A military operation to rescue the hostages held by Hamas terrorists appears all but impossible, with experts warning that diplomacy should now be the main focus — as Israel’s military revealed the number of kidnapped has risen to more than 200.
Twelve days after Hamas invaded Israel in a surprise terror attack, officials in the Jewish state estimate that 203 people were taken hostage by the terror group — an increase on its previous number of those believed to be kidnapped.
Given the large number of innocent captives — which include children, women and the elderly from about 40 different nations — experts on hostage negotiations fear a military rescue is out of the question and are now calling on the US and Qatar to facilitate a more strategic one.
“We’ve not seen a case quite like this in the modern era,” Christopher O’Leary, a former senior FBI official who led many hostage recovery teams, told The Post.
“Israel should negotiate the release of the hostages as a priority while working to gather more intelligence,” he continued.
“The airstrikes can lead to more destroyed structures, which will make it difficult to operate in Gaza and locate the hostages. There’s also the chance the hostages can be wounded or killed as a result.”
Qatar, a nation that facilitates aid to Gaza, is currently acting as a mediator between the terrorist organization and officials from the US. At least 13 Americans are listed among the hostages.
O’Leary noted that Qatar is a valuable ally that has helped negotiate hostage situations in Afghanistan and Iran.
But as the nations have urged Israel to restrain itself in its counterattack, the Jewish state has continued its airstrikes in Gaza.
Hamas officials have claimed that at least 22 hostages have been killed by the strikes, a statistic Israel has rejected as nothing more than psychological warfare.
Gershon Baskin, who negotiated the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2011, is among those who believe Israel’s bombardments are becoming detrimental to securing the hostages.
“To sacrifice hostages and soldiers seems to be the psychology today,” Baskin told the New York Times of the airstrikes and planned ground invasion to eradicate Hamas.
“No one is thinking about the day after: What do you do with Gaza?”
The location of the hostages remains unknown, but Israeli military officials said they have acquired some intelligence on the whereabouts of the captives.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, has claimed on Telegram that dozens of hostages are in “safe places and the tunnels of resistance,” referencing the sprawling underground tunnel network beneath Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has sent out a small team of special operations forces to assist Israel in locating and rescuing the hostages.
“The President has directed his team to work with their Israeli counterparts on every aspect of the hostage crisis, including sharing intelligence and deploying experts from across the United States government to consult with and advise Israeli counterparts on hostage recovery efforts,” NSC spokesman John Kirby told reporters last week.
Hamas then released a video on Monday of Mia Schem, 21, a French-Israeli citizen who appeared to be receiving medical attention for a wounded arm as she revealed she was in Gaza after being kidnapped from the Nova music festival on Oct. 7.
“They are taking care of me, giving me medicine, everything is fine. I only ask that they bring me home as soon as possible to my parents, to my siblings,” she said. “Get me out of here as soon as possible. Please.”
A senior Western official with knowledge of the negotiations with Hamas told the Times that the terrorist group had not ordered its gunmen to kidnap women and children, blaming common criminals instead.
However, “top secret” documents recovered by Israeli first responders from the bodies of Hamas fighters and seen by NBC News suggest the terrorists were directed by their leaders to abduct civilians.
In one plan, two highly trained Hamas units were instructed to surround and infiltrate the kibbutz of Kfar Sa’ad and act in tandem to corral as many unsuspecting Israelis as possible, according to the documents written in Arabic.
One unit would work to “contain the new Da’at school” while the second group would “collect hostages,” “search the Bnei Akiva youth center” and “search the old Da’at school.”
Still, O’Leary noted that Hamas does not have full control of Gaza, adding that other Islamic extremist groups and civilians also took part in the kidnappings. Hamas claims that at least 50 people are being held by the other factions.
“These other groups have been, historically, more extreme than Hamas, so we don’t know what conditions they’re being held in,” O’Leary said.
The unnamed Western official who spoke to the Times suggested that because of this, Hamas is well aware of the worldwide condemnation of the kidnappings — which is behind the sudden push to portray itself as taking care of the hostages and even freeing some of them.
Ari Yonatan, an Israeli paramedic who witnessed the horrors of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 firsthand, told the Post he agreed that the terrorists were now using the hostages for propaganda and negotiation tactics.
“They might have chosen pawns to keep alive or in somewhat stable condition to create a bargaining chip for negotiation, or a prisoner swap,” he said. “It’s a very complicated issue.
“In reality, I hope for the best, in terms of their condition,” Yonatan said of the hostages. “But I imagine the worst… They could be doing anything to them.”
In the immediate wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau, claimed his group had captured enough people to facilitate the release of all Palestinians captured by Israel.
According to the latest figures by Addameer, a prisoners’ rights non-profit, nearly 5,200 Palestinians are in Israeli jails, including 33 women and 170 minors.
It is unclear if Hamas has proposed such an exchange in recent days.