The Fate of Israel’s Hostages After Iran’s Rocket Attack

On Saturday night, Matty Dancyg was at home in the southern Israeli town of Sde Boker when Iran launched a huge rocket strike on Israel, to retaliate for the recent assassination of a top commander in the Revolutionary Guard. As Dancyg and his family took shelter in a reinforced room in their house, his mind raced—as it seems to do all the time these days—to his father. Alex Dancyg was among the hostages taken by Hamas in the attacks of October 7th, and he remains in captivity in Gaza. Matty worried that the Iranian strike would further complicate the possibility of a deal to release Alex and his fellow-captives. “It’s yet another thing that would make Bibi divert attention away from the hostages,” he told me on Sunday.

For months, the families of the Israeli hostages tried not to broadcast their fear and despair. When a ceasefire fell apart late last year, with fewer than half of the two hundred and fifty-three captives released, the families refrained from placing blame directly on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When journalists asked about their missing relatives, they did not disparage the government. (In fact, sympathetic P.R. specialists advised them that it was better not to talk about their political leanings at all.) But Israel recently marked six months since Hamas massacred roughly twelve hundred Israelis and precipitated a war that, Gazan officials say, has killed more than thirty-three thousand Palestinians. With negotiations seeming perpetually stalled, families of some of the hostages have begun speaking out directly against Netanyahu, calling him the “obstacle” to a deal that would bring their loved ones home.

I first met Matty Dancyg in Tel Aviv, where a huge crowd had gathered to chant “Elections now!” A weekly vigil for the release of the hostages had melded with anti-government demonstrations, which have convulsed the country since last year. Dancyg held up a photo of his father and a sign that read “Bibi, You Don’t Have a Mandate to Sacrifice the Lives of the Hostages.” Alex Dancyg, a seventy-five-year-old historian of the Holocaust, was seized from Kibbutz Nir Oz and taken to a tunnel in Gaza. Some of his fellow-captives were released in the abortive ceasefire last year, and they brought back a modest report: Alex had kept busy in the cramped cell by delivering impromptu lectures on Jewish history. “But that was on day fifty-five,” Dancyg noted. Since then, four months have passed with no other news of his father, who requires daily medication to manage a heart condition. It has been three months since Netanyahu met with Dancyg and relatives of several other hostages, and told them that releasing their loved ones was part of his mission. “He made me believe that he really cared,” Dancyg said. “But he tricked us.”

Netanyahu declares at every opportunity that the hostages’ release is a top priority, yet he stops short of calling it Israel’s primary goal—offering, instead, vague talk of “total victory.” His critics believe that the obfuscation is purposeful: by keeping his goals vague, Netanyahu is able to prolong the war and push back elections, which polls indicate that he will lose. The hostages’ families are increasingly impatient. At the protest, the mother of a kidnapped man cried out from a bridge for Netanyahu to resign.

About an hour later, protesters blocked an oncoming car, and the passengers began to curse at them; eventually, the driver plowed through the crowd, injuring five. The incident provided a measure of how politicized the hostage crisis has become. Fifty-nine per cent of Israelis support a proposed deal, by which Israel would cease attacks for a forty-day period and release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, and Hamas would return forty hostages. The deal could then be extended for two more periods to bring home the remaining hostages. Barely a quarter of Israelis oppose such an agreement, even though it requires releasing prisoners who perpetrated murder. Yet members of Netanyahu’s government and their supporters in the media have turned increasingly against the idea, going as far as to suggest that the hostage families are trying to bring down his administration—or even working on behalf of Hamas. (An official in Netanyahu’s office emphasized in a statement that the Prime Minister continues to meet with hostage families, and credited military pressure with achieving the release of the first group of hostages last year. “Destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages are not mutually exclusive goals,” he said.)

