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The plight of the hostages in Gaza

People walk outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, on which are projected pictures of the hostages abducted by Palestinian militants on the October 7 attack and currently held in the Gaza Strip, on November 6, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem, on which are projected pictures of the hostages abducted by Palestinian militants on the October 7 attack and currently held in the Gaza Strip, on November 6, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s been more than 40 days since Hamas kidnapped some 240 people in Israel. Only four have been released.

Israeli officials say two hostages have been found dead in Gaza.

Hamas has not yet allowed any international group to visit the hostages. Meanwhile, the head of Israel’s national security council says there will be no ceasefire until “the massive release of all hostages.”

So their families wait in despair.

“It’s hard to be in the hands of people who are so cruel, people who have completely different morals than we do,” Gili Roman says. “And I cannot control it.”

Today, On Point: Negotiations, political ramifications and the plight of the hostages in Gaza.


Gili Roman, Israeli whose sister is currently held hostage in Gaza.

Dani Gilbert, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. Her research explores the causes and consequences of hostage taking in international security.

Also Featured

Udi Goren, Israeli whose cousin is currently held hostage in Gaza.

Barry Rosen, one of 52 Americans who was taken hostage for 444 days at the U.S. embassy in Iran from 1979 to 1981.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: It’s been more than 40 days since Hamas militants kidnapped some 240 people in Israel. They are grandparents, mothers, fathers and children. This weekend, the Washington Post reported that U. S. and Qatari officials say they’re close to brokering a deal between Israel and Hamas that would allow for the release of some of the hostages in exchange for Israel allowing more aid into Gaza, along with a limited pause in Israel’s continued shelling and ground war in Gaza.

White House Deputy National Security Advisor John Finer was on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

JOHN FINER: Many areas of difference that have previously existed have been narrowed that we believe we are closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement, but that on an issue as sensitive as this and as challenging as this, the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply and we do not yet have an agreement in place.

CHAKRABARTI: As of 10 a. m. Eastern today, on Monday, there is still officially no deal in place. Gili Roman is among the Israelis anxiously awaiting the news. He’s in Tel Aviv and his sister, Yarden Roman-Gat, is currently being held hostage in Gaza. Gili, welcome to On Point.

GILI ROMAN: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Gili, I understand right now you’re in an Israeli government building anticipating a meeting that families may be having with the Israeli war cabinet?

ROMAN: True. We are gathering a few of the family, I don’t know if most, in preparation for the war cabinet this evening that will host representatives of the families. And I will be joining the meeting soon.

CHAKRABARTI: And did they invite you today? Do you know what the meeting is about specifically?

ROMAN: This meeting is an outcome of a lot of civic pressure on the World Cabinet to meet with the family representative. So after that pressure, important pressure, we were invited to meet with the World Cabinet. And I hope to hear at least the outline of what is on the table at the moment, and the perspective of our government or the leadership of our government towards the possible agreement that we hear about so much on media.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So just to be clear Gili, is this the first time, as far as that the war cabinet has met with families of hostages?

ROMAN: As a cabinet. Yes. Different members of the war cabinet have met with us. In the last couple of days I met with two of them. Also, the part of family gatherings on the Saturday evening.

My sister met defense minister Gallant yesterday, also with a few other families. So as individuals, we have met them in recent days, but as the cabinet itself, that will be the first time as far as I know.

CHAKRABARTI: The first time since October 7th, on the day that your sister and the 240 others were kidnapped.

Okay. If I may ask Gili, can you tell us a little bit about what happened to your sister on October 7th?

ROMAN: Yes. My sister, on October 7th, actually on October 6th, went to visit the family of her husband Alon in kibbutz Be’eri. His parents were living there. It’s a kibbutz really nearby the Gaza border.

They went there for a week, and we just came back from three weeks family vacation in South Africa. We just came back on the 6th. So they more or less strictly went to the kibbutz, stayed there for the weekend. And on Saturday morning, of course, like all of us, as part of the routine, which I hope we will never call it like that again, of the missile attack, they went into the shelter. And not as we did, in Tel Aviv, in the center of Israel that we went out like after an hour, they stayed there for a few hours.

