Belmont Club: The Unexpected Hostage Rescue

AP Photo/Abed Abu Reash

The IDF pulled off “one of the most complicated hostage rescue missions in history” by rescuing four hostages from a Hamas stronghold. Israeli author Hen Mazzig explains what made it so hard.


The hostages were held in a heavily civilian populated area, above ground, in buildings of 3-4 stories. The forces stormed the two separate targets where the hostages were held, with Noa held on the first floor and Andrey, Shlomi, and Almog on the third floor of another building, hundreds of meters apart. Hamas moved the four hostages from apartment to apartment, and the concern was that if the forces only stormed one building, the terrorists would escape with the hostages in the second building. The Air Force gathered intelligence from the air in the last few days, and the IDF and Shin Bet created conditions to reach the targets without the terrorists shooting the hostages first, which was key to the operation's success. 

Part of me wants to know how the assault force achieved the surprise needed to forestall hostage execution in two separate locations. They had to make entry practically simultaneously at a mutually optimal moment. Since I can't know, I will guess. The rescue operation elements may have seemed to be part of the random environment until the rescue moment. The key disadvantage of holding hostages in populated areas is that Hamas cannot entirely prevent random and ambient access by the public to places nearby, access the IDF can exploit by continuously flowing assets through the vicinity. The presence of civilians cuts both ways. It provides human shielding against an assault force but can also conceal those same elements.


The IDF advantage would have been in the time dimension. All the assault elements could be coordinated, evaluated, and repurposed in modeled battlespace tens of seconds faster than the Hamas defense. The rescue units would have been able to maneuver like The Flash in comparison to the defenders through the use of communications and information superiority. Mazzig continues: "the models built by the Yamam (Israel's counter-terrorism unit) reminded senior military officials of the models established for the Entebbe operation, with buildings, streets, and small areas for practice."

In the aftermath of the event, CENTCOM distanced the administration from the rescue operation. A tweeted CENTCOM Statement Regarding IDF Rescue Operations Today said:

The humanitarian pier facility, including its equipment, personnel, and assets were not used in the operation to rescue hostages today in Gaza. An area south of the facility was used by the Israelis to safely return the hostages to Israel. Any such claim to the contrary is false. The temporary pier on the coast of Gaza was put in place for one purpose only, to help move additional, urgently needed lifesaving assistance into Gaza.

There was video from earlier today showing an Israeli UH-60 “Black Hawk” transport helicopter, "which contained 25-Year-Old Noa Argamani, who had just been Rescued during the Joint-Operation in the Central Gaza Strip, having Lifted-Off from near the Coast of the Gaza Strip and less than 100 Yards from the Temporary-Floating Humanitarian Aid Pier and a U.S. Army Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) M-ATV." CENTCOM may have feared such images would upset Biden's hopes to broker a deal to "release the hostages." In game theory terms, the recent rescue may harm the ceasefire negotiations because it reduces Hamas' leverage in hostages and shifts the military balance, or the perception of it, momentarily in the IDF's favor. There might even be pressure for Hamas to mount a counter-strike as a show of defiance against the raid.


Hamas has largely conceded the kinetic domain to Israel in view of the disparity in capabilities and is focusing on the political front. But propaganda success may have paradoxically worked against them. If Israel is to be accused of killing hundreds of civilians a day anyway, perversely for Hamas, they might as well do it on operations. Hence, the rescue. A realistic assessment of Hamas' chances is that although its political and propaganda defense is hurting Israel, it is not stopping the IDF. The same intel/assault combination employed in hostage rescue must inevitably attrit the remaining Hamas assets. Plan A is leading to slow defeat. To fundamentally alter the strategic situation, Hamas needs a Plan B—some new leverage that will decisively stop its grinding demise at the hands of the IDF. One option is that Joe Biden will pull Hamas' chestnuts out of the fire. But so far, he either can't or won't try hard enough, although he hasn't given up, as the CENTCOM statement shows.

If Hamas can't come up with a game-changing Plan B, with Plan A now being the acceptance of slow defeat, there's a real case for surrender. Surrender and exile will mean Hamas can salvage something from the current shambles, even mythologize it, with some hope of a tomorrow instead of the certitude of expiring in a dark tunnel. Hamas' biggest psychological liability in its darkest hour is its billions. That's probably burning a hole in every senior militant's mind to the point of obsession: for that fortune to outlive them would be the ultimate irony. "If none of us survive, what happens to the stash? Somebody's gotta make it out and it might as well be me."



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