Home News Another war: How Israel is hunting down Gaza hostages

Another war: How Israel is hunting down Gaza hostages

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Hostages in Gaza have been moved around, with Hamas moving some from apartment to apartment to cover their tracks, while others are believed to be hiding in underground tunnels.

Meanwhile, in a “fusion cell” quietly formed in Israel last fall, American and Israeli intelligence and military analysts are sharing drone and satellite imagery, communications intercepts and any other information they acquire that might provide clues to the hostages’ location.

There are multiple wars going on in the Gaza Strip.

For the most part, the world has seen Israeli air strikes and ground incursions that Israel says are aimed at dismantling Hamas and have leveled large swathes of its territory, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Rescue Saturday’s killing of four hostages was a reminder of another, less-noticed battle being waged between Israel and Hamas:

The militants are determined to hold on to the hostages they took during their deadly October 7 attack on Israel as leverage, and the Israelis are determined to bring them home.

For more than eight months, the militants have had the upper hand.

Israeli and American officials say they do not know where many of the hostages are being held, and even if they did, rescue operations would in many cases be impossible.

Israel has rescued seven hostages so far, but the harsh reality is that many more have died since the war began, either in combat or at the hands of Hamas. Israel has rescued far more bodies than it has kept alive.

Although Saturday’s rescue operation sparked enthusiastic cheers in Israel, Israeli and American officials said the complexity of the operation and the violence that accompanied it highlighted the challenges of finding and rescuing hostages. One rescuer died; Israeli commandos killed several Hamas fighters; and many civilians died in the exchange of fire. Hamas also said three other hostages were killed in Israeli airstrikes, but an IDF spokesman denied that claim.

It is unclear how many more rescue attempts there will be, at least on the ground. All hostages rescued so far have been pulled from apartments. Now, current and former Israeli and American officials say Hamas may change tack and seek to move more hostages into tunnels, where they could potentially evade the commandos.

The reality, U.S. and Israeli officials say, is that rescue operations are the exception. Only through diplomacy can most of the remaining hostages be brought home. U.S. officials are pressuring Israel and Hamas to reach a deal that would repatriate the hostages as part of a ceasefire.

“We have to remember that the release of four hostages is ultimately a tactical achievement, and the strategic level does not change,” said Avi Kalo, an Israeli reserve lieutenant colonel who led a military intelligence unit that handles prisoners of war and missing persons. “Hamas still has dozens of hostages, and the vast majority, if not all, will not be released in the operation but only rescued as part of a ceasefire.”

While freeing the hostages has been a top priority for Israel since the war began, some U.S. officials say Israel has varying degrees of focus on that goal. Accidental killing of three hostages In a clear sign that the Israeli military is not always good at hunting down hostages, Israeli troops shot and killed three men who escaped kidnapping in northern Gaza in December. Israeli officials say the military has learned from that mistake.

Israeli officials said 251 people were believed to have been captured in the October 7 terror attack. Last November, Israel reached an agreement with Hamas to release 105 of them.

since then, Of the remaining hostages, 43 have been officially declared dead; many, though not all, are believed to have died in captivity. Privately, Israeli officials say they believe fewer than 60 hostages are still alive. U.S. officials say five dual nationals are among the dead. The bodies of surviving Gaza civilians and three Americans held by Hamas.

Throughout Israel’s history, Do whatever it takes to bring the hostages homeThe long-standing principle is that military force is used first when rescuing Israelis. If rescue is not possible, Israel will make a deal – sometimes exchanging more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one captured Israeli soldier.

Tracking the movements of hostages, an operation in which Britain is also involved, is about more than just pinpointing their location. Military and intelligence officials are also looking for patterns in their movements, trying to understand how long Hamas holds them in one place before moving them to another. If they can discern a pattern, they can better determine a window of opportunity to launch a rescue operation.

The intelligence gathered is often sporadic. Hints that a particular hostage is still alive, or hints about which group might be holding a hostage, may not reveal a precise location, but can hint at where in Gaza to step up information-gathering efforts. While no one can be sure how accurate the information is, once the Israelis have a confident location and believe a hostage might be there for a while, intense planning begins.

Early in the war, some intelligence officials believed that most hostages were being held in tunnels. But living underground appears difficult for Hamas commanders, and it is easier to hold hostages in the apartments of Hamas supporters.

As the war progressed, Israel continued to strengthen its intelligence work on the hostages through the seizure of documents, the interrogation of captured Hamas fighters, and the assistance of the United States and Britain.

Israeli and American officials believe some hostages may be moving more frequently now than at the start of the war. But given Israel’s devastating offensive across the tiny territory, the area Hamas can hide hostages has shrunk, while the chances of finding them have increased, American and Israeli officials say.

In addition, as operations in Gaza became increasingly difficult, communication between Hamas’ armed forces and its core leadership broke down, according to U.S. officials. As a result, some hostages stayed in their hideouts longer.

While U.S. officials believe Hamas is involved in all hostage handling, some hostages are not held by the group but by allied militant groups, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Because of this, Hamas leadership appears unsure how many hostages are in Gaza, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

Israeli and U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about the well-being of the hostages, who have suffered mental and physical abuse during their lengthy captivity.

“The hostages, who have been held captive for nearly nine months, are in such bad physical and mental condition that rescuers may not even be able to recognize them,” said Gen. Richard Clarke, retired commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Israel is trying to find the hostages, while Hamas leaders are trying to keep them hidden, knowing that they are the best bargaining chip in ceasefire negotiations.

But they also have another purpose. A small group of hostages is believed to be being held in Yahya SinwarHamas leaders in Gaza. They are human shields, making it harder for Israel to attack him.

The United States and Israel have been unable to determine the exact location of Mr. Sinwar and the hostages. American officials say he has moved around Gaza, including hiding for a time beneath Rafah, and is now likely back beneath Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city. The network of tunnels there is so extensive that neither the United States nor Israel can pinpoint his exact location, U.S. officials said.

Hamas leaders also issued standing orders to militants holding hostages that if they thought Israeli troops were coming, the first thing they should do was to shoot the hostages, according to Israeli officials. If hostages were killed on Saturday, as Hamas claims, it was probably by militants, not by Israeli airstrikes. But at this point, Israeli and U.S. officials can neither confirm nor refute Hamas’s claims.

U.S. officials said the U.S. military had flown surveillance drones over the Gaza Strip to help rescue hostages since shortly after the attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Officials said at least six MQ-9 Reaper drones controlled by special forces were involved in the missions to monitor for signs of life.

A senior Israeli official said British and American drones can provide information that Israeli drones cannot collect. US military officials said that the sensors on US reconnaissance drones are basically the same as those of British and Israeli drones, but the large number of US aircraft means that more territory can be monitored more frequently and for longer periods of time.

Drones can’t map Hamas’s vast network of underground tunnels — Israel uses highly classified ground sensors to do that — but their infrared radars can detect the heat signatures of fighters or others entering and exiting surface tunnel entrances, officials said.

Intelligence sharing between the United States and Israel during the Gaza war initially focused on hostage rescue efforts, but cooperation expanded over time, according to three current or former senior U.S. officials.

“They are part of the largest intelligence operation Israel has ever conducted, possibly the largest intelligence operation ever,” Col. Carlo said of the United States and Britain.

Adam Goldman I contributed to coverage from Washington.

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