So we were in ongoing communication with them and that stopped around 10 a.m. And we know that roughly 20 minutes later, they’ve been kidnapped from the house of Alon’s parents. First his mother … was taken outside of the house by armed terrorist. They killed her in the streets next to the house.

We know that because they published the video of her murder on social media. They took pride in that, of course after, they took his sister Carmel, and she’s also held hostage in Gaza at the moment. And lastly, they took Yarden, my sister, with Alon and their three-year-old daughter, Gefen, my niece, all together inside a vehicle.

They put the neighbor at the trunk of the vehicle and start going towards Gaza. And just a few meters before crossing into Gaza, they seized an opportunity when the terrorist took off, in order to tackle a certain threat and they just jumped. Then was holding Gefen, her baby in her arms, jumping out of a moving car alongside with her, Alon.

They started running for their lives. They didn’t get far before the terrorist noticed them and started chasing them and shooting at them. And at that point, they then realized that she cannot run fast enough in order to find a hiding spot with Gefen. So she just gave Gefen to Alon so he can do that.

And he did. He managed to find a hiding spot. Then was stopping to try to shelter herself and detained the terrorist and Gefen and Alon were able to find a hiding spot. They hid there for over 12 hours until nightfall and only through the night, they started to slowly walk back to the kibbutz and in the 8th, in the morning, Alon called us to tell us that he and Gefen and I are safe, but my sister was last found in the part where they diverted.

CHAKRABARTI: So she was taken hostage and taken into Gaza.

ROMAN: What we have done, after I heard that I immediately went to this area and for the whole first week of the war, I just conducted searches with the army forces to try to locate her if she’s hiding somewhere inside of Israel.

But the trackers conclude by the footsteps that she was taken again by the terrorists. And now she’s a hostage in Gaza.

CHAKRABARTI: What has the past six weeks been like for you and your family?

I would say it’s an ongoing agony. Obviously also a roller coaster. We’re just talking now in the midst of another cycle of possible agreement. Maybe we’ll see some releases. We’re under severe manipulations, psychological manipulations by Hamas. And it’s not the first time.

I know that for many people, the 7th of October is the day of terror against Israel. But for us and for my sister and for many other hostages and families, we are still under terror. We’re still under attack. And this hasn’t stopped even for one minute since the day they have been taken.

So we sometimes feel helpless, but we try to be completely hopeful and be determined in our efforts to vocalize the needs for their return inside Israel and outside Israel, like what we’re doing right now, which is crucial for me to deliver this message also to the American people.

CHAKRABARTI: As you well know, under recent, in recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been questioned more vigorously about why the hostages have not been brought home yet. And in one interview, he said that the priorities are two. One, the destruction of Hamas. Two, bringing the hostages home, I presume in that order.

What do you make of the Israeli government’s and military’s efforts as they’re being carried out in Gaza so far?

ROMAN: Yeah. First of all, I do not accept this order. And obviously I will say it and vocalize it also today in the war cabinet. I think it’s not the current order. And we’ve heard it from other cabinet members in recent days. The hostage issue is an urgent issue and the issue of deterring and dismantling Hamas, it’s a crucial issue.

But it’s a long-term battle that will not be settled in the upcoming days. So I think it’s clear that bringing back the hostages who are still alive and can be saved is more urgent than the other crucial goal of the war. And I think he also needs to say it. I think he can.

And what I understand from the military efforts, that so far they have been serving both goals. Because we understood in the first two weeks that Hamas is stalling and trying to manipulate Israel into hold back. And not getting into Gaza in the promise they might bring hostages back, and maybe in very small quantities.

I think that it was a smart step to create a calculative and gradual ground operation, and we see the outcome. It’s very sad that this is a situation that only military force pushed the leadership of Hamas to seriously negotiate and get us into this point. That they are willingly considering to release hostages for a humanitarian pause.

Otherwise, I think that that would not be on the table for a long time.

CHAKRABARTI: Gili, if I may ask you one more question about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Do you see him as holding any responsibility for the fact that it’s been this long and the hostages are not yet home?

ROMAN: It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s a two sides problem.

