As we celebrate the news that two U.S. hostages have been released by Hamas we cannot not lose sight of at least 11 more American citizens who remain hostages in the Gaza Strip. We still do not know where they are being held, how they are being treated, or if they are still alive.
While Joe President Biden told the families of the hostages that he would do everything in his power to bring them to safety, his national security council has no plans for an American-led rescue operation.
Instead, the United States says it will rely on Israel and diplomacy to free captive Americans. This is unacceptable. American intelligence and military power are capable of more; the president should unleash our decades-long experience dealing with terrorists in combat zones and bring our American captives home.
With terrorists deliberately embedded within Gaza’s urban civilian populations, and Hamas operating out of an unmapped elaborate tunnel system, locating the hostages is extremely challenging, to be sure.
Moreover, as a number of experts have pointed out, Hamas has likely distributed the hostages to multiple locations in Gaza making a single rescue effort impossible. As a result, the Biden administration is pursuing a release via diplomacy working with the International Committee of the Red Cross and through countries, like Egypt and Qatar, that deal directly with Hamas.
This is a recipe for failure.
Egypt is preoccupied with managing the Gazan humanitarian disaster and the concomitant security risk of a million-plus Gazans building up on its border. The plight of American hostages will be used, at best, as leverage to help Egypt manage its border crisis; more likely, it views the hostages as a distraction from its core interests.
Qatar is an unreliable actor. Its willingness to patronize Hamas, openly host their political leadership in its capital and facilitate meetings with Iran’s leadership ought to give American diplomats pause that the road to freeing our hostages runs through Doha.
Israel remains the most promising pathway to saving American citizens, but it too is understandably focused elsewhere. Mobilizing over 300,000 forces for the expected ground incursion into Gaza is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s No. 1 priority.
And Israel has its own hostage crisis to manage with Hamas holding an estimated 200 Israeli citizens. It is simply unreasonable and unrealistic to expect Israel to dedicate precious resources to saving American hostages, nor should we expect Israel to delay its offensive until the hostages are freed.
Given these deficiencies, it is critical the Biden administration develop a U.S.-led option to complement the overall effort to rescue American hostages. With over two decades experience carrying out counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world, U.S. intelligence agencies and special operations units know how to operate in unfamiliar urban combat zones riddled with risk and terrorist activity.
Cases like the 2008 rescue of Al Geiser in Afghanistan and the 2020 rescue of Philip Walton in Niger are just two successful examples. U.S. Central Command and national intelligence assets should be prioritizing collection on Gaza and developing rescue packages on each of the U.S. hostages.
With liaison officers from the intelligence community and special operations command on the ground in Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces are in a far better position to support a U.S. effort than it is to lead and organize a rescue operation on behalf of U.S. citizens.
The USS Ford carrier strike group recently deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean is well positioned to launch and oversee a rescue operation. With a second carrier group underway to the region the U.S. military can carry out its regional deterrence mission, provide military support to Israel should Hezbollah open a second front from Lebanon, and carry out a rescue operation.
An American-led rescue effort would undoubtedly be high risk, but our national security apparatus is built for this kind of contingency. Every day American hostages remain in Gaza the more their lives are imperiled. At least one known American hostage, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, is in need of urgent medical care and may not have days left to wait.
As Biden reminded Americans recently, Hamas is a terrorist organization that operates no differently from ISIS. The ISIS analogy extends beyond its brutality and evil ideology; it is relevant to the hostage crisis too.
As opposed to other hostage negotiation efforts, like those with Iran or Russia, Hamas is not engaging in diplomatic chess. We can assume Hamas will operate no differently from those who captured and murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002; Hamas has reportedly threatened to kill a hostage whenever Israel bombs targets in Gaza without warning.
With 32 Americans murdered and 11 more Americans unaccounted for or taken hostage by Hamas, the Gaza war is America’s war, too. How we handle the plight of captured American citizens will determine whether adversaries and terrorist organizations think they can benefit from capturing or killing more Americans in the future.
Over the past three years, we have failed to deter Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and ISIS from taking American hostages. Given this record, Hamas likely believes it has more to gain by holding hostages than releasing them. That is why it is critical we shift the paradigm immediately and rescue our citizens.