Last fall, when a relative of one hostage gave emotional testimony before the Knesset, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition disparaged it as “a show,” adding, “What amazes me is his cynical exploitation.” In January, families of the hostages blocked the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway and lit torches that spelled out “136,” the number of hostages then in captivity. Afterward, a prominent pro-Netanyahu anchor named Shimon Riklin tweeted, “Sinwar sends his thanks”—a reference to Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader. Last week, the Prime Minister’s son Yair Netanyahu quoted a social-media post suggesting that what the hostages’ families were asking for amounted to “a full surrender.”

In early April, demonstrators scaled police barricades outside the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Several were detained, and police dragged away the daughter-in-law of a hostage; a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party said afterward, “The protests reminded me of the protests of terrorists.” Naama Lazimi, a politician from the left-wing Labor Party, attended the protest, and she told me that she was aghast: “Arrest them? What have we become?” Still, she was not surprised by the escalating rhetoric against hostage families. “It’s a synchronized campaign that comes from the very top,” she said.

A recent report by Fake Reporter, an Israeli group that monitors disinformation online, concluded that there has been a deliberate campaign by “pro-Netanyahu influencers, media personalities and leading activists from Likud” to “frame the fight of the hostage families as illegitimate and inauthentic.” The report noted that the campaign presents some of the hostages’ more vocal relatives as “actors” or “provocateurs,” and also argues that the families’ effort “serves Hamas and hurts Israeli interests at a time of war.”

Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat was kidnapped from Kibbutz Be’eri while visiting her parents, agreed. “There are attempts from within the government to paint the hostage families as politically motivated,” he told me. It wasn’t lost on him that many of the families come from the kibbutzim, a traditionally left-wing stronghold. “We’re not people that the government sees as its base,” he added.

The political allies Netanyahu relies on to remain in office support extending the war. They have called for a large-scale invasion of the southern city of Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where Sinwar and much of Hamas’s remaining forces are said to be hiding, and have argued against allowing humanitarian aid to enter Gaza—even, in some cases, joining protesters who attempted to physically block aid trucks from crossing the border.

Last November, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the extremist minister of national security, proposed legalizing the death penalty for convicted terrorists. Dickmann and relatives of other hostages feared that their loved ones would face retribution if such a law passed, so they attended a hearing in the Knesset to plead with lawmakers to set the proposal aside. The proposal was shelved, but Ben-Gvir did not miss a chance to link himself to the hostages’ families: he enveloped Dickmann in an ungainly bear hug. Two days later, his party tried to vote down the first hostage-release deal.

Last week, Ben-Gvir warned that if Netanyahu failed to order a military incursion into Rafah he would “cease to have a mandate to serve as Prime Minister.” The far right has also mounted a campaign that appropriates a slogan used on posters urging the hostages’ return—“Bring Him Home Now!”—to call for the release of a Jewish settler who had been detained by Israeli officials on suspicion of stoking violence against Palestinians. After this weekend’s Iranian strike, Ben-Gvir argued that, even though only one person was seriously injured, Israel’s only response was to “go crazy.”

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s hard-right finance minister, was asked during a radio interview in February whether bringing back the hostages was of utmost importance. “No, it’s not the most important,” he said flatly. When the interviewer, incredulous, tried again, Smotrich replied, “What does it matter now? We must destroy Hamas.”

After a ferocious public outcry, Smotrich offered a contorted apology. But his reaction was indicative of a shift toward extremist views in the government, according to Gayil Talshir, a scholar of political ideologies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. If the sanctity of life is the foremost value in Judaism—explaining the overwhelming public support for a deal, in 2011, that swapped a single kidnapped Israeli soldier for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners—she argued that that is not the case among ultranationalists, who now hold senior positions. “For the extremist messianic camp, the hostages are not a priority,” Talshir told me last week. For them, the most important value is sacrifice, she added: “The national religious camp is motivated by what they consider Israel’s ‘double retreat.’ ” One “retreat” was giving up territory in the interest of easing conflict: Israel pulled out of Jericho and much of Gaza after the 1993 Oslo Accords and then dismantled a series of settlements in Gaza in 2005. The other, Talshir said, was “liberal ways of life as a withdrawal from religious Zionism.” For hard-line Zionists, she added, “The punishment for the double retreat was October 7.”

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