It’s not that if he would be willing to necessarily give everything. There was somebody else in the other side that was willing to negotiate and willing to bring the hostages back. That was not the case, as far as I understand that. At least not in most of the time frames that we are talking about. Of course, he is responsible.

He is the prime minister in the end every outcome is his responsibility, but I cannot hold him solely responsible for this. We are dealing with a very vicious, unexpected organization with malicious intentions. So it’s hard to say that it’s only the Israeli side’s fault.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: We’re trying to understand what these past six weeks have been like for family members awaiting the return, if ever, of their loved ones from Gaza.

And we’re also trying to look more deeply at why Hamas took hostages to begin with on October 7th. Now you heard a little earlier Gili Roman, the brother of a hostage right now talking about whether or not he holds Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responsible thus far for the long delay before any action seemingly or any forward action seemingly in the release of hostages.

Many Israelis, in fact, over the past several weeks, have taken to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s handling of the hostage situation. They’ve even protested outside of Netanyahu’s residence. CNN’s Dana Bash asked Netanyahu about the demonstrations on November 12th. And here’s how the Prime Minister responded.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It’s understandable. They’re under tremendous distress. They’re under this torture. You can imagine that. You have your father, your husband, your son, your daughter. Taken by these savages. Are you doing enough? We’re doing everything we can around the clock, and I can’t talk about it.

I personally met with the hostage families of hostages several times and it just tears your heart out. But yes, we’re doing everything and many things that I can’t say here, obviously, but this is one of our two war goals, one is to destroy Hamas, and the second is to bring back our hostages.

CHAKRABARTI: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 12th on CNN. Udi Goren’s cousin, Tal Haimi, has been missing since October 7th. Udi says Tal confronted members of Hamas as they attacked his kibbutz.

UDI GOREN: We’re not sure what happened to him yet. His body hasn’t been recovered. He wasn’t in any of the Israeli hospitals.

And his phone was traced to Gaza. So that leads us to believe that he’s over there being held hostage at the moment.

CHAKRABARTI: Now we spoke with Udi late last week and he says that on the day of the Hamas attack, it took Israeli defense forces hours after Hamas began its attack before the IDF arrived at his cousin’s kibbutz.

And that has led him to feeling a profound sense of betrayal.

GOREN: It’s inconceivable to Israelis that the military did not arrive, that the military was not there to protect the border. That we were hit so hard, that the magnitude, the catastrophe of the loss of state in the government and the government’s ability to defend its citizens is shattering.

This is something that’s going to take a very long time to recover from.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, a few minutes ago, you heard Gili Roman, whose sister is currently being held hostage in Gaza. You heard Gili say that he holds Prime Minister Netanyahu partially responsible, but not entirely. Now, Udi Goren feels much more strongly about this.

He is adamant that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu should resign because of the security failures.

GOREN: He will never, ever resign on his own. He has been building up the narrative that he is not responsible. It would be up to us, the Israeli civilians, to make sure that he does take responsibility and that he does resign. Because if he should resign at the end of the war, that actually means that he would make sure the war will never end.

CHAKRABARTI: Udi’s been very frustrated with other members of the Israeli government as well, especially when it comes to the hostages.

GOREN: It’s inconceivable to me that any government member is actually asleep at night, is actually doing anything aside from knocking on Netanyahu’s door every single day and asking them, “Are you bringing them back home today?”

CHAKRABARTI: Udi wants that to happen more than anything else. And he says it’s for a very important reason, because bringing back the hostages would, of course, be a huge weight lifted off of his shoulders, off of his whole family’s shoulders, and of course, especially his cousin, who is still in Gaza.

But he says it’s equally important to lift that weight off of the entire Israeli nation.

GOREN: Or the country of Israel, for the people of Israel, bringing the hostages back would be this huge, not only sigh of relief, would be this huge array of light in this incredibly dark period that we’re living through. What Israel needs now is hope in order to build its strength and be able to move forward.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Udi Goren. His cousin is currently being held hostage in Gaza. Let’s turn now to Dani Gilbert, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. Her research explores the causes and consequences of hostage taking in international security. Professor Gilbert, welcome to you.

