Uncertainty in Israel over Hamas hostages: ‘When they are all back or we can bury them, we will see who is to blame’

The families of the 199 people being held in Gaza are awaiting their release through military or diplomatic channels while placing their faith in the Israeli army

Israel war
Kerem Shem, mother of the kidnapped French-Israeli Mia Shem, addresses the press after Hamas released a video with images of her daughter.picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)
Luis de Vega

“Death was a blessing.” When Thomas Hand learned that his eight-year-old daughter Emily had been killed by Hamas, he smiled and gave thanks. The little girl then became part of the more than 1,400 dead and was not on the list of 199 hostages. The survival of this group hangs in the balance amid Israel’s war against Gaza, with retaliatory bombing having already killed more than 3,000 people since the surprise attack launched by the militant group on October 7. “I said ‘yes’ and smiled because that was the best news among the possibilities that I knew; that she was dead, or in Gaza,” Hand said during an interview with CNN. “If you knew anything about what they do to people in Gaza, that is worse than death.” It had been two days since the attack by Hamas on Kibbutz Be’eri, next to the Strip, where the Hand family lived.

“I am ready to hear the worst, but I have to know first if my children are alive or dead,” acknowledges Itzik Horn, father of Yair, born in 1978 and a resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz, and Aitam, a decade younger, who had come to visit him over the weekend. “If, unfortunately, we get the bodies, I will bury my children with a broken heart. If they are hostages in the hands of a murderous terrorist gang that wants to kill Jews, what peace of mind can I have?” he asks. The event of October 7 have shaken the way of thinking of this Jew of Argentine origin. “Until Sunday [October 8] I was part of the peace camp defending two states, two peoples, dialogue with the Palestinians... Today, I don’t know what I want. Israel is not at war with Palestine, but with Hamas.”

Ten days after the massacre, the Israeli government and army estimate that the number of dead on their side exceeds 1,400, including 291 soldiers, and the number of hostages held by Palestinian Islamist militias, in an area that is being mercilessly bombed by Israel, is 199. Hamas puts the number at between 200 and 250; an unspecified figure, since not all the hostages are under their control. Hamas is demanding the release of 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in return. There is also an undetermined number of missing persons, as their bodies have not been identified and there is no certainty that they are among the kidnapped, as it the case with the Horn brothers. “For an Argentine to say that his children are missing after what we went through with the military dictatorship, I would never have imagined it,” laments the father of the family.

The heavy burden of uncertainty falls on the families of the kidnapped and the missing. A Hostages and Missing Families Forum has been established to offer them support. Some have opted for silence as a strategy, or are simply unable to externalize the situation they are going through. Others, with whom EL PAÍS spoke by telephone, have decided to raise their voices as the best tool to fight for the safe return home of their loved ones. In general, they trust in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and in the military to put an end to the captivity.

Hamas militants almost certainly took Karina Shvalv, 51, her husband Ronen, 54, and their two daughters, Nika, 18, and Yubal, 11, with them. Only the eldest son — a serviceman in the Israeli army — was spared because he was on duty. The family also resided in Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the communities razed on October 7. “I just want them to come back safe and sound,” insists Roni, Karina’s sister, without wanting to discuss a possible military invasion of Gaza or an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the abductees.

Avenues of negotiation

There are open avenues of negotiation involving foreign countries to at least secure the release of some of the hostages, although no details have been made public, according to the Haaretz newspaper. Netanyahu met Sunday with members and representatives of the families, to whom he conveyed that the return of their relatives is one of the main objectives. Among the possibilities is that a hypothetical opening of Gaza would facilitate the release of hostages.

“I hope that the government and the army will act responsibly and bring them back alive,” says Adva Guttman, sister of Tamar Guttman, 27, a Crohn’s disease sufferer, who fears that she was kidnapped during the music festival at which 260 people were killed. However, they have no confirmation that this was the case, as she has not been identified among the dead. Although she had contact with the authorities Tuesday, she acknowledges that she knows nothing about possible negotiations. Regarding the danger posed by the bombings or a possible ground invasion, she says: “We are not part of the military decisions, although I believe that one of the objectives is to bring them back by military or diplomatic means.”

“Surely they have not entered Gaza yet for this reason; to save them and rescue them. I have full confidence in the Israeli army. I don’t trust the Israeli government. To put it mildly...” says Horn. “When they are all back, or we can bury them, we will see who is to blame. Now, it’s time to fulfill the mission to finish these terrorists. We are all united in this now,” he concludes, without wishing to dwell on the security lapse that allowed hundreds of Islamist militants to thoroughly prepare the attack. “The main fear is that they will be tortured, even more so that they will become victims of the bombings. These devilish creatures [Hamas] went in to conquer nothing, not independence nor legitimacy. They went in to rape, massacre and denigrate. Why wouldn’t they do it on the other side [Gaza]? That is worse than the bombing,” says Yafi Shpirer, who counts several dead and missing among those close to him, including the Horn brothers.

Renana Gome heard via cellphone how Hamas militiamen took her two sons, aged 16 and 12, from their home, as she recounted in a Zoom interview Tuesday. “My message to the world is to release them immediately,” she said, addressing the Israeli government and the international community, before insisting that minors on both sides — Israel and Gaza — must be kept out of the conflict.

Unprecedented numbers

Never before have so many hostages been taken. The 199 kidnapped represent a valuable bargaining chip for Hamas — which has ruled Gaza since 2007 — and Islamic Jihad, which is also holding hostages. A senior Hamas leader abroad, Khaled Meshaal, said Monday that the group “has what it needs,” referring to the demand for the release of 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israel, which, in practice, means emptying Israeli jails of Palestinians. In 2011, after five years of captivity, the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was agreed in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, more than 300 of whom were serving life sentences.

The Israeli government is not shedding light on how it is handling the crisis, but the hostages feature in all the ways being considered to de-escalate the violence and stem the rising death toll. Amid the uncertainty, the families have held several press conferences and have demonstrated in Tel Aviv demanding solutions. With tensions running high, sparks sometimes fly: the extreme right-wing minister Orit Struck was shouted out of a hotel in the city of Eilat, where survivors of the Hamas attack and relatives of kidnap victims are staying.

Meanwhile, indiscriminate bombardments by the Israeli army continue to rain on Gaza. The 199 hostages — mostly civilians of Israeli nationality although there are some with dual passports and foreigners — may be among the victims. Hamas has been more favorable toward the release of the latter, as announced Sunday by its armed wing.

If Israel decides to invade Gaza by land, what kind of operation it carries out will be key: a heavy-handed one without taking into account the presence of the hostages, or a more surgical operation, gambling on getting them out alive? This is a question that hangs heavy in the air while a negotiated release is sought.

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