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the two goals of the operation were to bring them home and to destroy Hamas. But what are the options on the table for the release of the captives, and how long will it take? Below are all the possibilities and the likelihood of each one to occur.

Release through intermediaries and a ceasefire

In recent days, various media outlets have reported different negotiations for the release of the captives in exchange for a ceasefire, but none have received confirmation from official Israeli sources. In any case, such a release doesn’t solve the entirety of the captive issue. It might only increase pressure on the government.

It’s clear to everyone that mediating in such a deal will be a delicate situation. According to Meir Ben Shabbat, head of the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy and the former head of the National Security Council,

  • “in order to increase the chances of the captives’ return, it’s vital to increase military pressure in the strip and simultaneously intensify pressure on the Qatari intermediaries.”
  • He adds, “The first component is being executed well. However, concerning the intermediary, it seems that both Israel and the international community have been treating Qatar with kid gloves. Qatar has been avoiding scrutiny even though it continues to provide shelter to Hamas and its leaders.”

Ben Shabbat argues that the way Israel employs Qatar has not been effective because it has not pressured it to act for the release of the captives.

  • He says: “The intermediary exploits the situation to enhance its diplomatic status while being part of the problem. It’s time to demand that the US set an ultimatum as follows: A swift release of the captives or else – we will drastically change the policy towards Qatar, including revoking its special status in the eyes of the US, reducing economic, diplomatic, and military ties, and imposing sanctions on entities supporting Hamas. It’s time to strip the intermediary of its hypocritical mask; trying to curry favor with it has not worked.”

Diplomatic pressures to release non-Israelis

Among the 239 captives, about 120 hold foreign citizenship from 22 countries, divided into two groups: those who are dual Israeli citizens, and those who arrived in Israel as tourists or for work or study. Nations whose citizens were taken – among them seven French citizens who are also Israeli residents and many Thais who had been working in Israel – have already begun pressuring Hamas to bring about their release.

  • “Hamas is trying to achieve a ceasefire by releasing some of the captives,” Yaki Dayan, a former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, says.

“It cynically uses them and might want to select, isolate, and differentiate between those without foreign citizenship and those who have it.

  • He adds, “Some countries, like Russia, that Hamas wants to cater to. Because of shared interests, it’s possible that Israeli citizens with Russian citizenship might be released. If that happens, it’s not because Russia was acting to help Israel but due to its stand in favor of Hamas. At the same time, countries like the US, France, and Argentina are pressing for the release of their citizens. Ultimately, these are countries committed to their citizens. Beyond that, in the US, it has become a domestic issue that has affected politics and the public discourse.”

How effective are the levers?

  • “The most significant lever is from Qatar. It’s not for nothing that the head of Mossad visited there. However, there’s constant diplomatic dialogue on many fronts – American, French, Argentinean. Each country manages it separately, and from Israel’s perspective, it wants the release of all captives – it won’t volunteer to have only foreign-passport holders to be released”

Prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hamas

It might sound like a nightmare scenario where Israel releases terrorists with blood on their hands – including those involved in the atrocious massacre on October 7 – but one must also recall that Israel has in the past agreed to pay such a price.

  • In October 2011, an agreement was reached between the Netanyahu government and Hamas, mediated by Germany and Egypt. Under this agreement, Israel received the captured soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of 1,027 terrorists, among them Yahya Sinwar, currently the head of Hamas in Gaza.

In recent days, families of the captives have been campaigning for the release of their loved ones from captivity. Even if it’s not the official stance of the families, many of them demand the release of all the terrorists from Israeli prisons in exchange for all the captives. However, the campaign leaders have since realized that the “everyone in exchange for everyone” campaign causes more harm than good.

  • In any case, it’s clear that Hamas won’t release all the captives without some form of ceasefire or a provision for the release of prisoners – thus, the question of the “price” that Israel will have to pay arises.

A military operation to release the captives

Gaza is a city of terror. A densely populated place with many tunnels where Hamas terrorists hide. Yocheved Lifshitz, released from captivity over humanitarian grounds, recounted, “We walked kilometers inside a tunnel in Gaza.”

On the other hand, soldier Ori Megidish, released by the Shin Bet and IDF, was held alone in an apartment in the Shati refugee camp, not far from Shifa Hospital—in other words, above ground.

Not all 239 captives are held in the same manner.

  • Their release will demand multiple simultaneous military operations, all of which will pose a danger not only to the safety of the forces but also to the well-being of the captives. Various sources might say that “the military operation option is always on the table,” but practically speaking, Gilad Schalit spent five years in Gaza, and intelligence agencies didn’t really know his whereabouts.
  • Furthermore, while Israel has an impressive record of rescuing captives, there have been failures too. In October 1994, Sergeant Nachshon Wachsman was captured by Hamas and held north of Jerusalem. The end is known: he was murdered by the terrorists in an attempt by the IDF to rescue him, and with him fell an officer from the IDF’s elite unit Sayeret Matkal, Nir Poraz.

A long line of former IDF senior officials have refused to publicly address the option of a rescue operation to bring back the captives home. The issue is extremely sensitive and any statement about its chances of success or advisability will provoke reactions.

Release for humanitarian reasons

  • Last weekend, a video featuring captives Hana Katzir (77) and Yagil Yaakov (13) was released by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization, claiming that they could be released for humanitarian reasons. Yigal suffers from allergies and is treated at the Allergy and Clinical Immunology Unit at Sheba Medical Center, and the institute’s director requested international allergy organizations to appeal to the Red Cross to visit him and provide him with EpiPen injections – life-saving treatment for allergic children.
  • “The Red Cross has repeatedly failed,” Dayan says. “After they approached us regarding the detention conditions of Hamas terrorists, they did not meet with the Israeli captives.”


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