The former hostages using data to help Oct. 7 victims

Hostage Aid Worldwide puts Hamas’ hostage-taking in historical, global context, calls on world to coordinate efforts and discourage bad actors from kidnapping

In the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, many organizations in Israel, the U.S. and beyond have come together to advocate for the release of hostages held in Gaza and support their families. But only one is made up of former hostages using their experiences and a data-driven approach to advise the loved ones of those still in captivity and the Western governments trying to bring them home.

Hostage Aid Worldwide was established in 2020 to fight for hostages around the world to be released and to prevent future instances of hostage-taking. It tracks hostages worldwide and advocates for their release, as well as for policies to disrupt what they call “the hostage-taking business model.” 

The organization’s president is Nizar Zakka, who was held hostage in Iran for four years, and its board includes Alan Gross, who was wrongfully imprisoned in Cuba for five years, Iranian women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, Sam Goodwin, who was held hostage in Syria, and others.

Zakka told Jewish Insider that the organization has “the largest database of hostage cases in the world, from 1975 until today…We have over 10,000 cases studied, detailed and reported on, and we developed a pattern of how each case was resolved in order to use this data for future cases, prevent hostage-taking and end the hostage business.”

Gross explained that because “Hostage Aid Worldwide was founded by former hostages, we have a perspective about this that other people might not have, of great sensitivity for the hostages and hostage families.” 

In addition, Gross said that HAW is unique in its “data-driven, very analytical” approach. “Anything we can do to improve the situation, we’re willing to do,” he added.

In this photo taken Dec. 11, 2015, Alan Gross poses for a portrait in his home in Washington.

Zakka said that includes “speaking up, trying to give families the tools to fight this. We fight with governments a lot.”

HAW is 95% funded by its board, though it also accepts donations. 

“We are independent,” Zakka said of the group’s funding. “We have a free voice to speak on behalf of the hostages and we don’t have to report anything to anyone but ourselves.” 

Zakka called the mass hostage-taking of Oct. 7 “a new phase, a game-changer” in a global and historical context.

A special addendum to HAW’s 2023 report focused on Oct. 7 noted that last year “saw the highest levels of abducted persons since 1979… The most significant event this year was the Hamas attack on Israel.”

Oct. 7 “marks a major escalation in the history of hostage-taking within the context of global politics and security,” which “redefines hostage-taking as a tactic of war,” the report states.

Hamas’ hostage-taking on Oct. 7 fits into HAW’s four-stage “hostage business model.” 

The first phase is reconnaissance: “The October 7 attack was meticulously planned with a strategic focus on targeting a broad demographic spectrum, including individuals of all ages from young children to vulnerable elderly, in order to maximize the negotiating position of the hostage-takers…evoke heightened emotions…[and] intensif[y] the psychological trauma inflicted on the community,” the report states.

HAW said that the attack on the Nova music festival, where 371 were killed and 40 abducted, seemed “to have been chosen carefully to have maximum impact and media coverage.”

The second phase, weaponization, included “a range of vicious acts inflicted by Hamas and other actions towards the hostages as a means for intimidation and strategic control.” This included “the reprehensive deployment of severe sexual violence and assault against both men and women.” HAW also noted Hamas’ separation of families “as a form of blackmail and psychological torture.”

Videos in which the hostages thank the terrorists, who then “sadistically allud[e] to their impending fate” are meant to manipulate public opinion and lay the blame on Israel to increase Hamas’ leverage, the report said, warning media outlets that featuring the videos “promote and disseminate these manipulative narratives and Hamas’s strategic approach.”

The next phase is negotiations, in which Hamas has leveraged different intermediaries to those countries’ advantage.

The final phase is exploitation, by which Hamas attempts to brand the release of hostages as a humanitarian gesture in order to further its own objectives.

Of the hostages held in Gaza, 44% have only Israeli citizenship, 37% are Israeli dual nationals and 19% foreigners. They are roughly two-thirds male and one-third female, and 21.4% are under 20 and 14% are over 60. At the time of the addendum’s publication this week, 49% were released, 1% killed and 50% remained hostages.

