Relatives of Israelis missing or held hostages by Hamas

Relatives of Israelis missing or held hostages by Hamas gather at the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on October 20, 2023.

(Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Rights Groups Call On Hamas to Release Civilian Hostages 'Unconditionally and Immediately'

"Civilians, including children, people with disabilities, and older people, should never be treated as bargaining chips," said one campaigner.

Nearly two weeks after Hamas led a deadly surprise attack on Israel, which has retaliated with an intense bombing campaign and "complete siege" of the Gaza Strip, human rights advocates worldwide are demanding that Palestinian militants release all civilian hostages.

In a statement Friday, Amnesty International declared that hostages should be freed "unconditionally and immediately."

"Amnesty International is calling on Hamas and other armed groups to urgently release all civilian hostages, and to immediately stop firing indiscriminate rockets," said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of the group, which has also documented proof of war crimes by Israeli forces.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, chief spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said Thursday that the Israeli military has been in contact with the families of 203 people taken captive in the October 7 attack.

As The New York Timesreported:

Osama Hamdan, a member of Hamas' political bureau in Lebanon, said in an interview on Thursday that no one within the group "knows the exact numbers" of Israelis being held in Gaza.

He said other groups were also holding some of the hostages, though he specified only Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a separate organization that is an ally of Hamas, the group that controls Gaza and that staged the attack on Israel earlier this month.

"A spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Musab Al-Breim, said in an interview that the group had around '30 prisoners' but would not share the exact number," according to the newspaper.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), another group urging Palestinian militants to free the captives, explained in a statement Thursday that "Hamas has said it will not release the hostages until Israel ends its bombardment of Gaza, and only then in exchange for the release of 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including women and children."

"Islamic Jihad has also said that it will not release hostages until Palestinian prisoners are freed. They have made unverified claims that 22 hostages have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in Gaza," the group added. "As of October 1, Israel held, according to Israeli Prison Services figures, 5,192 Palestinians in custody for 'security' offenses, including 1,319 in administrative detention without trial or charge."

HRW highlighted that "taking hostages is prohibited under Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which applies to the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian armed groups, and Article 34 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies in occupied territories."

The hostages include men, women, and children, and at least one person has a disability, based on media reports and HRW's interviews with family members. There are Israeli military personnel and civilians, including dual or foreign nationals from Germany, Mexico, and the United States—and possibly members of the Palestinian Bedouin community in Israel.

Lama Fakih, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director stressed that "civilians, including children, people with disabilities, and older people, should never be treated as bargaining chips."

"Governments that have influence with Hamas, including Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey, should use their leverage to press for hostages to be released as soon as possible and treated humanely until then," Fakih asserted.

As Al Jazeerareported Friday:

The spokesman for Hamas' military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, has said that the group has released two U.S. captives for humanitarian reasons.

"In response to Qatari efforts, Al-Qassam Brigades released two American citizens (a mother and her daughter) for humanitarian reasons," Abu Obaida said in a statement.

He added that the move aimed "to prove to the American people and the world that the claims made by [President Joe] Biden and his fascist administration are false and baseless."

Citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported Friday that "U.S. and European governments have been putting pressure on Israel to delay its ground invasion of Gaza to buy time for secret talks underway via Qatar to win the release of hostages held by Hamas."

Hamas—which various governments, including those of Israel the United States, consider a terrorist group—took control of Gaza in 2007, after fighting off an attempted coup following a victory in Palestinian elections the previous year. Israel has enforced a devastating blockade ever since.

Israel has so far responded to Hamas' recent attack—which killed over 1,400 Israelis—by cutting off the people of Gaza from basic necessities and with airstrikes that have decimated civilian infrastructure and killed least 4,127 Palestinians, including 1,661 children. Hundreds of experts have warned the retaliation could amount to genocide.

Israeli Economy Minister Nir Barakat told ABC News on Thursday that the IDF has a "green light" to launch a ground offensive in Gaza when it is ready, and "we shall do all efforts to bring our hostages... [back] alive," but the "first and last priority" is destroying Hamas.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem noted Thursday that "Israel makes the claim that, unlike Hamas, it does not deliberately target civilians. It has made this claim in previous rounds of fighting, too. However, setting aside the fact that this time around, top officials openly said Israel was going to bomb Gaza indiscriminately, the claim was baseless in previous rounds as well."

"By now, Israel has to know—the policy of airstrikes, as implemented in one of the world's most densely populated areas, where about 2 million people are besieged, cannot but result in thousands of deaths and massive destruction," the group added. "This is what happened in previous rounds of fighting Israel has engaged in in the Gaza Strip, and this is what is happening now."

B'Tselem has also advocated for the release of hostages, saying last week that it "calls on the international community to use every means at its disposal to urge the Israeli government and Hamas to forge a deal for releasing the captives."

This post has been updated with Bloomberg's Friday reporting.

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