The helicopter landed at a hospital east of Tel Aviv on Friday night, blowing twirls of dust into the faces of the medical staff who stood in wait. On it, the first hostages freed by Hamas, as part of the long sought-after hostage deal and truce lasting four days. As they went inside to see their families for the first time in seven weeks, a landmark was reached in this conflict.
More hostages were released on Saturday, and 17 more on Sunday – with the potential for more beyond that, should a ceasefire be extended, although delays over the exchanges in the weekend will have put everyone on edge. As the families of those freed rejoice, the loved ones of those remaining in Gaza continue to wait, counting the minutes as they pass.
On the seventh floor of a high-rise in central Tel Aviv, the family of 36-year-old hostage Yarden Roman-Gat have gathered for Shabbat dinner, watching events unfold.
The past seven weeks have seen their apartment transform into a command centre. Laptops line a long dining table in the kitchen. TV crews unfold tripods and run wires through the living room. Friends bring round steaming trays of home-cooked food. From the break of dawn until late at night, interviews are set up, phone calls are made, and plans are drawn.
The tentative first stages of the hostage deal have given the team here – made up of family, friends and neighbours – a lifeline. “Words can’t describe how I’m feeling,” says Yarden’s husband Alon, gesturing to the sky above central Tel Aviv. “I’m floating up above.”
Alon, who has spent these weeks as a single father, was the last person to see Yarden.
After being abducted from Kibbutz Be’eri with their three-year-old daughter Geffen, Yarden and Alon were forced into a car and driven towards Gaza. As the car slowed at a junction, they saw an opportunity. They leapt from the vehicle, Geffen clasped tight around her mother’s neck, and made a dash for woodland up ahead. As bullets peppered the ground around them, Yarden took a split-second decision to pass Geffen to Alon, in the hope that he could run faster to evade the gunmen. Alon and Geffen escaped. Yarden was taken hostage.
The weeks since have been “excruciating”. Like the other hostage families across Israel, their lives have changed overnight. Their days are filled with interviews, meetings, planning and PR. One team handles diplomacy. One handles communications. One handles events. They’ve travelled overseas, to Washington, New York, Munich and Berlin, meeting with politicians, religious groups and celebrities.
“It’s excitement. It’s anxiety. It’s hopefulness. It’s helplessness,” says Yarden’s brother, Gili Roman. “There’s nothing I can do right now to influence the deal and whether my sister will be in it or not. I don’t even know where she’s held. And I don’t know what the government’s priorities are.”
Gili has been a lynchpin for his family over the past seven weeks. In the days after the attack, he travelled to Kibbutz Be’eri, painstakingly combing the woodland with the help of the army, searching for any trace of her. Alon joined them, showing the exact spot where she was last seen. They tracked her footprints, and reached the conclusion that she had been recaptured.
At the Hostage Families Forum, an office block in central Tel Aviv that has been commandeered for the cause, the families of those not expected to be released continue to campaign for ongoing negotiations.
“I don’t believe anyone. I don’t believe my government, and I don’t believe the other side [Hamas],” says Aviram Meir, uncle of 21-year-old Almog Meir Jan, taken hostage from the Supernova Festival. “I believe less in the other side. I believe they want psychological war,” he says, tapping his hands on a table in the foyer of the building.
When the news broke of the deal, Aviram was in the UK speaking at an event held by the Jewish community. He’s spent time in London and Manchester in recent weeks, becoming the driving force behind his family’s efforts to rescue Almog.
For most of the families, he tells me, it is the uncles, cousins and aunts who have been the most active campaigners – the relatives once removed from the agony of the situation.
“For my sister, Almog’s mother, the talks of the deal are like a stab to her stomach. She’s in a very sensitive mental situation. It’s all just driving her crazy,” he says, gazing into the middle distance.
Now, Aviram and a group of other families whose relatives are unlikely to be released have banded together to put on an event for the young adult hostages, to be held during Hanukkah on 7 December. “We want to do an event for the young hostages. Until now it was the kids and the old. And now we want to do something for the youngsters.”
For some families their nightmare is close to being over. For others, the structure of the deal has led to fears that their loved ones may be used as a bargaining chip for weeks.
“I can tell you that about 20 per cent of the families are functioning, 80 per cent are less functioning,” says Aviram.
For ex-Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin, who helped secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011 via years of back-channel bargaining with Hamas, the hostage deal is a positive step. “I think that there’s a good chance if the deal goes well, if it’s smooth and there are no breakdowns in the ceasefire, that it could go for a fifth day, a sixth day, a seventh day, an eighth day, to get most of the women and maybe all the women and all the children out. I’m not sure about the elderly and the other civilians. That might require another negotiation.
“In the end,” he adds, “Hamas is going to be left with the soldiers [they have taken] and they’re going to try and negotiate for all the prisoners in Israel. That’s probably a non-starter and I don’t think that Israel would ever do that.”
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