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“The Hostages Weren’t Our Top Priority”: Israel’s “Bombing Frenzy” Endangered Hostages Held in Gaza

Written by on 22/12/2023

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Health officials in Gaza say the death toll from Israel’s 10-week bombardment has now topped 20,000, including more than 8,000 Palestinian children. Officials in Gaza say the death toll also includes 97 journalists and 310 healthcare workers.

On Wednesday, the political leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, traveled to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials about a possible new ceasefire and the exchange of captives. Israel believes about 129 Israeli hostages are still being held in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under increasing pressure to secure the release of more hostages, after Israeli forces mistakenly shot dead three Israeli hostages who managed to escape captivity in northern Gaza. The three men, who were all shirtless, were shot as they cried for help in Hebrew while holding up a white flag.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by the Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham. His latest article for +972 Magazine and Local Call is headlined “’The hostages weren’t our top priority’: How Israel’s bombing frenzy endangered captives in Gaza.”

Yuval, if you can start off by talking about exactly what you understand happened? Now there is apparently a GoPro on a dog that captured what took place. The reaction of the Israeli public, and then what this means about the Netanyahu administration and how they’re dealing or prioritizing, or not, hostages?

YUVAL ABRAHAM: Yeah, sure, of course. So, these are three hostages — Yotam, Alon and Samir — one of them is a Palestinian Israeli, two of them Jewish Israelis — who somehow managed to escape their captivity. We don’t know how. And they roamed around Gaza for a few days. They have written in Hebrew on buildings, “Help,” in Hebrew, “Hostages are released.” They have, as you said, communicated the fact they were Israeli captives to a dog that — an army dog that had a GoPro camera.

And they were, I mean, essentially, executed by soldiers. One of them held a white flag. They took off their — they approached soldiers. They took off their clothes to show that they were not wearing any explosives. And soldiers opened fire at them, immediately killing two of them. The commander on the scene realized that they were perhaps Israelis, and told soldiers to stop firing. The third captive managed to run back to a building. And when he came out, soldiers shot at him again, killing him.

And yeah, I mean, I’ve heard — I mean, it’s being reported as a mistake that soldiers have made. I think that it was not a mistake when they thought they were Palestinians. I mean, clearly, you do not, you know, accidentally shoot at somebody who is holding a white flag. And, of course, it becomes a mistake when they realize they’re Israeli hostages.

And it shocked Israeli society. It triggered protests calling on the Netanyahu government to reach a deal with Hamas to release more captives and hostages. But currently, from the way I am reading both the political situation and the public situation, such a deal seems unlikely for now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Yuval, could you explain why you think such a deal is unlikely? And then tell us what the intelligence sources you spoke to for your piece, what they told you about the concerns that hostages had, the fact that you write in this piece that Israeli hostages often said that they were more afraid of being killed by Israeli airstrikes than they were by Hamas.

YUVAL ABRAHAM: Yeah, of course. So, I think it’s unlikely, because I think Netanyahu politically is not going to be willing to pay the price that Hamas is asking, which is to reach a more substantial ceasefire, or perhaps a permanent ceasefire, and to release a lot of Palestinian prisoners, including people like Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa’adat, who are considered to be Palestinian leaders, including many Palestinians who are serving, you know, long prison sentences in the occupation jails, some of them for killing Israeli civilians. And this will, you know, ruin Netanyahu politically, even more than he’s already ruined, which I think is why he will not do it and why he is making it clear publicly that he plans to continue the war for months.

And this relates to our investigation at +972 Magazine, because we have basically spoken to Israeli intelligence sources who have described how during the first weeks of Israel’s onslaught in Gaza, the military knowingly carried out a striking policy, relentless bombardment policy, that not only decimated Gaza and killed thousands and thousands of Palestinians, but also endangered Israeli captives and hostages. And sources have told me, in intelligence, that at the time, they had very little intelligence as to where these captives were being held and that the general atmosphere was, in the top military commanders, is that the hostages are just not a priority, that their safety is relegated in favor of carrying out this bombardment campaign.

And as you said, you know, in the end of November, when captives were released from Gaza for the first time, many of them have described being hit by Israeli airstrikes or attacks, describing a fear, you know, this sort of traumatic fear, of feeling that the power that is supposed to supposedly protect you is actually a very, very, very big threat to your life, you know, talking about really being on the verge of death. And we know that in some cases hostages were hit by these Israeli attacks. Now, the conditions in the captivity of Hamas were horrific for some hostages, as well. We also cover that in the report. We also talk about testimonies of released captivities and sources inside the military of sexual assault against some of the captives. But a recurring theme in many of the testimonies of the captives is really being terrified from the Israeli airstrikes. And again, it seems that, at least for the first few weeks of the war, this was done knowingly, in a sense, by the military.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I mean, quite rightly, there has been a lot of emphasis on the Israeli hostages. But at the same time — you mentioned earlier Palestinian activist and politician Mustafa Barghouti — speaking to the BBC this morning, he talked about how Palestinian prisoners are not so much the focus of discussion. Some who were released from a detention center in northern [sic] Israel earlier, they said that they were — that they were tortured, and some died as a result. He was speaking to the BBC on Thursday.

MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: They told me they were kept, more than 1,000 people, in detention or concentration camp near Beersheba, and they were beaten badly. They were tortured with different methods. Some people were hit with electrical shocks. They also used drowning their heads in the water while they were interrogating them intensively for hours. They are kept in a place which is very cold. They don’t have enough clothes. And the food they are given is very little. But the most important thing, that a number of prisoners that they witnessed died because of the beating and torture. Some of them were old people who had diseases, like heart diseases.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, speaking earlier today to the BBC. And just a correction: The detention center where the Palestinian prisoners were held was in southern Israel, not northern. Yuval, your response?

YUVAL ABRAHAM: Yeah, it’s appalling. And I’ve seen these testimonies. I’ve also seen live testimonies of these Palestinians being released from Israeli interrogation. And honestly, to me, it reminded me of scenes that I saw of Jews in Eastern Europe, you know, in the ’30s and ’40s. You see their hands are filled with bruises. They were handcuffed for hours. Some of them have died. They spoke about being electrified by soldiers, being beaten by soldiers, really torture. I mean, you could see on their faces. I mean, it’s horrific.

And I think that — you know, you said at the start of the show that now it’s more than 20,000 Palestinians who were killed in Gaza, roughly 1% of the population. That’s unimaginable numbers. I mean, just to put it in some sort of proportion for audiences in the United States, 1% of the population in the U.S. is 3.3 million people being killed in 75 days.

And yeah, I agree with you that, in a way, I’ve heard Israeli journalists using the term “war crimes” for the first time after the three Israeli hostages were killed by soldiers. And obviously — obviously — soldiers thought that they were Palestinians, which is why they felt comfortable, it seems, to shoot somebody who was holding a white flag in their hand. And to me, it’s really outrageous how there is like two completely different sets of ways we look at the world, not according to the crime, but according to the victim of the crime. Because, you know, how many Palestinians were executed by Israeli soldiers? And how often does that happen without any response from journalists, without using words like “war crimes”? And I think, really, at the heart of a lot of what is going on is this disparity between having some people whose lives have meaning and other people whose lives have no meaning for so many people on the West and in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Yuval, I wanted to ask you about the number of prisoners being taken by Israel on the West Bank. We’re talking about something like 4,000 just since October 7th. Do you have the sense that they are just rounding up people because, as they negotiate a prisoner exchange, they’ll have more to give back? That’s one question. And the other is about Human Rights Watch’s report released today, “Meta’s Broken Promises: Systemic Censorship of Palestine Content on Instagram and Facebook,” people being systemically knocked off of Facebook and Instagram if they are posting about what’s happening to Palestinians.

YUVAL ABRAHAM: Yeah. So, you know, Israel has a long-standing policy of these mass arrests. We’ve seen them happening in the previous Gaza bombardments, also in 2021. Many of these — I think thousands of these Palestinian prisoners are held without trial, without charges being pressed against them. Even when charges are pressed, the system of the military occupation and the military judicial system is extremely unjust. Ninety-nine-point-four percent of the cases end up in indictment.

I’m not sure — I mean, I think part of it has to do with getting numbers. It seems very logical. I don’t have any inside information about it, but what you suggested seems logical. Again, I think that for the next prisoner exchange, Hamas will insist on releasing much more prominent Palestinian prisoners. So, unlike the last time, when, really, you know, you saw Palestinian prisoners being released after they spent a short time in prison, I think if — for a next hostage deal to take place, they will need to have more substantial Palestinian prisoners.

And, I mean, there is repression online. I know that there are Israeli ministries that are constantly working with Meta, with Facebook, with X, as well, and with Instagram to aid in this process. There have been reports about sort of this mass scanning that Israel does of social media to find posts to flag, in a way, for these international social media organizations. And yeah, the repression is taking place, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Yuval Abraham, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist based in Jerusalem who writes for +972 Magazine and Local Call. We’ll link to your new article, “’The hostages weren’t our top priority’: How Israel’s bombing frenzy endangered captives in Gaza.”

Coming up, on Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council forced to postpone a vote for the third time on Gaza due to U.S. opposition. We’ll speak with Phyllis Bennis. Back in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd. The artist announced earlier this month he would be directing $2.5 million to meals for Palestinians in Gaza.

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