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At 6:30am on Saturday, October 7th, Meirav Leshem-Gonen received an urgent phone call from her 23-year-old daughter, Romi, who was attending the Supernova music festival by the Gaza border.
Meirav recalls the words spoken to her, “We are unsure of what to do, mummy. There are numerous shootings occurring here and we are extremely scared. I am uncertain of our fate. Please come and retrieve us. Notify the army and police to come and assist us.”
Romi and Gaia, close friends, were eagerly anticipating the concert in the Negev desert to celebrate Sukkot, a Jewish holiday. The event, meant to promote “unity and love,” took a tragic turn when Hamas militants infiltrated the border and mercilessly killed 1,400 individuals. They also took 239 people hostage and brought them back to Gaza.
Romi and Gaia made a desperate attempt to flee, but they were apprehended and taken as prisoners. Romi’s final words on the phone were, “Mommy, I won’t survive this, I’m going to perish.” Meirav, struggling to conceal her emotions, reassured her daughter, “You’re not going to die. We will figure out a way to rescue you and bring you back home.”
Unfortunately, Romi is not currently at home. Despite the release of four hostages on medical grounds, none of the remaining hostages have been located. The families of the hostages have transitioned from experiencing great anxiety to feeling a deep sense of dread. As Israeli forces enter Gaza, there is a concern that the hostages may become caught in the crossfire and used as human shields during the violent campaign.
Meirav is one of the people calling for immediate and significant measures from the Israeli government to conduct negotiations and secure the release of the hostages by exchanging them for Hamas prisoners currently detained in Israel.
The families have become a major issue for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The proposed exchange is one that Israel is unlikely to agree to, as it could be seen as giving in to Hamas. Abu Obeida, a senior leader of the group’s armed branch, Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, stated over the weekend: “Due to the large number of enemy prisoners we hold, the condition is to release all prisoners.” The number of Palestinians currently imprisoned in Israel has exceeded 10,000 due to recent arrests in the West Bank.
But the families are determined to do everything they can to get back the missing loved ones. Their plight is plain for fellow Israelis to see. They are impassioned, articulate and using the media, national and international, to get their voices heard.
Meirav was part of a group from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum that met with Mr. Netanyahu on Saturday. She later stated, “We had a two-hour discussion with the prime minister. It was difficult, but the families were able to express their thoughts clearly. We made it clear that the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces must take into consideration the well-being of the kidnapped individuals.”
The government of Israel is responsible for this issue. We insist that they refrain from making any decisions that could harm our loved ones, and that they prioritize their safety in all actions taken.
The crowd erupted in joy as she announced, “We have made it known that we expect a deal for the prompt repatriation of our loved ones through the ‘everyone for everyone’ approach to be taken into consideration. We are confident that this will receive widespread support from the nation.”
Nineteen-year-old soldier Ron Scherman was captured along with his army base near the Gaza border by Hamas fighters. He immediately contacted his parents to inform them of the situation and said, “They are coming in, I love you, it’s all over. I hear Arab language outside the shelter. I can hear shooting.” His parents were devastated, fearing the worst for their son. However, their worries were eased when they saw him in a Hamas propaganda video, showing their son alive and well. His relieved mother, Maayan Scherman, stated, “It was four or five hours later when we saw him clearly in the video. He appeared to be in good condition and we have faith that he is still alive.”
During James Cleverley’s visit to Israel after the Hamas attack, Maayan, who was among the families of those who were abducted, spoke to him and requested, “We respectfully ask that governments like yours do everything in their power to ensure his safe return to us.”
Later, alongside Eli Cohen, the Israeli counterpart, the foreign secretary of Britain stated: “It is important to acknowledge that when a close friend faces a tragic situation, friends from all over the world show their support. We are also aware of your efforts to bring back those who have been kidnapped.”
It’s been two and a half weeks since then. Ron’s uncle, Zeev Scherman, firmly believes that the risk for the hostages is increasing every day.
“He believes the focus should be on negotiating the release of our citizens in exchange for Palestinian prisoners being held here. However, the government has initiated this offensive instead. Why? Despite being informed that Hamas is in a vulnerable position, why the haste in launching this attack?”
Following the meeting with the delegation, Mr. Netanyahu stated that all possible options were thoroughly discussed with those involved in resolving the hostage situation. However, he expressed that delving into specific details would not be conducive to achieving a resolution. He also wanted to reassure the families that addressing this issue is a top priority and integral to the goals of the war.
Some relatives acknowledge the immense stress that the government was facing. They experienced fear at the start of the offensive, but were comforted after talking to Mr. Netanyahu.
Illay David, brother of Evyater David who was kidnapped at the festival, says: “At first it was terrifying because no one told us about any of that [the offensive]. That’s why it was urgent for us to get an audience with the prime minister. After the meeting I got calmer; there’s a feeling they will do everything they can to bring the hostages back home.”
He is unsure if launching an attack on Gaza puts the safety of the hostages at risk. He expresses conflicting emotions, stating, “I hear people arguing that avoiding Gaza endangers the hostages, and that a ground operation would bring us closer to success and a resolution. However, with so many differing opinions and no agreement, I am uncertain about what to believe except that I have faith in the army’s decisions. We strongly believe that the politicians comprehend that freeing the hostages is crucial for achieving victory.”
Iltay supports a trade agreement, but with a condition. “My only concern is that I am skeptical of Hamas. If they say something, I wouldn’t automatically believe it. We would need to hear it from other trusted mediators,” he explains.
The Minister of Defense for Israel, Yoav Gallant, will be meeting with the families and has emphasized that freeing the abductees is a top priority. He believes that increasing pressure on Hamas will increase the likelihood of the hostages being released, even if it means a prolonged conflict. It is important to acknowledge that our enemies are not seeking peaceful resolutions.
Despite ongoing protests outside the Ministry of Defence, not everyone is persuaded. Pictures of the missing individuals have been displayed on walls, and numerous attendees are calling for assistance from Arab nations in resolving the situation.
The Qatari government, known for its significant support of Hamas and financial contributions to Gaza, reportedly acted as mediators for the release of four hostages: Judith and Natalie Raanan, Nurit Cooper, and Yocheved Lifshitz.
Officials from the Gulf State are currently in talks to secure the release of 50 individuals who are being held. Israeli authorities have expressed caution about the outcome of these negotiations. Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the IDF, stated in a press briefing: “I advise against taking heed of the speculations, as this is a tactic of psychological warfare by Hamas. Do not succumb to their manipulations.”
However, a few families have taken matters into their own hands and have begun private efforts in the realm of diplomacy. Avichai Brodutch, whose wife and three children are currently detained in Gaza, reports having conversations with Meshal bin Hamad al Thani, the Qatari ambassador to the US.
Avichai was among the first to start the vigil outside the ministry. “A neighbour at our kibbutz saw my wife and children being kidnapped. I have to get them back,” he says. “So I came to the ministry, a place where decisions are being made, with my dog and a chair and sat down. Others started coming. My focus is on my family being returned, I can only thank whoever can help make this happen.”