Mom and daughter visiting family, Israeli-US soldier and festivalgoer: The Americans held hostage by Hamas

President Joe Biden has insisted the US is ‘working round the clock’ to bring the missing Americans home as families desperately wait for answers. Rachel Sharp reports

Monday 16 October 2023 15:23 BST
Families hold aloft images of missing American loved ones
Families hold aloft images of missing American loved ones (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press All rights reserved)

Families across the US and Israel continue to desperately wait for answers about their loved ones who are feared to be being held hostage by Hamas militants in the midst of escalating violence in the Middle East.

A Chicago mother and daughter who were visiting relatives in Israel, a 23-year-old festivalgoer born in California, and a New Yorker turned Israeli soldier are among the Americans still missing following the Hamas attacks on 7 October.

The Biden administration has confirmed that 27 Americans have been killed and 14 remain unaccounted for – though it is unclear how many of the 14 are being held hostage.

President Joe Biden has insisted that the US is doing everything it can “working round the clock” to bring the missing US citizens home and spoke with the families of the 14 on Friday.

“They’re going through agony not knowing what the status of their sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children, are,” he said of the call in a press conference.

“You know, it’s gut-wrenching. I assured them of my personal commitment to do everything possible to return every missing American to their families.

“We’re working around the clock to secure the release of Americans held by Hamas, in close cooperation with Israel and our partners around the region. We’re not going to stop until we bring them home.”

Despite the commitment to do everything possible, US officials admitted last week that there was currently no way to get Americans out of Gaza.

In total, the Israeli military said that a staggering 199 people are believed to be currently being held in Gaza – a marked increase on initial estimates.

While the Biden administration has not confirmed the identities of the Americans believed to be among the hostages several family members have spoken out as they desperately try to bring their loved ones home.

Here’s what we know about the Americans still missing - and those who were killed:

Missing Americans:

Chicago mother and daughter visiting relatives

Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter Natalie Raanan, from a Chicago suburb, had gone to Israel for what was supposed to be “really special mom and daughter time together,” according to their rabbi Meir Hecht.

A family member was celebrating their 85th birthday and it was the Jewish holiday Simchat Torah.

All in all, it was supposed to be a time of celebration.

Meir Hecht told the Associated Press that the pair had been sending updates back home about the fun they were having.

Then all communication stopped on 7 October – the day that Hamas militants launched the surprise attack.

Judith Raanan and Natalie Raanan (AP)

“We received this terrible news that Judith and her daughter Natalie are missing and apparently were most likely taken as hostages to Gaza,” Meir Hecht said.

“It feels like our community has been violated.”

Natalie’s aunt Sigal Zamir broke down in tears as the community gathered together to pray for their return.

“I pray for them to come back alive. They’re innocent and loving, and they didn’t do anything,” she said.

Judith’s sister Saray Cohen told CNN that her brother joined the call with the president, saying that “he reassured us that the United States will do everything in its power to get them back home and to get a sign of life from them”.

She added: “We are confident that we are in good hands.”

Long Island native who went to connect with Israeli roots

Omer Neutra was stationed at his small military base along the Gaza border when Hamas militants carried out the attack on 7 October.

His parents said they heard from him the night before and he told them the situation seemed calm.

That was the last time they heard from him and they now fear he is being held captive by Hamas militants.

It was his 22nd birthday on Sunday – the eighth day on from his disappearance.

Omer Neutra (Midway Jewish Center)

Omer grew up on Long Island and was an honors student at Schecter Yeshiva in Williston Park.

He decided to go on a gap year after graduating college to spend some time in Israel and connect with his roots.

While there, he carried out voluntary work with children with special needs before joining the Israeli military.

Now the Long Island community is rallying around his family, with the family’s synagogue Midway Jewish Center displaying a sign that reads “Bring Omer home”.

In a statement through the synagogue, his parents Ronen and Orna Neutra described him as a “great son, friend, and a passionate, giving person”.

Man, 23, missing after celebrating at festival rave

Hersh Golberg-Polin, 23, has not been seen or heard from since the morning of the Hamas attacks when he was partying with hundreds of other ravers at the Supernova festival in northern Negev.

During the celebrations, Hamas militants carried out a surprise attack, killing and kidnapping dozens of people from the site.

The Israeli rescue service Zaka later said that more than 260 bodies had since been found at the music festival site, with the death toll likely to climb higher.

Hersh’s father Jonathon Polin told The Jerusalem Post that his son was among those partying at the rave.

The 23-year-old’s birthday was just days earlier and he was also celebrating his release from Army service at the end of April, he said.

At around 8am local time on 7 October, the 23-year-old sent a couple of heartbreaking final messages to his parents.

“I love you,” one of the messages read. “I’m sorry,” read another.

No one has heard from him since, with the family now desperately trying to find out what happened to him.

In a heartbreaking press conference on Tuesday, Hersh’s mother Rachel Goldberg said that they had seen a picture of him taking cover in a bomb shelter with other festivalgoers.

She said witnesses had told the family that his arm had been “blown off” from the elbow down.

The Hamas terrorists then told the group “anyone who can walk, stand up and walk out” and so Hersh walked out “completely calm”, she said.

Hersh Golberg-Polin, 23, has not been seen or heard from since the festival (The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies/Facebook)

He was then reportedly put on a pickup truck and driven away by Hamas, with his cellphone signal last pinging on the Gaza border.

Hersh was born in Berkeley, California, and moved with his family to Jerusalem when he was seven.

He went on to join the Army, training as a medic and tank driver in the 7th Armored Brigade.

On completion of his Army service, Jonathon Polin said his son got a job as a waiter and was saving up for his lifelong dream of travelling to India.