DANI GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So given the massive military response that Israel has been meeting out upon, basically the entire Gaza Strip for six weeks, the Palestinian casualties, et cetera, that is not, that’s not a surprise, right? Because Israel was so profoundly attacked on October 7th. But it makes me wonder.

What was Hamas thinking in taking Israelis hostage? Because I don’t see it as having gained Hamas anything. So what could their possible motives have been?

GILBERT: That’s a great question, Meghna, and it remains to be seen precisely what their motives were, but at least two come to mind. The first is that Hamas intends to use the hostages as leverage.

The group has, in past attacks, kidnapped Israelis and traded them for Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails. So it’s entirely possible that the negotiations we’re now hearing about, between the Israeli government and Hamas with Qatar as an intermediary are part of the plan of October 7th, that the goal is to free Palestinians from Israeli jails.

But the other option is to think of the hostages as human shields. In the early days after October 7th, Hamas actually said that they would start executing hostages and sharing the videos of those executions for every IDF missile strike that hit without warning. To date, we haven’t seen that, thank God, but it’s entirely possible that holding on to hundreds of Israelis and other foreigners might have altered the Israeli military’s incursion into Gaza, might have delayed it or changed what the IDF has been willing to do.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so the first possible reason about essentially hostage or prisoner exchanges here. The past times where Hamas has taken hostages, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I can remember only hostages that were members of the Israeli military, and this time we have civilians and hundreds of them. Isn’t there a difference there? Do you think Israel, the Israeli government, would be willing to do an exchange?

Or do they fear that in doing so, it would only, the constant concern in hostage negotiations, it just encourages people to try again to take more hostages later?

GILBERT: Yeah, I think that the scope and scale of the October 7th attacks are truly unlike anything we’ve ever seen, and especially from Hamas, who in the past has kidnapped one, two, small handfuls of Israelis and typically soldiers to use them for exchange.

The most famous case of a Hamas kidnapping that was used in this way was when Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. They held him for more than five years and ultimately exchanged him for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners who were held in Israeli jails. And they’ve seen in the past that the Israeli government is willing to negotiate.

In fact, one of the architects of the October 7th attacks was someone who was released as part of that Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. And so anytime we see one of these negotiations, it’s often to release someone who was imprisoned in the last hostage taking. And so the cycle continues.

CHAKRABARTI: So say that again, that one of the architects of the October 7th attack by Hamas was part of that prisoner exchange back in, when was that?

GILBERT: 2011.

CHAKRABARTI: 2011. Oh, because Shalit was actually held by Hamas for several years. Okay. First of all, I presume that does, would that make Israel far more cautious now in agreeing to any potential prisoner. Governments face a policy and a moral dilemma anytime they are thinking about these prisoner swaps, which is that they are thinking about what they can do in the moment to bring home their citizens who are currently held hostage, wrongfully detained in this case, hidden in tunnels throughout Gaza.

And how that might make things more risky or more dangerous for the potential hostages of the future. And so they have to weigh things that might immediately be really effective in bringing hostages home, like a prisoner swap, against incentivizing this violence going forward.

CHAKRABARTI: Has looking just outside of Israel and Gaza for just a moment.

Have there been other examples of when hostage taking has been an effective political tool or weapon?

GILBERT: Yes. So it’s one of the oldest crimes and forms of violence that we can think of, hostage taking is as old as the written word. And armed groups and governments and perpetrators have used it in conflicts throughout history, and they use it because it works.

It is really incredibly effective for weaker perpetrators in the short term to coerce massive concessions from adversaries, to change their adversaries’ policies, to embarrass target governments, and to help them with their own recruitment. What’s less clear is whether hostage taking is effective longer term.

And so what happens after those concessions or negotiations are complete? How effective are those groups longer term after they have wrapped up their hostage taking?

CHAKRABARTI: I think you’ve written though that this, I know that’s too mild a word, I acknowledge that, but is different in some way.

Tell me more.

GILBERT: Sure. There are a few things about this particular hostage taking that make it not only unprecedented, but that contribute to how impossible it is for the targets of the kidnapping, for their families, for their governments to deal with this brutality and to figure out what comes next.

