TEL AVIV—The Israeli public's top priority in the Gaza war is to bring home the hostages rather than to destroy Hamas, according to a poll by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers.
A plurality of Israeli Jews, 46 percent, rank the return of the 239 hostages held in the Gaza Strip as the most important military objective of the war, the poll found. Thirty-four percent say the war is primarily about incapacitating Hamas.
Israel's Jewish majority has become increasingly willing to make "painful concessions" to secure the release of the hostages, the poll also found. Sixty-one percent of the respondents said the country must do so, compared to just 21 percent six weeks earlier.
The findings, which have not previously been reported, help explain why Israel on Wednesday agreed to pause its war against Hamas for four days and release 150 teenage and women Palestinian prisoners. In exchange, Hamas committed to release some 50 women and children from captivity in Gaza. The agreement could go into effect as soon as Friday, after a delay, Israeli officials said. It could be extended for up to 10 days and involve as many as 80 hostages.
Hamas's mass slaughter and abduction of Israelis on Oct. 7 united the Jewish nation in determination to crush the terrorist group and free the hostages held in Gaza, which include babies, children, women, and the elderly. Early in Israel's retaliatory war in Gaza, Israel's leaders emphasized the imperative to incapacitate Hamas. But over the past several weeks, the public has pushed the once-secondary goal of rescuing the hostages to the top of the national agenda.
"Our polling shows that the Israeli people were consistently ahead of the decision makers on this," Nimrod Nir, a social scientist at Hebrew University who led the research, told the Washington Free Beacon. "As they learned about who Hamas was holding and under what conditions, the pressure to do something grew. And once there was a deal on the table, it became even harder for people to oppose it."
Since Oct. 9, Nir has overseen an omnibus survey of Israelis, which involves repeatedly polling one group of people over time. In the most recent round of questions, on Friday, the researchers for the first time asked Jewish participants to rank their priorities for the Gaza war. The return of the hostages was easily the most-picked option, above the destruction of Hamas; a cessation of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel; the assassination of Yehia Sinwar, Hamas's leader in Gaza and the purported mastermind of the terrorist group's Oct. 7 attack; and "other."
More than half of Israeli Jews, 52 percent, support the hostage deal, according to the poll, and 33 percent oppose it.
Another survey, released on Tuesday by Israel's Channel 14 news station, found similar top-line results: 52 percent of Israelis support the hostage agreement, and 32 percent oppose it. But among right-wing voters, the numbers are almost reversed. Thirty percent support and 49 percent oppose the deal.
"People are asking, Why did we do this?," Marc Zell, the co-chair of Republicans Overseas Israel, told the Free Beacon. "Of course, everyone wants the babies and the women, whatever age to come home. They want the hostages to come home. But, in this way, we're basically putting ourselves in the pocket of Hamas. And I think people are very nervous about this and very concerned."
"The primary goal is to win this, to destroy Hamas. The government cannot really say that, and I understand that. Everybody's worried about the hostages. But that's why they were taken," Zell added. "The government just needs to show determination and the willingness also to resist the American pressure."
The partisan divide was on display early Wednesday morning as Israel's government debated whether to approve the hostage agreement, which had been endorsed by the security cabinet and all of the security services. Two right-wing factions threatened to vote against the deal, saying Israel should instead keep up the pressure on Hamas. In the end, however, the full cabinet voted 35-to-3 in favor.
"It is a moral and ethical duty that correctly expresses the Jewish and Israeli value of redeeming captives, and I hope that it will be a significant first step for bringing all the captives home," Israeli President Isaac Herzog said in a statement afterward.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, whose ultranationalist Jewish Power faction cast the only votes against the deal, said on X that it sets a "dangerous precedent"and plays into Hamas's hands. He called instead for stepped-up military action against Hamas in an effort to force the release of all the hostages.
In a televised address on Wednesday night, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant directly addressed "concerns circulating regarding the possibility to stop the war."
"My response to those who raise these concerns: I, the IDF, the [Israeli Security Agency], and the [entire] defense establishment, are committed to completing this war until we achieve our goals—until we destroy Hamas and bring home the hostages," he said.
Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Free Beacon that critics of the agreement were correct that Hamas had "blackmailed" Israel. He said pausing the war would allow Hamas to regroup and likely to kill more Israeli soldiers. Nevertheless, he said, the Jewish state had to accept the hostage agreement.
"It is part of the tradition of the [Israel Defense Forces] that we are ready to sacrifice soldiers if it will save civilians," Amidror said. "When you have an opportunity to release babies and women and the elderly, based on Jewish values, you cannot say no."
According to Amidror, fears that Israel will not resume the war with full force after the agreed-upon pause are misplaced.
"There is no alternative. Public opinion will demand the Israeli government destroy Hamas," he said. "Soldiers are saying that they will refuse orders to leave Gaza before finishing the job. This is the reality, no matter what anyone in Jerusalem or Washington will say."