Barry Rosen, a member of HAW’s board and a former hostage in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, spearheaded the organization’s efforts to help hostages of Hamas soon after the Oct. 7 attack, working with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in New York. Among the actions Hostage Aid Worldwide has taken to help Israeli hostages is to bring families to meet with The New York Times‘ editorial board, to take part in briefings to American Jewish community organizations and give interviews to the media to raise awareness.

Barry Rosen, 77, a former US diplomat who was one of the 52 hostages held in Iran during 444 days from 1979 to 1981, speaks to AFP journalists outside the Coburg palace in Vienna , Austria, on January 14, 2022. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Zakka noted that the organization has been advising the family of Orion Hernandez Padoux, a Mexican and French citizen who was kidnapped at the Nova festival. 

The HAW report posited that Hamas’ escalation could be a result of hostage-taking by Iran, Venezuela, Russia and others, as well as terrorist organizations, which are viewed as successes by the captors.

“Hostage-takers are operating with an increasingly savvy playbook, with an evermore nuanced understanding of the intricacies of the political landscape within the countries negotiating for their citizens’ release,” the report states. “These actors take advantage of the tendencies of politicians within these often democratic nations to score political wins (as opposed to evaluating the longer-term consequences of their negotiation conditions and the impact on the growth of hostage-taking). The short-term calculus of politicians is poorly suited to the long-term aspirations of hostage takers.”

HAW called for a coordinated approach to hostages between Western states, or else it is “ultimately encouraging the development and growth of the hostage business model as a strategic warfare tool.”

“We encourage governments the world over to consider the grand scheme of the hostage industry including hostage diplomacy, and develop coordinated preventative measures to ensure hostage-taking is not repeated in the future by Hamas, its proxies or any other state or non-state actors,” the report states.

When HAW initially released its report on hostages in 2023, it left out nearly half of those taken by Hamas to Gaza, because it generally operates under a definition of hostage that “refers only to civilians (dual or foreign nationals) taken hostage in another country.” 

When referring to Oct. 7, the report said “Hamas militants and other Palestinian militant factions abducted around 125 foreigners and dual nationals from more than 20 different countries, to the Gaza Strip.” That description left out the 109 hostages who only had Israeli citizenship, sparking an uproar online. 

On viewing the initial report, Israeli journalist Tal Schneider posted: “Where are the Israeli hostages?? HAW counts only those who have dual citizenship. What about the Israelis who have just Israel’s identity? ignoring those who were abducted from their homes, barefoot in PJs, elderly, babies, women, men???”

Though HAW decided to produce an addendum focused on Oct. 7 soon after the report’s release, Zakka defended the initial exclusion, saying that territories controlled by the Palestinians are not another country. If HAW did consider “Palestine” to be a country, then it would be illegal for Israel to put Palestinian terrorists in administrative detention – something international law permits only in areas under military occupation – and then Israel would top HAW’s charts for hostage-taking, which includes unlawful detention.

Gross said that people called him to complain about the report: “People said, ‘How could you be associated with this?’ My response is” – Gross, who spoke with JI via zoom video, stopped and pulled his “Bring Them Home Now” dog tag from inside his shirt. “I spent 1,400 days in [prison in Cuba] as a hostage. I’m sensitive to the hostages and their needs.” 

Gross said that HAW learned from the experience for next time, citing the 15-page addendum.

“How can anyone think we do not care about hostages?” Nizar wondered. “Of course [Israelis] are hostages. Every person taken by Hamas is a hostage…but we didn’t include them in the report because of this criteria. In my personal opinion, people were a little harsh on us…We hope to get a break when we make a mistake and not get attacked so viciously.” 

Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American academic who was held in Iran from 2016-2019 and is now a HAW board member, posted that “Hamas’ taking of Israeli hostages is unprecedented in modern history. Its solution requires a different magnitude of coordinated [international] effort that is beyond [HAW’s] original mission to rally… Some self-claimed hostage advocates’ criticism on [HAW’s] work does not appear to be well-intentioned or constructive.”

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