In the spring of 2018, the retired general Gal Hirsch stood on a tiny sliver of land occupied by Israel, and reminisced about fighting Hizbollah in Lebanon.
“I killed Arabs there,” he said, pointing to one hill, with his firearm poking out of his trousers. “I fought them there, and there.”
But, he wistfully told a Financial Times reporter, the fight was abandoned before victory. Now the divisive former soldier — who was investigated by the Israel Defense Forces for his failures in the 2006 Lebanon war and was denied a high-ranking police role after a tax evasion probe — has taken on a different battle.
A darling of Israel’s rightwing and a confidante of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hirsch was appointed head of the Kidnapped and Missing Persons Task Force the day after Hamas’s October 7 cross-border raid, when Palestinian militants killed at least 1,200 Israelis, according to government figures, and dragged more than 240 hostages back into the enclave.
Hirsch’s elevation from semi-retirement to the management of the most complex hostage crisis in modern history has become a lightning rod for the families of hostages, who see a failed politician using their plight to revive his career. “Gal Hirsch Vindicated At Last”, wrote the right-wing Jerusalem Post.
“Gal Hirsch is doing more harm than good,” said Noah Ofek, whose cousin is held by Hamas. “The government isn’t doing enough — they’re just focused on politics.”
In a statement provided by his spokesperson, Hirsch said he considered his appointment to be a holy mission, and was focused on trying to save as many lives as possible and on a volunteer basis. His academic work at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, knowledge of guerrilla warfare and deep understanding of how the Israeli military and secret services operate were are an asset to the families he is trying to assist. “I am focused only on the mission, on the best way to bring the hostages back home and helping the families in their hardest times.”
While four hostages have been released by Hamas, and one rescued, the vast majority remain in captivity almost six weeks later, some of them known to have been badly injured when they were taken. One, 19-year-old soldier Noa Marciano, was confirmed to have died while she was held hostage; the body of another, Yehudit Weiss, was found in Gaza on Thursday. As the weeks have passed, families’ frustration has grown.
“I don’t think they appointed the best, most talented person to deal with this issue,” said Neta Heiman-Mina, whose 84-year-old mother Ditza was taken hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz. She wished someone with more experience in hostage negotiations had been chosen.
“He got in touch with me and he had nothing to say, apart from me, me, me.
“I said: ‘What can you tell me about my mother?’ And he said ‘I don’t know what to say to you’. And I said, ‘Well, why did you call me then?’”
Heiman-Mina believes Hirsch, who previously ran a small political party, has other concerns in mind. “I get the impression he’s still very committed to his political campaign.”
A protest movement has slowly built momentum, demanding that Netanyahu and Hirsch do more to secure the hostages’ release, even if it involves compromise with Hamas in the form of a ceasefire or freeing Palestinian prisoners. While the fate of the hostages is a national obsession, the families say their voices have gone unheard.
“The families are in a state of great tension and anger — anger at what led to this disaster . . . at the way the situation is being dealt with, and the fact their relatives are still in the hands of Hamas,” said Ronen Tsur, a representative for many of the families.
This week, hundreds of protesters are marching uphill from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after holding protests outside the UN, the IDF’s headquarters and elsewhere, including widely attended Sabbath dinners with empty seats for the missing. The movement is threatening to coalesce into a unified, popular stand against current government policy, which opposes the humanitarian ceasefires and increased aid into Gaza that would be crucial to any release deal.
“The families gave the government time to try and negotiate [a deal to release the hostages] but I get the impression that they’re losing patience,” said Tsur. “They haven’t started breaking the crockery yet, but it’s very intense.”
Negotiations aimed at a hostage deal are taking place far from Israel. The US and Israeli spy chiefs have been working with Qatar, which in turn is liaising with Hamas political representatives in Doha. People familiar with those talks say progress has been slow, if steady, but any deal would require that Israel make concessions.
That is something that Hirsch and Netanyahu are both politically and temperamentally disinclined to do.
“Getting the hostages back should be the main priority, but I don’t think it is at the moment,” said Aviv Havron, seven members of whose extended family were kidnapped by Hamas. “They seem to be more focused on destroying Hamas.”
In the days after Hirsch was appointed, he was disappointed to find that the job did not entail search and rescue operations, said two people familiar with the situation.
When two American hostages were unilaterally released on October 20, Hirsch flew by helicopter to the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, while the International Committee of the Red Cross escorted the mother and daughter through the enclave. The army released a picture of him wearing body armour while he gripped their wrists firmly.
Hirsch’s ascension to the centre of Israel’s greatest political and military crisis has not eclipsed his past. Ha’aretz, a left-leaning newspaper, ran an editorial demanding his resignation, and citing his prior indictment on charges of tax evasion. Hirsch denies the charges, which have yet to go to trial.
An ex-soldier who had served under him took a similarly dim view. “Gal Hirsch is an idiot, living in his own world — he’s full of himself, has no empathy, and it’s really a disgrace that he’s been put in charge of something so sensitive,” the person said.
“He invented his own military language, he has no experience in intelligence, [and he] hasn’t done any negotiations in his life.”
The 2006 war was triggered by an incident in which two soldiers under Hirsch’s command were kidnapped and killed by Hizbollah, over which he was later investigated. In 2015, then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said “the residents of the northern Israel owe you, Gal, nine years of quiet”.
In the early chaotic days after October 7, when hundreds of people in Israel were unaccounted for, Hirsch was tasked with identifying those whom had been taken hostage.
He assigned more than 50 officers to a special unit, which used commercially available software from Salesforce to create a constantly updated database that allowed military liaisons to stay in touch with families, providing them with constant updates, financial aid and directing them to healthcare.
Those officers were trained in outreach by the unit that informs families of the deaths of soldiers, and helped set up protocols for how released hostages would be treated on their return, with a focus on their privacy.
Hirsch also attends regular meetings with representatives of Mossad and the military to comb through intelligence and works with lawmakers on legislation to support the families.
But he has also picked fights with European diplomats, berating them for supporting the Oslo peace accords and aid to Palestinians in Gaza, along with other issues. “We were looking for guidance on how to co-ordinate with the Israeli government on the release of our nationals, and found the meetings with Hirsch unhelpful,” said a diplomat who attended.
The politics of the situation has exacerbated the pain of hostages’ families, who are seeking empathy and honesty rather than bombast, said Chaim Peri, whose 79-year-old father was taken hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Based on five meetings with Hirsch, he described the negotiator as a “B-movie general”.
“He kept saying things like ‘it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon’. Imagine, old people and babies running marathons,” said Peri. “This is the man my government put in charge of the hostage situation?”
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