So one of the things that’s really different about this particular hostage taking are the kinds of people who were held hostage. So as we were discussing a few minutes ago, Hamas typically kidnaps soldiers or otherwise able-bodied Israeli adults, but this hostage taking included children and babies and senior citizens, really vulnerable individuals.

And it’s really rare for armed groups to kidnap such vulnerable individuals, partly because they have to make sure that if they want concessions, they have to keep their hostages alive in captivity. And it’s really difficult to keep babies alive in captivity.

CHAKRABARTI: Does it concern you, though, then, that we’ve seen, what, almost none of the typical signs of life?

We’ve seen maybe a video or two, but not many more than that.

GILBERT: Yeah, I’m waiting to see more of those videos, and I say that with a lot of caution, because to see images or videos, those proofs of life, of hostages, might also mean seeing some evidence of extreme brutality, that I don’t think anyone wants to see that either.

But it’s entirely possible that the hostages are still alive and that we haven’t seen any of that evidence because of how difficult it is to get communications out of Gaza. All evidence and reporting of the ongoing negotiations suggest that just the sheer fact of Hamas operating in tunnels and the ongoing IDF incursion makes it quite difficult to get messages from Hamas’s leaders to the negotiators who are trying to resolve this crisis.

And that suggests that getting any message, even a proof of life video, might be really difficult.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Do you know, in your paper, you point out that Israel has been through many hostage crises, right? And I’m suddenly remembering how you pointed out in your paper at the 1972 Olympic Games, how many, there was just, what, 10, 9, 10 Israeli athletes that were taken hostage then.

Can you just remind us briefly what the outcome of that was?

GILBERT: Sure. So at the Munich Olympics in 1972, a Palestinian militant organization infiltrated the Olympic Village and took all of the Israelis hostage. There were ongoing negotiations between the Israeli government and the German government about how to react, how to try to rescue the hostages and bring them home.

The Israeli government in the moment refused to negotiate, said they would not make concessions to the hostage takers, and German security forces tried to rescue the hostage, and the hostages, and that rescue mission was a total disaster. All of the hostages were killed, and that’s actually quite common in hostage recovery missions.

They represent the most dangerous time in captivity for the hostages themselves. Some of the hostage takers died as well. And those that didn’t were arrested and then later freed. In concessions of a later hostage taking, that’s another example of how that cycle of hostage negotiations can sometimes keep releasing former hostage takers.

CHAKRABARTI: So then does that give some merit to what Prime Minister Netanyahu said in the clip that we played a little bit earlier, that the locations in which the Hostages may be now in Gaza, no matter where it is, we’re dealing with a very densely populated area of land. And so any rescue operation is that much more complicated, but I’m still trying to balance that in my head against the fact that the Israeli military has laid waste to much of Gaza.

So does that help them in securing or finding the hostages or not?

GILBERT: Oh, Meghna, it’s such a difficult thing to think about. Because as I mentioned, hostage recovery missions represent the most dangerous time in captivity for hostages. It is the time when hostages are most likely to die. Either they’re killed inadvertently in the crossfire of a rescue, or sometimes hostage takers, if they hear or think that recovery forces are coming, they take that opportunity to execute their captives.

And so governments that are thinking about launching hostage recovery missions need to gather really accurate, timely intelligence about where the hostages are being held, how they’re being guarded, and what the situation might be for the recovery officers trying to go in and save them.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Gilbert, my mind keeps coming back to the why. And just because as you described earlier, this is a shocking escalation in Hamas’s history of taking hostages. And right now, who’s paying the price for that? It’s of course, the hostages themselves, their families, and two million Palestinians in Gaza.

And Hamas isn’t necessarily paying the price itself or whomever identifies as being a member of Hamas. This just seems to be such a spectacularly lopsided cost benefit, that all of that in order to maybe encourage Israel to a prisoner swap. I suppose what I’m saying is it just doesn’t make any sense in my mind.

But you’ve, over the course of your research, you’ve interviewed many people who were hostage takers or kidnappers, right? Can you explain to me what you learned about the mindset or strategies of those people that might help explain what we saw on October 7th?

GILBERT: Sure. So as you mentioned, I’ve spent a bunch of time in Colombia actually interviewing dozens of former kidnappers from the Colombian Civil War.

