Dec 4, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Hamas may not want to release women to keep them from talking, U.S. official says

Demonstrators with an Israeli flag

Demonstrators in Tel Aviv call for Israeli hostages held in Gaza to be freed. Photo: Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Monday "it seems" Hamas has refused to release all of the Israeli women it is holding hostage in Gaza because the terror group doesn't want them to tell what they have gone through in captivity.

Why it matters: Miller did not provide any evidence to back up his claim, but it's the first time a senior U.S. official has raised the possibility that Hamas has harmed some of the women it's holding hostage.

  • Miller suggested that Hamas' reluctance to release the women in exchange for a continued pause in Israel's counter-attack on the terror group was a reason negotiations for more hostage releases broke down.
  • "It seems that one of the reasons they don't want to turn women over that they've been holding hostage — and the reason this pause fell apart — is that they don't want these women to be able to talk about what happened to them during their time in custody," Miller said in the daily State Department press briefing.
  • Miller said, however, that he is not able to speak "with a definitive assessment that that is the case." He added the U.S. wants the women released "so that they could talk about any treatment or mistreatment they got."

Zoom in: Miller's comments are in line with what two senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials have told Axios about Israel's assessment of Hamas' reluctance to release the women.

  • Israeli officials believe there are about 18 women who are still in Hamas' custody, most of them taken captive when Hamas militants raided a music festival near Israel's border with Gaza. The officials believe some of the women have been killed, and that others are held hostage.
  • To date, Hamas has released nearly four dozen women it had held since the group's deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Driving the news: The negotiations over extending a ceasefire in Gaza collapsed Friday, after Hamas refused to release the rest of the Israeli women it is holding and asked to discuss releasing elderly men instead.

  • White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that Israel refuses to give up on the women Hamas is holding, and demands their release before discussing other categories of hostages.
  • "The way back to negotiations is for Hamas to do its part of the deal," Sullivan said during a White House briefing. He did not comment on why Hamas might not want to release the women.

The big picture: Since Oct. 7, Israeli police and civil society organizations have collected evidence and testimonies of sexual assault and rape of women by Hamas operatives during the attack on Israel.

  • Last week UN Women, the UN's women's rights organization, issued a statement expressing concern of possible sexual crimes against Israeli women by Hamas and called for an investigation.
  • Monday at the UN headquarters in New York, an Israeli police investigator revealed video testimonies of survivors of the attack on music festival. One witness on the video said she saw several Hamas operatives raping an Israeli woman.
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