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What will it take to free the hostages in Gaza? Many Israelis support a prisoner swap

Family of hostage Liri Albag protest outside the Ministry of Defense on Nov. 4, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Albag, 18, is a surveillance soldier at the Nahal Oz army base, and was taken captive by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.
Maya Levin for NPR
Family of hostage Liri Albag protest outside the Ministry of Defense on Nov. 4, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Albag, 18, is a surveillance soldier at the Nahal Oz army base, and was taken captive by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Shmuel Brodutch sits under a tent outside Israel's military headquarters every day now, with one demand of his leaders: to strike a deal with Hamas for the release of his three young grandchildren and daughter-in-law.

"The only way to bring them back safe is to have a deal," Brodutch said.

The U.S. is seeking a pause in the Hamas-Israel war, in order to allow for the release of the roughly 240 hostages taken prisoner inside Gaza during the deadly Hamas massacre of some 1,400 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Many Israelis are advocating a far-reaching idea: a historic prisoner exchange in which Israel would release all its Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails.

"All in exchange for all," says the poster Brodutch holds under his tent.

Hamas has so far released four hostages through Qatar's mediation. It has called for a grand prisoner exchange to release the rest. Israel says no such deal is on the table.

Yet a recent Israeli opinion poll found nearly two-thirds of Israelis surveyed support a prisoner exchange. Another poll found split opinions but no overwhelming opposition.

Israeli ground troops were able to free one hostage soldier after their incursion into Gaza, but it's unlikely troops can free hundreds of others, with Hamas believed to be holding them in their labyrinth of underground tunnels and chambers.

"If the army will go to free them, a big percentage of them will be dead. I don't want to get my grandchildren back as corpses," Brodutch said of his grandchildren, who are four, eight and 10 years old.

Shmuel Broduch poses for a portrait in a tent he has set up outside of the ministry of defense base in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5. He wants Israel to strike a deal with Hamas for the release of his three young grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Shmuel Broduch poses for a portrait in a tent he has set up outside of the ministry of defense base in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5. He wants Israel to strike a deal with Hamas for the release of his three young grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
Israelis protest for the return of hostages outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Israelis protest for the return of hostages outside military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5.

Israel has engaged in prior prisoner swaps before

There is precedent for the idea of a prisoner exchange.

In 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a swap with Hamas, releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel in exchange for the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held by Hamas in Gaza for five years.

One of the released prisoners in that swap is now the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, whom Israel accuses of helping mastermind last month's attack.

That history is why some Israeli families oppose a prisoner exchange.

Emuna Nisim Libman's brother is being held in Gaza, but she does not support a prisoner swap to get him back.

"I miss my brother with all my heart, but we know that a ceasefire and prisoner exchange is destructive for our children's future," and could lead to another Oct. 7 style attack, she said in a recent video.

Volunteer workers at the hostage family headquarters in Tel Aviv.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Volunteer workers at the hostage family headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Or Buchbut, who's brother-in-law was kidnapped, poses for a portrait in the hostage family headquarters in Tel Aviv.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Or Buchbut, who's brother-in-law was kidnapped, poses for a portrait in the hostage family headquarters in Tel Aviv.

Family and friends of the hostages walk a fine line

A massive advocacy effort has been formed by the main group representing family and friends of the Israeli hostages. The group has been careful not to adopt an official position on how Israel should secure their release.

"We're not busy telling government or any other officials how to do that," said Shiri Grosbard, whose colleague, Sasha Trupanov, was taken hostage. "We just want them home."

But the families have been ramping up pressure on the Israeli government, demanding meetings with Netanyahu and accusing the government of not prioritizing their loved ones' release over Israel's military bombardment on Gaza, which has claimed the lives of at least 10,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials.

Individually, families are increasingly advocating the idea of a prisoner exchange with Hamas to bring their loved ones home.

"Definitely," said Malki and Shelly Shemtov, whose son, Omer, recently turned 21 in Hamas captivity.

People protest for the return of hostages in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
People protest for the return of hostages in Tel Aviv on Nov. 5
Families have been ramping up pressure on the Israeli government, accusing the government of not prioritizing their loved ones' release over Israel's military bombardment on Gaza.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Families have been ramping up pressure on the Israeli government, accusing the government of not prioritizing their loved ones' release over Israel's military bombardment on Gaza.

What a prisoner exchange could look like

A comprehensive prisoner exchange could see Israel release all its Palestinian prisoners.

About 6,700 inmates are being held in Israel on what are called security offenses. That includes about 560 serving life sentences for the killing of Israeli civilians and soldiers over the decades, according to Qadoura Fares, a Palestinian official in the West Bank who oversees prisoners' affairs. He said some 65 women and 250 minors are among them.

"It's the most despicable murderers that massacred and killed Jews for years, for decades," said Yohanan Plesner, director of the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute. "But at the same time, we have never dealt with such a situation of of so many Israeli hostages, so many innocent Israelis, youngsters, kids, that are held in captivity."

He said he believes Israelis "will be willing to go very far in order to get them released, short of one important goal, which is, it's not instead of the goal of dismantling Hamas."

Roughly 240 hostages were taken prisoner inside Gaza during the deadly Hamas massacre of some 1,400 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Above, an Israeli man protests outside a ministry of defense base in Tel Aviv.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Roughly 240 hostages were taken prisoner inside Gaza during the deadly Hamas massacre of some 1,400 people in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Above, an Israeli man protests outside a ministry of defense base in Tel Aviv.

Standing outside military headquarters, one Israeli, Sarah Tal, offered her own proposal.

"We will let them go from the prison to Gaza, and then we'll kill them in Gaza," she said. "We continue the war."

It's unclear how Israel can pursue its twin goals of getting hostages released safely and eliminating the very group holding them. What is clear is that many Israelis are open to making a deal with Hamas to secure the captives' freedom.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
Jaclyn Diaz