And the individual hostage takers are not committing hostage taking for their own personal benefit, but because it comes as an order through their organization. Because they are following in the hierarchy of the army effectively that they believe that they are a part of.

And for the kidnappings of October 7th demonstrate a lot of the ways that Hamas was an organization that planned and prepared for hostage taking, that in the documents that have emerged with the IDF’s incursion into Gaza, that they have picked up planning documents from Hamas that talk about the importance of capturing hostages.

Some of the reporting that’s come out from hostages who have been released indicate that there were role specialization within the organization, that they had food and resources that had been hidden away in preparation for holding the hostages, so they were prepared for this.

But it’s also possible that they had no idea of, I say this in quotation marks, the amount of success that they would have in taking those hostages. It seems to me that they took far more hostages than they might have meant to, and that there’s also a handful of other organizations and unaffiliated individuals who kidnapped Israelis, as well.

So it’s actually not just Hamas holding hostages right now, but another militant organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as unaffiliated individuals and families in Gaza who are holding Israelis captive. And so it’s almost as if the hostage taking really got out of their control and that they’ve been adapting ever since.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. That’s a very important point, because then it also raises the complications in who do you do the negotiations with? How? Who do you know who’s being, who was taken, or how do you know who’s being taken hostage, by whom?

Okay. With that in mind, there’s something that you wrote, which I’ll admit, I did not know.

And that was in, again, in 1976, when militants hijacked an Air France flight that was going from Tel Aviv to Paris. The Israeli government eventually launched its own rescue mission. And the rescue mission successfully rescued 102 of 105 hostages. I’m reading this from your paper, killed all seven hijackers.

One of the operations commanders, Yoni Netanyahu was the sole Israeli service member to die in that operation. And he’s the older brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I’ve only got a couple minutes left with you, Professor Gilbert. With that in mind, and all the other nuances and complications that you’ve laid out, if you were in that war cabinet, how would you advise them right now about what to do to bring the hostages home?

GILBERT: Oh my God. It’s incredibly clear to me from looking at past hostage takings, with the exception of the raid on Entebbe that you just mentioned, that the best way to bring hostages home is to pursue negotiations, to make concessions. That is guaranteed the best way to bring hostages home alive.

But it comes with all of those other problems that you’ve mentioned. It strengthens Hamas. It has the potential to incentivize future hostage taking. And so the government is facing something quite difficult, if they believe that these hostages are still alive. Because they are experiencing every day the suffering and the trauma not only of the hostages but of their families.

And so typically what I would say is make those concessions today pursue those negotiations, bring home who you can and then leave punishment for another day.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. That doesn’t seem like the path that Israel is taking right now. And you also write that their past approaches to hostage recovery have not been particularly helpful in this crisis.

GILBERT: What do you mean by that, Meghna?

CHAKRABARTI: So what should they do differently than what they’ve done in the past?

GILBERT: Sure, I understand. So I think the raid on Entebbe, that 1976 hostage mission, taught some big lessons to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Not only that it was his brother who died in that operation, which surely has been an incredibly informative moment in his life, that has shaped Prime Minister Netanyahu’s politics.

But that it was this rare example of a cinematic, incredibly successful hostage recovery mission that leaves the government confident, probably, that hostage recovery using force remains a viable option.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Dani Gilbert, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Her research explores the causes and consequences of hostage taking in international security. Professor Gilbert, it has been very eye opening and helpful to have you on. Thank you so much for joining us.

GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: As we’ve been hearing, of course, over the past six weeks and today as well, Israelis desperately want the hostages safely returned. To understand how deeply the plight of political hostages can consume the attention of entire nation, all we have to do is look back 44 years to the end of the Carter administration.

On November 4th, 1979, when students in the line of the Imam, a young Iranian militant group invaded the U. S. Embassy in Tehran. They took 52 Americans hostage, and network news covered the crisis every single night for 444 days.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: From ABC in New York, this is World News Tonight. Sunday with Sam Donaldson.

SAM DONALDSON: Good evening. The U. S. Embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students. The Americans inside have been taken prisoner.

BARRY ROSEN: My name’s Barry Rosen. I was the U.S. Press attaché at the embassy.

