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US considering tactical recovery plans for hostages in Gaza

Written by on November 18, 2023

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — The U.S. is keeping all options on the table as negotiations to free scores of hostages in Gaza press on — playing a significant role in advancing talks between Israel and Hamas while actively formulating plans with international partners for tactical recovery operations that could be put into action if it’s determined they could be carried out with a reasonable level of risk, according to two American officials.

The U.S., along with Qatar and Egypt, is working to move Israel and Hamas toward a deal to free many of the more than 200 captives Israel assesses are being detained, potentially including some of the 10 Americans that are still unaccounted for following Hamas’ surprise terror attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.

On Friday, President Joe Biden spoke with the emir of Qatar to discusses “the urgent need for all hostages held by Hamas to be released without further delay.”

Despite the push for diplomacy and reports that both sides were close to reaching an accord earlier in the week, a senior State Department official said on Friday that the U.S. was still unconvinced a deal would be reached.

Multiple sources confirm to ABC News that Israel and Hamas are discussing an arrangement that would exchange at least 50 hostages, mostly women and children, for a multi-day truce as well as the release of an unspecified number of Palestinian women and minors detained by Israel, but that both sides had not reached a consensus on specific details.

Although Biden expressed varying levels of hope through the week that a deal would happen, a senior administration official says Israel and Hamas have been close to an agreement at various points in recent weeks, but that each time, those talks had broken down in the final stages.

In the early days of the conflict, officials said that the circumstances on the ground in Gaza made any kind of targeted attempt to physically extract hostages untenable. While recovery missions always come with inherent danger and the U.S. believes a brokered deal is the best option for securing a large number of the detainees, sources say tactical plans are being developed in case circumstances change.

U.S. military or law enforcement personnel would not necessarily be involved in actually carrying out any such operation, as foreign forces have often carried out plans developed in partnership with their American counterparts in the past.

The various potential courses of action unfolding simultaneously against the intricate web of diplomatic negotiations reflect the unparalleled complexity of the Gaza hostage crisis, which involves a massive number of individuals now believed to be held by Hamas and other terrorist groups through various locations in the besieged enclave for more than 40 days.

“There are a few different things that can make hostage takings and hostage recovery negotiations extremely complicated. This hostage situation has all of them,” said Danielle Gilbert, a member of the Bipartisan Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and political scientist at Northwestern University.

Gilbert points to the lack of information available about the hostages’ wellbeing and the likelihood that Hamas will want to retain a significant number of detainees for leverage during future negotiations, as well as the deep distrust between the parties.

“Sometimes hostage-takers have in the past quite intentionally used an iterated nature of a negotiation to gather as many concessions as possible while retaining hostages as well — so they might negotiate some sort of swap and then only release a portion of the hostages that they are holding and continue to demand more to let more people go,” she said. “So that is something probably both the kidnappers and target governments are thinking about: ways to ensure they won’t be taken advantage of in this way.”

Christopher O’Leary, the former director of the U.S. task force on hostage recovery, says that the situation is like none other he has experienced through the course of his career, but as it plays out, the U.S. and Israel will likely be able to piece together a more completed intelligence picture that can inform recovery efforts.

“There’s always multiple lines of effort being planned. There’s a recovery being planned from the second an American gets taken. Our special operations and intelligence units are collecting data and coming up with options for recovery and that is constant,” he said.

“The movement into Gaza actually aids in that,” O’Leary, who is also the senior vice president for global operations at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, continued. “For every block that is taken, every apartment complex that is seized, battlefield evidence is being collected, detainees are being taken, so biometrics are being run, tactical questioning is done, [and] electronic devices are being exploited. That is all feeding into the intelligence picture to try to locate where the hostages may be held.”

While O’Leary says these efforts will unfold on a separate track from negotiations, it seems unlikely that Hamas will ever agree to turn over some of the hostages — including members of the Israel Defense Forces.

“I would be surprised if you didn’t see some form of hostage rescue for some of the members that aren’t getting negotiated out,” he said.

Pressed on the total number of American hostages, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl that America doesn’t have a “precise number.” So far, Hamas has released two American hostages and two Israeli hostages since Oct. 7.

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