My word: The prisoners' dilemma - opinion

Not only are Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed being held against their will by Hamas, but they have not been permitted visits even by the Red Cross.

 Surfers participate in a protest in Ashdod in June 2020 calling for the release of the Israelis and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held captive by Hamas. At the time, Hisham al-Sayed’s family did not want publicity.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Surfers participate in a protest in Ashdod in June 2020 calling for the release of the Israelis and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held captive by Hamas. At the time, Hisham al-Sayed’s family did not want publicity.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

An excruciating quandary arose this week when Hamas put the subject of the Israelis it is holding captive back in the spotlight. In a clear act of psychological warfare, the terrorist organization on Tuesday released a video of Israeli Bedouin Hisham al-Sayed attached to an oxygen mask and appearing to be in poor health. It was a reminder that Hamas is also keeping prisoner Avera Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, as well as holding the bodies of two soldiers killed and abducted via a terror tunnel in Operation Protective Edge in 2014. 

Unlike Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff-Sgt. Oron Shaul, who are presumed dead, Sayed and Mengistu are both believed to be alive, even though they have not been heard from since they crossed the border into Gaza, Mengistu in 2014 and Sayed the following year. 

In clear contravention of international law, not only are the two being held against their will, but they have not been permitted visits even by the Red Cross. The fact that the first sign of life of Sayed was of him filmed close to death was deliberate – another cruel weapon in the arsenal of psychological warfare.

Publicity in the case of Hamas captives is, from Israel’s point of view, a matter of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The more attention the prisoners receive, the higher the price that Hamas can demand in return for information about them and for their eventual release. 

For Hamas, it is a win-win situation. Although it is the Iranian-backed group that is holding the two Israeli citizens, Israel will be regarded as responsible for their fates. The worse their plight becomes, the more Israel will be blamed for not doing enough to get them back. Sayed and Mengistu have not been in the headlines the way that IDF soldier Gilad Schalit was during his more than five years of Hamas captivity. Schalit, also abducted via a terror tunnel, was eventually returned in 2011 in exchange for more than 1,000 prisoners, most of them Palestinians and Arab Israelis. Many of these released prisoners later returned to terrorism. The trauma of the Schalit exchange is one of the reasons that Israel is not willing to pay such a high price again.

 Screenshot from Hamas video of Hisham al-Sayed (credit: screenshot) Screenshot from Hamas video of Hisham al-Sayed (credit: screenshot)

There are also fundamental differences between the way Israelis relate to soldiers abducted while serving their country and the cases of Sayed and Mengistu, both of whom suffer from psychological problems and entered Gaza of their own accord. 

It was unusual for Hamas to release the video footage of Sayed without asking for something in return. This in itself raises questions not only of why, but why now? 

Hamas said it would be willing to release Sayed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who are sick. It’s a sick joke. The citizens being held against their will with no contact with their families and the outside world cannot be compared to security prisoners who belong to the terrorist organization. There’s no resemblance in who they are and in the conditions in which they are being held. And shame on the usually vocal human rights organizations for not actively campaigning for Hamas to release the two captive Israelis with psychiatric issues. Where is the UN’s unlimited probe when you really need it?

By releasing the footage, Hamas presumably wants to put the topic of the exchange back on the radar. Perhaps, in part, they are motivated by the Israeli elections. They might think they have a better chance of pushing through a deal with Yair Lapid as prime minister in the coming months rather than waiting until after the elections, not knowing who would be sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office. 

When Ezra Sa’ar, a former Shin Bet representative familiar with the subject, spoke on Reshet Bet’s Kalman Liberman program on Wednesday, he warned of Hamas manipulations. Hamas wants maximum benefit from holding the Israeli prisoners, he said. Keeping them hidden for years is a complicated and costly business. There’s no point in holding the captives with no gain. They are a means to an end, Sa’ar noted. This is particularly true in the case of Sayed and Mengistu who weren’t actively kidnapped but more or less fell into Hamas’s open arms. 

It’s likely that Sayed’s medical condition has deteriorated and is bad, but nonetheless, the fact that Hamas is emphasizing the plight of Sayed rather than Mengistu could serve another purpose.

“Hamas is very rational,” Sa’ar said. “It knows how to play on the most sensitive chords in Israeli society.” It’s possible the terrorist organization is hoping the Negev Bedouin will put pressure on the Islamic Movement’s southern branch – represented in the outgoing coalition by Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am-United Arab List –  which will in turn put pressure on the government. 

Psychological warfare

WHENEVER THE subject of psychological warfare comes up, I turn to Dr. Ron Schleifer, who literally wrote the book on the subject – more than one book, in fact. Schleifer, from Ariel University’s School of Communication, is a friend and former classmate from our student days at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

“From the psychological warfare perspective, the main aim of the Schalit abduction was to shock Israeli society,” Schleifer says. “The rules determined then are being implemented now. They always need to give the enemy something to worry about. When the subject drops from public awareness, they need to make sure to raise it again.”

Schleifer says Iran’s fingerprints are evident in this psychological war. “The goal is to embarrass Israel – the government and the Israeli public. 

“They are saying that even with the Mossad, the IDF and intelligence unit 8200, and the Shin Bet, Israel can’t find someone being held about a 40-minute drive from Tel Aviv. That’s embarrassing. It’s also aimed at telling Israel and the Israeli public: ‘All your weapons and technology don’t mean you can beat us.’

“Embarrassing Israel this way is ingenious,” Schleifer says. Not only is Israel’s image damaged from the humanitarian point of view, it is harmed regarding the image of its famed security and intelligence capabilities.

Hamas is obviously also interested in trying to create rifts within Israeli society. In this case, it could be trying to show that Israel doesn’t care about the two captives, from a disadvantaged background, as much as about the missing soldiers.

“Hamas wants to further the ‘Palestinization’ of Israeli Arabs,” Schleifer says. “One way to do this is by embarrassing the country and telling the Bedouins that Israel doesn’t care about them as Israeli citizens.”

In a long-term public relations campaign, the basic rule is: You have to keep the subject center stage, says Schleifer. “You have to make sure the topic remains on the agenda.”

Here lies the crux of the dilemma. Putting the subject in the limelight raises the price. 

“Whether Sayed lives or dies, from Hamas’s viewpoint, it will be a success.”

Dr. Ron Schleifer

The video is part of a perverted ratings war, rivaling for attention. The Hamas tape led to renewed discussion on the price of a prisoner exchange, and whether or how the government should speak to Hamas, at least on this subject.

Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, is undoubtedly looking and learning, the same as it learned from Hamas to build terror tunnels stretching across the border. 

MK Tzachi Hanegbi once told me a story about his late mother, Geula Cohen, a right-wing parliamentary hard-liner. When Hanegbi was serving in the First Lebanon War, she was asked what she would do if her son were taken prisoner. Her reply was: “As a mother, I would be outside the Prime Minister’s Office with a megaphone 24 hours a day calling on the government to do anything it took to obtain his release. As a Knesset member, I would sit inside the Prime Minister’s Office and tell him not to listen to the people outside.” 

Cohen’s response sums up the painful predicament.

We continue to hope for the release of the captives themselves, not just the release of tapes made by Hamas, but we must take into account the hidden price tag.

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