DONALDSON: Some reports say as many as 90 Americans may be involved, others say as few as 35.

ROSEN: And my office was overtaken almost immediately. The doors were blown open. About 15 to 20 young thugs came through. They tied me up and I said, “Can you just gimme one second? I want to say goodbye to the people in my office.” I turned around and my staff and I, we looked at each other and I said, “Khuda Haafiz, goodbye.”

And they blindfolded me and marched me out of my office.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: This morning, for the first time since the hostages were put under lock and key, one of the captives blindfolded was brought out into the open.

This is Barry Rosen, the Embassy’s Press Attaché. He was turned to face reporters and cameramen and several hundred Iranian demonstrators outside the embassy’s gates.

Yankee, go home, they cried.

ROSEN: I was punched in the stomach, knocked down. And for that evening, I slept with the cords of the curtains tying my feet and my hands.

One thing occurred that was very important, and it was a message from Ayatollah Khomeini on the radio. One of the hostage takers were listening to it. Ayatollah Khomeini commended the students for taking over the embassy. Once that happened, more than anything else, determined the fact that I and my colleagues were going to stay there for a long time.

(TRANSLATION) In the name of God, the most merciful and gracious. The 35 million population of Iran want this, the Shah returned. And unless he is returned, the hostages will not be freed.

ROSEN: I was frightened. He opened up cans of okra and force fed us okra. Between two or four of us were held in these, I call them cells. In each of these cells, there was a guard. And the guard commanded that we could not speak to each other, even though we were in the same cell together.

Days were very long. And we heard, it seemed like the entire city of Tehran, screaming. “Marg bar Amreeka.”  Death to America. Death to America. Front of the embassy chanting day in and day out.

I would say in December of 1979, I was put into a van and driven to the very opulent place. The floor was marble. Then, the next morning, there was a knocking on the door. And I was told that I had to sign a statement that I was a spy and plotter against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The next morning, he came back with somebody with an automatic weapon in his hand, and I was marched downstairs, and they ripped off my blindfold.

I was marching past a gauntlet of guards dressed in black, with weapons in their hands and straight ahead there was a desk, young man sitting in a chair at the desk. And he said to me, “If you don’t sign, we will shoot you.” And he said, “I’m going to give you 10 seconds to make a decision.”

And I eventually put my signature to the confession that I was a spy.

That was very demeaning, and I was, any ideas I had were thrown out the window. And so I was marched upstairs back into that room, and I lied there for a while, and there I saw a bunch of red ants on the floor and started to play with them and then fell asleep.

There’s also one major incident, and this is not really public and never has really been public. But it’s 44 years and I think it should be. And that is one of our colleagues was telling his guard who was in each cell, the positions that we held. To a large degree, we were getting held hostage by one of our own people, too, in a certain sense.

Because he outed all of us. This came out through little messages that we would leave in one of the corners of the bathroom. And many of us, later on, swore to each other we were going to kill him. But, of course, that didn’t happen. The idea of turning on all of us, is something that still disgusts me.

But the United States government did nothing about it. I think the reason why it never really got out into the public arena was because I think we came back, quote-unquote, as heroes. And I don’t think the American public wanted to hear that we were not, quote, all heroes.

NEWS ANNOUNCER #1: Now, day one of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And day one of freedom for 52 Americans.

The new president had not been in office an hour, when the former hostages became free men and women again.

ANNOUNCER #2: Just looking at them, they appear to have momentarily, at least, lost complete touch with reality. I’m quite sure they cannot conceive that they are free now.

Their faces are blank, their eyes are glazed. It’s a stunning emotional experience.

ROSEN: These people who are being held in Gaza are my brothers and sisters in many ways. Captivity has actually been part of my genetic makeup now for the last 44 years. That’s why I think you have to be hopeful.

That is most important in your mind, to be as hopeful as you possibly can be, and try to meditate on that, and the idea that you will one day see your family, your loved ones again. Continue with that in mind. It’s too important to let go.

CHAKRABARTI: Barry Rosen. He’s a former press attaché at the U. S. Embassy in Tehran. He was one of 52 Americans held for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis from November 4th, 1979, to January 20th, 1981. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. This is On Point.

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