Pain, uncertainty and hope among the families of the Israeli hostages in Gaza: ‘I know many will not return’

Nir Oz, one of the communities hardest hit by Hamas, symbolically celebrates Jewish Passover in honor of the captives and demands the Netanyahu government secure their release

Israel-Hamas War
Liat Atzili Beinin (r), a 49-year-old resident of Nir Oz who was held hostage for 54 days in Gaza, where her husband's murdered body still remains, hugged by a member of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, on April 11.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega (special correspondent)

Four and a half months have passed since Hamas announced that Israeli hostages Shiri Bibas, 32, her daughter, Ariel, four, and her son Kfir, who turned one in captivity, had been killed in Gaza in an Israeli bombing. Israeli authorities have not officially confirmed the deaths, nor have the bodies of the mother and her two children been returned. On October 7, Hamas also kidnapped the father of the family, Yarden, 34, in a separate attack. “We have no sign of life from them, except what Hamas said on the last day of the [November ceasefire] agreement, that they had been killed. We still don’t know if it’s true,” says Ofri Bibas, 37, Yarden’s sister.

On Thursday, footage surfaced of how Yarden Bibas was violently abducted and abused by dozens of Palestinians, some armed, others recording the scene. In the video, Yarden is taken on a motorcycle to Gaza. “This distressing video serves as a wake-up call on the need to take immediate measures to put an end to this humanitarian crisis and bring back our loved ones safe and sound,” the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a statement. “We must do everything in our power to ensure the immediate release of all hostages, both living and deceased,” the text adds.

Like the rest of the testimonies from the families of the hostages, the words of Yarden’s sister move between pain, uncertainty and hope. Ofri is one of the individuals who took part in a mock seder organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum in the Kibbutz Nir Oz, less than two miles from Gaza. This was one of the farming communities hardest hit by Hamas. Almost a quarter of its 400 residents were killed (51) or kidnapped (36).

The group symbolically celebrated Jewish Passover, which begins on April 22 and commemorates the return of the Jewish people from the Egyptian desert. They are celebrating in the dining room of the kibbutz, where there are long tables, but missing diners. The damage from the Hamas attack has not yet been repaired and the smell of rot from the kitchen, which was partly burned, reaches the large room. The event also serves to call for the return of the hostages, depicted in photos on separate chairs in front of the plates.

“The hostages must be released not because they are suffering in captivity, but because it is a moral obligation of the state,” says Liat Atzili Beinin, a 49-year-old local, who was kidnapped and released during the week of November ceasefire. A citizen of dual Israeli and American nationality, she was imprisoned for 54 days in an apartment in the town of Khan Yunis. During the event at the kibbutz, a video is shown with images of past Passovers, with the residents of Nir Oz celebrating the holiday in that same room.

Tables prepared with photos of the hostages in the symbolic celebration of Jewish Passover that took place in the Kibbutz Nir Oz, where almost a quarter of its 400 residents were murdered or kidnapped.
Tables prepared with photos of the hostages in the symbolic celebration of Jewish Passover that took place in the Kibbutz Nir Oz, where almost a quarter of its 400 residents were murdered or kidnapped.Luis de Vega

They are aware that some of the people who appear in the video will never return. That’s the case for Liat’s husband, Aviv, 49. His body is one of many that still remains in Gaza. The remains of Maya Goren, a 56-year-old employee of the kibbutz daycare center, who was seriously injured when she was taken away by the assailants on a motorcycle, have also not been returned. A large number of the 133 Israeli hostages who remain in Gaza will not return home alive. But Liat is appealing for help to bring them back unconditionally, “if there is a shred of human decency left.”

A fading agreement

Negotiations are still underway for a cessation of hostilities that would open the door to an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, although, according to the messages and signals coming from the opposing parties and the mediating countries, it does not seem that an agreement will be reached soon. The main focus of the international community is in trying to stop the escalation between Iran and Israel, whose troops continue their attacks in Gaza, causing dozens of deaths every day.

The four members of the Bibas family were kidnapped in Nir Oz during the October 7 attack, when Hamas killed 1,200 people in Israeli territory and captured around 250, of whom little Kfir was the youngest. With its ensuing war on Gaza, Israel has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians. After announcing the death of his wife and children, Hamas forced Yarden to record a video, which the Palestinian group made public. In the recording, the father blames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for murdering Shiri, Ariel and Kfir.

Ofri Bibas, 37, is waiting for news of the brother, sister-in-law and two nephews, aged four and one, the only minors still in captivity in Gaza.
Ofri Bibas, 37, is waiting for news of the brother, sister-in-law and two nephews, aged four and one, the only minors still in captivity in Gaza.Luis de Vega

In footage obtained by Israel from a surveillance camera on a street in Khan Yunis and shown on February 19, authorities claim to have identified the three. But that only confirms that they were not killed in the Oct. 7 attack and that they arrived alive in Gaza. Hamas announced their deaths at the end of the one-week truce in the last week of November, in which 105 of the hostages were released. Since then, no other minors have been held hostage in the Palestinian enclave.

Ofri, the children’s aunt, who is eight months pregnant, says she is living on an emotional roller coaster. So when it comes to the negotiations for a new ceasefire deal and agreement to free the hostages, she tries not to be too optimistic. “We have already been through many ups and downs and the negotiations failed,” she says.

“There is no price for the life of my family, there is no price for the life of the hostages,” says Ofri. “This is not an agreement to buy and sell a car, although we know what Israel has to do,” she adds, without forgetting that it was Hamas that captured her relatives and must also be pressured. It is a question, says Ofri, of having a “broader perspective,” of the war in Gaza, not just a military view although, she understands, it is complicated to find a balance between the military and the diplomatic.

80th birthday, in Gaza

“My father can die from war, from starvation, from low oxygen, or he can die from anything else,” warns Noam Peri, 41, referring to Chaim Peri, an artist and advocate for peaceful coexistence with Palestinians from Nir Oz who turned 80 in captivity on Saturday. They have not heard from him since he appeared in a video released by Hamas on Dec. 18, the daughter adds. “I know many who are not coming back,” Noam laments, acknowledging that the information coming from captives in the Gaza Strip does not inspire optimism. She does not want to get her hopes up and be disappointed.

Marks left by the October 7 Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Marks left by the October 7 Hamas attack on Kibbutz Nir Oz.Luis de Vega

“I wouldn’t celebrate Passover under any circumstance,” says Ofri Bibas, but he understands that he has to do it for his daughter, who is the same age as his cousin Ariel. The girl, who has another younger brother, is “excited” with her new outfit, says her mother, who calls for “justice and humanity” to end the “nightmare” they are experiencing.

“As on normal days, these days we are supposed to celebrate together the festival of freedom, agriculture and independence,” but “these are not normal days,” says Ornat Peri, Chaim’s wife, remembering past Passovers. The art gallery in the fields of Nir Oz where Chaim Peri made his metal sculptures remains closed. The book of children’s stories that he was going to publish for his 80th birthday awaits him. “It’s ready, and we’re waiting for him to come back,” says his daughter Noam.

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