“He is a smiley, fun-loving guy and people of all ages just gravitate towards him... he’s the guy that is just fun to be around and makes people have a good time,” his father said at the press conference.

New Yorker turned Israeli soldier missing in action

Itay Chen was born and raised in New York before his family later moved to Israel.

Around a year ago, Itay joined the Israel Defense Forces as a corporal.

He was based along the Gaza border when Hamas terrorists breached it on Saturday morning.

His father Ruby Chen said at a press conference on Tuesday that he last heard from him then when Itay said they were “under attack.”

“Since then silence,” he said.

Itay Chen (Itay Chen/ABC)

Now, the 19-year-old is feared to be among the hostages kidnapped and held by Hamas terrorists.

Israeli officials have designated him missing in action.

Mr Chen said that they believe his son could be being held as a prisoner of war as “no one has been able to physically locate him, identify him… he’s not in a hospital … not on a deceased list.”

“Please think of us not just as a headline, we are people, we are family,” he said.

“We want to go back to becoming family, hopefully as soon as possible.”

Father expecting third child

Sagui Dekel-Chen is a married father who was last seen on Saturday in his Kibbutz close to the Gaza border.

His father Jonathan Dekel-Chen said in a press conference last Tuesday that “hundreds of heavily armed, well-organised terrorists” entered their community of around 400 with an intention to “kill, maim and destroy civilian life.”

Mr Dekel-Chen, a Hebrew University academic who previously held positions at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University and Rutgers University, said he believes his son has been taken to Gaza by Hamas militants and is being held hostage there.

Sagui Dekel-Chen (Sagui Dekel-Chen/Fox)

“He is an arm’s length away from me in Gaza, but couldn’t be farther from me and my family right now,” he said.

“Sagui is the father of two beautiful daughters and his wife is pregnant right now.”

“Sagui is the kind of son everyone would want,” he said of his son.

Mr Dekel-Chen said only 160 of the 400 community members have survived.

“The rest died or are prisoners or are missing,” he said.

Americans killed:

Mother who sacrificed life for her son

US citizen Deborah Matias, 50, died sacrificing her own life to save that of her child.

Ilan Troen, professor of Israel studies at Brandeis University in Boston, said that his daughter Deborah, her husband Shlomi and their son Roten, 16, were in their home when Hamas militants stormed across the border, broke into homes and killed those inside.

Professor Troen said that Deborah threw her body on top of her son’s in order to protect him from the gunfire.

She and Shlomi were shot and killed while Roten was shot but survived.

Deborah Matias, her father Ilan Troen and her husband Shlomi Matias (left to right) (Sourced)

“They made sure to fall on him and thereby saved his life. Although a bullet actually entered his abdomen, but he was saved,” he told WBZ-TV.

Professor Troen said he rushed to hospital to be reunited with his grandson who is recovering from his injuries.

The devastated father told CNN that “Deborah was a child of light and life.”

“She, rather than becoming a scientist or a physician, she said to me one day, ‘Dad, I have to do music, because it’s in my soul,’” he said.

Washington graduate who dreamed of ‘peace’ found dead in home

Dr Hayim Katsman – a University of Washington graduate who hoped for peace in the Middle East – was found dead inside his apartment in Israel after Hamas terrorists tore through the community.

Hayim’s family last heard from him on the morning of 7 October when they received chilling messages from him saying that Hamas terrorists had entered Kibbutz Holit in southwest Israel where he lived.

The family never heard from the 32-year-old again.

Hayim’s friend Avital Alajem told CNN that they both hunkered down together inside a shelter’s closet to hide from the Hamas militants. But they broke in and fired through the door.

Ms Alajem survived but Hayim was shot and killed.

Hayim Katsman (Hannah Katsman Facebook)

“He was murdered,” she said. “I was saved because he was next to the door and they shot him.”

Hayim’s sibling Noy Katsman told CNN the family spent hours desperately trying to get in touch with him before learning of his murder.

Hayim was born in the US and studied at the University of Washington where he earned a PhD in international studies in 2021.

His parents were originally from Israel before locating to the US more than three decades ago and so Hayim had moved there to carry out research.

Noy Katsman said that Hayim had longed for peace and supported “a solution for this bleeding conflict” between Israel and Palestinians.

Midwife who brought thousands of babies into world

California-born Adrienne Neta has brought thousands of babies into the world as a midwife.

She was last heard screaming down the phone to her adult children as Hamas terrorists stormed into her home.

Her son Nahar Neta said at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday that he and his siblings had been on the phone to their mother on Saturday trying to keep her calm as the attacks unfolded and she hunkered in a shelter.

They were still on the call when they heard gunfire in the background.

“We were on the call with her when the terrorists barged into her home. We heard a little bit of screaming and that was our last contact with her,” he said.

Mr Neta said that they did not hear shooting on the call after the terrorists breached the building so they are hoping that she is being held hostage.

Adrienne Neta (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press All rights reserved)

“It’s our hope – it’s ridiculous to say – our optimistic scenario is that she is being held hostage in Gaza and is not dead in the street,” he said, breaking down in tears.

He said that their mother “devoted her life to helping people of all races and genders” in the hospital where she worked.

“My mother is an exceptional human being. She spent most of her life in the community and then as a midwife in a hospital,” said her daughter Dayana Neta.

“When she walked into the delivery room she saw a human being in front of her. Not a religion, not a race, not a hijab, not an orthodox Jew – it was always the human being she saw. We once calculated our mother brought thousands of lives into this world.

“When Hamas walked into my mother’s room... they did not see a human being.”

The family has since confirmed her death to CBS News.

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