On the Ground

Their loved ones were taken hostage into Gaza. Now they will do whatever it takes to get them back

Kim Sengupta speaks families who have faced three weeks of anguish, now beset by fears over what Israel’s ground operation could mean for those held captive by Hamas. Using their voice to pile pressure on the government to negotiate, they are becoming a highly-sensitive issue for Benjamin Netanyahu

Monday 30 October 2023 00:38 GMT
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<p>Family and friends of the hostages protest in Tel Aviv</p>

Family and friends of the hostages protest in Tel Aviv

At 6.30am on Saturday 7 October Meirav Leshem-Gonen got a frantic telephone call from her 23-year-old-daughter Romi who was at the Supernova music festival near the Gaza border.

“She said ‘we don’t know what to do mummy, there are a lot of shooting here. We are very frightened, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. Please come and get us, please tell the army and the police to come and help,” Meirav recounts the words.

Romi and her best friend Gaia had long been looking forward to the gig in the Negev desert marking the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. No one could have imagined that the event celebrating “unity and love” would turn into a bloodbath with Hamas fighters crossing the border to massacre 1,400 people and take another 239 back to Gaza as hostages.

Romi and Gaia tried desperately to escape: but they were caught and became captives. The last words from Romi on the phone was “mummy, I’m not going to make it, I’m going to die”. Meirav, trying to hide the turmoil she felt, assured her daughter: “No you’re not going to die, we’ll find a way of getting you out, you’re coming home.”

But Romi is not home, and apart from four hostages who were freed on health grounds, neither are any of the others. The great anxiety their families felt has turned to deep foreboding. Israeli forces are now inside Gaza, embarking on a bloody campaign with the possibility that the hostages will be caught in crossfire as human shields.

Meirav is among those demanding drastic and urgent action from the Israeli government to carry out negotiations and bring the hostages home, exchanging them with Hamas prisoners being held in Israel.

These families are now a highly problematic issue for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The swap being asked for is one Israel is highly unlikely to accept – not least because it would seem like caving in to Hamas. Abu Obeida, a senior official with the group’s armed wing, Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, declared at the weekend: “With the high number of enemy prisoners we have, the price is to liberate all the prisoners.” The total number of Palestinians in Israeli jails now tops 10,000 after waves of arrests in the West Bank.

Meirav Leshem Gonen, the mother of Romi Gonen

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 in a delegation of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum which met Mr Netanyahu on Saturday. Afterwards she said: “We talked for two hours with the prime minister. It was very painful, but very clear things were said by the families. We made the unequivocal demand that the operations of the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] must be weighed with the fate of the kidnapped.

“The responsibility for this is on the government of Israel. We demand that no move be made that endangers the fate of our family members, and that every piece of action takes their well-being into account.”

There were cheers from family members and friends as she added: “We made it clear that as far as we are concerned, a deal for the immediate return of our family members within the framework of ‘everyone for everyone’ should be considered. We know we’ll have wide national support for this.”

Ron Scherman, a 19 year old soldier, was also taken hostage. He texted his parents when Hamas fighters overran his army base near the Gaza border. “They are coming in, I love you, it’s all over. I hear Arab language outside the shelter. I can hear shooting.” They were distraught, thinking their son had been killed. Then they saw him appear in a Hamas “victory video”. His mother Maayan Scherman said “it was four or five hours later; we could see him very clearly, he was very much alive and he looked alright and we are sure he is alive now”.

Maayan was among families of the abducted who met James Cleverley when he visited Israel following the Hamas attack. Maayan said to him: “We ask politely that other governments like yours do whatever you can to bring him back to us safe and alive”.

Relatives gather in front of images of those missing in Tel Aviv

Afterwards, standing beside his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, the British foreign secretary said: “Of course we recognise that when a good friend experiences a terrible situation like this, friends around the world demonstrate support. And, we also know that you regain the people that have been kidnapped.”

Two and half weeks have gone since then. Ron’s uncle Zeev Scherman strongly believes that “the danger for the hostages grow day by day”.

“They should be talking about exchanging our people for the Palestinians in prison here,” he says. But they have started this offensive instead. Why? The government has been telling us that Hamas are trapped, why rush into this attack so quickly?”

After the meeting with the delegation, Mr Netanyahu said all available options have been discussed with those involved in resolving the hostage crisis. But, he added, “to get into the details of these things is not helpful to bringing them about”. He wanted to assure the families “we are dealing with this not as something secondary, but as an integral part of the war’s aims”.

A few family members say they understand the immense pressure the government was under. They feel fear when the offensive began, but felt reassured after speaking 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.”

A relative of a hostage reacts during a rally calling for hostages to be released in the Tel Aviv

He is uncertain whether the attack into Gaza jeopardies the safety of those abducted. “I have mixed feelings,” he says. “I hear people saying that staying out of Gaza is endangering them, and that ground operation would actually get us closer to victory and a deal. But there are so many opinions and lack of consensus that I really don’t know what to think apart from that I trust the army’s actions. We are strong believers that the politicians understand that there’s no victory without bringing the hostages home.”

Illay backs an exchange deal but with a caveat. “My only problem is that I don’t believe Hamas, if Hamas says something, I just wouldn’t believe it: we would need to hear it from other mediators whom we trust,” he says.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who is also due to meet the families, has repeated the mantra that freeing the abducted “is not a secondary mission”. He maintained that “the harder Israel hits Hamas, the greater the chances Hamas will agree to release hostages, it’ll be a long war… Let’s not delude ourselves, our enemies are not looking for humanitarian solutions”.

Not everyone is convinced. Protests continue daily outside the Ministry of Defence, with photographs of the missing put up on walls. Many of those present want the help of Arab states in finding a solution.

The Qatari government, which has influence over Hamas and provides a large part of the funding for Gaza, is said to have been the interlocutors for the release of the four hostages so far – Judith and Natalie Raanan, Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz.

The Gulf State is reported to be negotiating the freeing of 50 others being held. Israeli officials have not encouraged optimism over this. Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesperson, said at a press conference: “I suggest not to pay attention to the rumours, this is psychological terror by Hamas. Do not give in to its manipulations.”

But some of the families have started their own private initiatives on the diplomatic front. Avichai Brodutch, whose wife and three children are being held in Gaza, says he has spoken to the Qatari ambassador to the US, Meshal bin Hamad al Thani.

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.”

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