An 85-year-old Israeli hostage released by Hamas has said she went “through hell” during her kidnap, describing how she was beaten with sticks during her abduction, driven off on a motorbike and forced to walk for a number of hours through a huge “spider’s web” of wet tunnels in Gaza.
However, Yocheved Lifshitz – the first to offer a picture of the ordeal faced by those taken hostage by Hamas – also spoke of the “care” she received from some of her captors once she was in the tunnels and saying was told she was not going to be hurt, something that may have led to an extraordinary gesture at the moment of her release after two weeks in captivity.
A pause and then turning to shake the hand of a masked Hamas militant. “Shalom,” she said, the Hebrew word for peace.
Appearing in a wheelchair, Ms Lifshitz, spoke about her kidnapping from a hospital in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, with the assistance of her daughter Sharone Lifschitz, who is British and lives in London.
“I’ve been through hell, we didn’t think or know we would get to this situation,” Yocheved told reporters. Speaking softly, she said that everything erupted with a barrage of rockets on a “quiet” Saturday morning.
“The strikes began and then things blew up at the border,” she added.
“We didn’t think it could have been possible but they managed to break through and enter the kibbutz. That was very unpleasant and very difficult. I can still see the images,” she said.
“They stormed into our homes,” Ms Lifshitz continued. “They beat people. They kidnapped others, the old and the young without distinction.”
Ms Lifshitz was put on a motorbike and driven into Gaza.
“When I was on the bike, my head was on one side and the rest of my body on the other side. The young men hit me on the way. They didn’t break my ribs but it was painful and I had difficulty breathing,” she said, adding that her watch and jewellery were stolen during the ride.
“While she was being taken she was hit by sticks until they reached the tunnels. There they walked for a few kilometres on the wet ground. There is a huge network of tunnels underneath – it looks like a spider web,” Sharone translated, her mother looking overwhelmed.
Ms Lifshitz is among just four hostages who have been freed since Hamas militants abducted at least 220 people, including children, the elderly and foreign citizens, during a rampage through towns and villages in southern Israel earlier this month that killed 1,400 people.
Footage purportedly taken on Go-Pro cameras and mobile phones by the militants, and home security cameras, show gunmen tossing grenades in bomb shelters, gunning down children, and taking hundreds into Gaza.
Sharone explained that her mother was taken from her home alongside her husband Oded Lifshitz, 83, who is still in captivity.
Ms Lifshitz, who was brought back to Israel on Monday night alongside another woman, Nurit Cooper, 79, said after the initial capture she was “well looked after”. She was held with around 25 other hostages, and after several hours, five people from her kibbutz, including herself, were taken into a separate room. There, they each had a guard and access to a paramedic and doctor.
“My mum said she was treated well and that the people were kind to her, we do not know what the story of the 175 or so other prisoners we cannot deduct that they too are in a good condition,” Sharone said.
“One of the hostages was badly injured from a motorbike accident, and they gave me antibiotics and other medicine,” Ms Lifshitz said.
“We are heartened to hear they were well looked after [in Gaza] but the family do not know if that is the case for the rest of the hostages,” Sharone continued. “[Her captors] told them they were Muslims and they are not going to hurt them and they ate the same food that the Hamas was eating”.
“We delighted to have her home safe … but our hearts are with the other 200 still there,” the daughter added.
Ms Lifshitz’s husband Oded, a peace activist and retired journalist, is among them. He would drive Palestinians who needed medical treatment from Gaza to hospitals in East Jerusalem, according to the family. He was separated from his wife, who is also a veteran human rights activist and retired photographer, during the initial moment of capture.
“My mum and my dad were separated at the very beginning and we do not know from my mum’s story what happened to my dad, we do not know that he was injured,” Sharone said.
“Our hope for our father and for all the hostages is that they will come home safely.”
In a separate interview, Sharone told the BBC that her mother is “very sharp” and is “very keen to share the information, pass on the information to families of other hostages she was with”. Such insight may be previous to Israel as it works to free other hostages.
Ms Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper were freed by Hamas in a deal The Independent understands was brokered by Qatar and Egypt. It was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, who escorted the elderly women to the border crossing with Egypt. This followed the release of two American-Israel citizens – Judith Raanan, 59, and Natalie Raanan, 17, a mother and daughter, on Friday.
Speaking about her mother’s gesture in taking the hand of the Hamas militant as she was released, Sharone told the BBC: “The way she walked off and then came back and then said thank you was quite incredible to me. It’s so her.” At the press conference, she added: “My mother is a human being who loves humanity,” she added.
In retaliation for the Hamas attack, the Israeli military has launched the heaviest-ever bombardment of Gaza, and imposed a total siege, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians, including 2,000 children.
The United Nations has repeatedly pleaded for a humanitarian ceasefire, as food, water, fuel and medical supplies in the besieged enclave run out. The families of hostages are also concerned the bombing and siege of Gaza will affect their loved ones.
Sharone said she will continue to campaign for the release of her father and the other captives.
“He speaks good Arabic, so he can communicate very well with the people there,” she said. “He knows many people in Gaza and the West Bank. I want to think that he's going to be OK.”
Of the release of her mother, she said: “We have so many people that we’ve lost – it is a little ray of light but there is a huge darkness as well.”
Sharone said that she and her mother still dream of peace with the Palestinians, even given the expected ground invasion of Gaza by Israel threatens to spark a wider war in the region.
“We have to find ways because there is no alternative. If anything, it makes me even more resolved,” she said. “The way has got longer – we are dealing with grief and loss on a level we can never get over, but as nations, we will have to find a way forward.”
There are reports of another possible Qatar-brokered deal to release a further 50 dual-national citizens that is under discussion.
Israeli officials have refused to comment on the hostage deals, telling The Independent they will not negotiate with Hamas.
“Anyone candidly and genuinely concerned with human life should demand the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. We can not comment further,” one Israeli government official said.
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