U.S. Hostage Rescue Is A 'Contingency' for U.S. Special Ops in Israel

 It isn't the mission for elite U.S. forces, according to a senior Pentagon official. But it's an option—and one that the Biden team has to be very careful about. 

U.S. Hostage Rescue Is A 'Contingency' for U.S. Special Ops in Israel
A joint special forces team training in New Mexico in 2018. Photo by Senior Airman Clayton Cupit

Edited by Sam Thielman

I DO NOT WANT THIS REPORT to be overblown, nor to overstate what I know. Most importantly, the families of all 230 Hamas hostages, and this includes perhaps 10 American citizens, are experiencing unbearable anguish, and I don't want to give false hope that a rescue operation is coming. 

But after Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Maier confirmed on Tuesday that there are U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Israel, a senior Pentagon official tells FOREVER WARS that SOF are preparing for "contingencies" that include their involvement in getting those hostages back from Hamas. They are just contingencies at this point. But they represent an extremely delicate possibility. 

Rescue operations are not the current SOF mission in Israel, this official stresses. I am emphasizing that as well. As the official described it, that mission is training, consulting and planning, with the Israel Defense Forces, about what the IDF will do about the hostages. I have absolutely no reporting about that. Even if I did, FOREVER WARS would not publish it. Hostage negotiations, let alone plans for what may follow a breakdown in negotiations, deserve not to be the subject of journalism while people's lives are on the line. (For those who would like more than my word about that, note that I refrained from publishing what I knew about a missing U.S. servicemember in Niger in October 2017 until Sgt. La David Johnson's body was recovered.)

While the Israelis undoubtedly know both Gaza and Hamas better than Americans do, SOF clearly possess experience in hostage-rescue operations, and the IDF may want to draw on that experience. That's the mission of U.S. SOF in Israel right now, per both Maier and this official, and it is a non-combat mission. 

But SOF have a particular equity here, given that some of the hostages are Americans. I asked if there is a chance they could be involved in doing something about that U.S. hostage situation. The official replied, "If the time comes where they are needed, yes." My understanding is that this option is in the break-glass-in-case-of-absolute-emergency category. 

Everyone hopes it does not come to that. I do not know the status of continued diplomacy to free the hostages, but its existence is public. Hamas said on Tuesday that it expects to release "foreigners" among the hostages in the coming days. Hopefully it follows through. Additionally, the State Department on Wednesday expressed an expectation that Americans trapped in Gaza—the vast majority of whom are not the Hamas captives we've been discussing—may be permitted to enter Egypt via the Rafah Crossing. With luck and diplomatic skill, hopefully the American hostages will be among that number and this article will be obsolete soon after we publish. 

But here's an inescapable complication that deserves to be addressed while any prospective U.S. involvement remains just a contingency. 

Throughout the history of U.S. patronage for Israel, U.S. policymakers have labored to ensure that American and Israeli troops do not actively fight alongside one another during hot wars. Recall how in 1991, during the First Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush put enormous pressure on Israel not to respond to the Scud missiles Saddam Hussein fired on it. (My late mother's best friend was in Israel at the time studying for her rabbinic degree and I heard a lot about this at a young age.) The reasoning is that seeing U.S. and Israeli forces jointly engaged in coalition warfare against an Arab or Muslim target would provoke anger amongst Arab or Muslim publics that U.S.-aligned Arab or Muslim governments would struggle to control. This pattern held throughout the War on Terror. 

Now imagine for a moment what the reaction might be to direct U.S. involvement in this war in particular. This is a war characterized by Israel's collective punishment of Gaza—from the total siege of the strip to an air campaign the Wall Street Journal says "rivals any aerial bombardment this century" and now includes bombing the Jabalia refugee camp. The attacks have killed thousands of Palestinian children, whom Israel and the White House handwave away as the unfortunate cost of war. Should it come to it, a U.S. or joint raid to free American hostages can, in theory, be entirely separated from that larger war as an isolated action, undertaken in extremis conditions, for a very limited and even justified objective. 

But that's in theory. In the reality we face, a great many people in the region are outraged and despondent over the plight of the Palestinians. Word or sight of Americans engaged in fighting Palestinians—and that is how the region will understand it; not as fighting Hamas, but fighting Palestinians—may provoke consequences that I really and truly hope people at senior levels of the Biden administration are prepared for. The U.S. is already trying to navigate the risk of escalation into a proper regional war—to the point where Biden is for the first time entertaining a "pause" in hostilities. If SOF should enter Gaza as combatants, how might Iran, whose regional strategy is predicated on leading an "axis of resistance" to the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, feel compelled to respond? What would it choose to do? What would the impact be on Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.? The region is already waiting to hear if Hezbollah will declare war when its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gives a widely anticipated speech tomorrow, and that's without direct U.S. involvement in Gaza. 

These are awful questions to consider, especially in the context of the agony of Americans (and Israelis) being held in captivity by Hamas. But they have to be considered, because this is war, and war is unpredictable. Hopefully this SOF scenario does not rise beyond being what it is right now: just a contingency. 

Ceasefire now, hostage release now. We don't have to keep traveling down this frightening path.