Opinion by Peter Bergen
(CNN) — Up to 150 hostages are being held in Gaza, according to Israeli officials. Meanwhile, 17 Americans are missing, and Hamas may be holding an unknown number of them, according to the White House.
Hamas has threatened to execute hostages and broadcast video of the execution if Israel strikes targets in Gaza without warning.
The approach with the likely lowest risk to the hostages is a negotiated release. Few governments have much leverage with Hamas, but Qatar does, as it has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to poor Gazan families in recent years.
Qatar also has a track record of brokering such releases; for instance, last month, Qatari officials helped to secure the release of five American prisoners held by Iran, which included $6 billion of Iranian oil revenues being unfrozen and sent to a Qatari bank to be used for humanitarian purposes in Iran.
If there were to be some prisoner exchange, Hamas in the past has driven a hard bargain, exchanging Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
There are options other than negotiated releases. There are rescue operations, typically by special operations forces. But those are predicated on knowing exactly where the hostages are located. US special operations forces are offering their expertise and support to Israel, but are not part of a ground mission to rescue hostages.
So far, there is no indication about where the hostages are being held, and Gaza is laced with underground tunnels that Hamas controls, making it hard to locate hostages should they be secreted in these tunnels.
When ISIS kidnapped American journalists and aid workers beginning in 2012, the US launched a rescue operation in 2014 based on indications that they were being held in a particular location in Syria, but the hostages had been moved by the time the operation happened. ISIS subsequently murdered the Americans.
Rescues can also be dangerous for the hostages, even when the most skilled special operations forces are deployed. In 2010, the Taliban kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove, and US Navy SEAL Team Six launched a rescue operation. Subsequent investigations revealed that Norgrove was killed by a fragmentation grenade thrown by a SEAL team member during the operation.
Hostage-takers can also kill their prisoner during rescue operations. In 2014, during a SEAL Team Six rescue operation in Yemen, American journalist Luke Somers was killed by his al Qaeda captors.
A 2017 study that I co-authored for New America, a research institution, found that in the previous decade and a half, in 42 cases of Western hostages being taken by terrorist groups in which a rescue attempt operation was made, it was fatal to the hostages 20% of the time.
In short, a negotiated release of the hostages, mediated perhaps by the Qataris, is the lowest-risk approach to freeing them. If Hamas could release the children and elderly hostages the group appears to be holding, that would be a good start.
The promise of this approach was shown on Friday when, as a result of negotiations between Hamas and Qatar, Hamas released two US citizens, a mother and her daughter.
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