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Hamas is holding some 150 hostages. What are the prospects they'll be rescued?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's thought that Hamas is holding roughly 150 hostages after last weekend's attack on Israel. They include women, children and the elderly.

GERSHON BASKIN: I have at least one personal friend who is a hostage. One of my close friends has 12 relatives who were taken and are hostages.

FADEL: That's Gershon Baskin. He is a former hostage negotiator who helped secure the release of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, after he was captured by the militants in 2006. And Baskin says he's ready to step in again. But for some, it may be too late. This morning, Hamas announced that 13 hostages were killed in the retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza in the last 24 hours. That statement came after I spoke to Baskin, who predicted that getting all the hostages out alive would be nearly impossible.

BASKIN: There's a very small chance that all the hostages will be returned alive. We can assume that Hamas has disperse them around the Gaza Strip in small groups. I don't know how it's possible to keep that large number of hostages secret. Intelligence information will leak out. There are 2.213 million people living in Gaza in a very small area. And there are people there who will give information to the Israelis. And Israel will send in its special forces now, and in the coming days or a week, there will be a major ground assault into the Gaza Strip, sweeping across Gaza and hoping to do military operations to find and rescue the hostages. In that situation, I think it's easy to assume that many of the hostages will be killed.

FADEL: Are there any hostage negotiations at all that are going on, or is the plan to go in and get them?

BASKIN: There are no negotiations going on at the official level. Israel refuses to negotiate. Israel has only on its mind the military operation of wiping out Hamas, even if it means reoccupying Gaza. Hamas' point of view, and this has been told to me by two senior Hamas people, is that they will not negotiate until there's a full cessation of what they call Israeli aggression against Gaza. There are three countries with limited influence over Hamas. That's Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. And all three of them are involved in trying to persuade Hamas to at least release women and children, perhaps even in exchange for women prisoners in Israeli prison and children.

Hamas people have told me that their goal is to free all the Hamas prisoners. They believe that they still have cards in their hands. If there are three international leverage points on Hamas - Turkey, Qatar and Egypt - Hamas has 150 or 200 leverage points on Israel, and they are hoping to use those points of leverage to force Israel to make a deal to release the Palestinian prisoners.

FADEL: You know, we've been speaking to Palestinians - civilians - inside Gaza. More than half of the people who have been killed have been women and children, or some half of that, families killed. I mean, what guarantee is there that the hostages aren't being killed in these same bombardments?

BASKIN: There is no guarantee. And Israel, I assume, takes that into account. The same thing happened during the five years and four months that Gilad Shalit was in Gaza. There were several times when there were massive bombing campaigns, and I was personally concerned that maybe they were going to kill Gilad Shalit. I can tell you that during the times when I was doing negotiations, I was in Gaza twice in the Prime Minister's office in Gaza City, and I was more afraid of being bombed by Israel during that time that I was there than being attacked by the people who I was negotiating with.

I feel terrible for the civilian population. They're innocent. They are victims of this conflict, most of them. I think what needs to happen is there needs to be pressure on Egypt to open up the Rafah border to enable Gazans who can leave, who want to leave to be able to exit the war zone for at least the period of the war. Egypt has refused to do that. This is unacceptable.

FADEL: But also, that crossing has been struck three times.

BASKIN: Right. But I think that if there - it was opened for the Palestinians to exit for the period of the war, that the bombing of that exit would be stopped. Israel would allow that to happen. Israel is not interested in killing civilians, although it's obviously a part of what happens when you do massive bombings of Palestinian towns and cities and refugee camps. But it's not in the interest of Israel to kill civilians, and I think that Israel would facilitate the exit of whoever wanted to leave through that border.

FADEL: Gershon Baskin, thank you so much for your time.

BASKIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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