For Israel's hostage families, despondency sets in as world attention shifts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a special parliamentary session in December that bringing all the hostages home was a "sacred mission" for Israel

Reuters
Published : 7 Jan 2024, 05:24 PM
Updated : 7 Jan 2024, 05:24 PM

As Israel's vigil for its hostages in Gaza moves into a fourth month, a sense that time is passing while world attention shifts elsewhere has deepened the anguish felt by their families as hopes have faded for a deal to secure their release.

The weekly demonstrations attract crowds in the thousands but developments like the presumed assassination in Lebanon last week of Saleh Al-Arouri, the deputy leader of Hamas, and political rows about the future of Gaza after the war have left families feeling increasingly left behind.

"There's an aspect of, kind of, hopelessness," said Rebecca Brindza, a former senior executive at a Tel Aviv start-up, who left her paid employment to help the hostage families organise in one of the multitude of self-help groups that emerged from the trauma of events on Oct. 7.

"A lot of us feel like the world kind of stopped on October 7th," she said. "And I think right now, what we're seeing is that the world in many ways is moving on."

Of around 240 people taken captive on Oct 7, almost half were released by Hamas during a brief truce in November. Stories like those of nine year-old Emily Hand, 17 year-old Mia Leimberg, who survived two months' captivity with her dog, or 85 year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, who described berating Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza when she met him in a tunnel, drew media attention around the world.

For the families of those still in Gaza, there is only uncertainty. "Every minute there is critical. Every minute that they wait or linger with the hostage release can cost them their lives," said Sharon Alony-Cunio, 34, from Kibbutz Nir Oz, whose husband David remained in Gaza when she and their twin three-year-old girls were released during the truce.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a special parliamentary session in December that bringing all the hostages home was a "sacred mission" for Israel and he has met hostage families on several occasions.

At the same time, he insists that the best way to force Hamas to free the hostages is military pressure. "We will not give Hamas any immunity whatsoever," he said on Saturday.

As Israel settles in for a war that officials say could last for most of the coming year, the signs suggest the government's priority is defeating Hamas and killing or capturing senior leaders like Sinwar or military commander Mohammed Deif.

"It's an impossible equation," said Aviv Bushinski, a political analyst who worked with Netanyahu as a consultant in a previous government. "Defeating Hamas and bringing the hostages home became something everybody said but we all know that this equation cannot coincide because naturally some or most of them are human shields for Sinwar."

'FAMILIES TORN APART'

As Israel's invasion of Gaza continues, and the death toll among Palestinians climbs to near 23,000, according to Palestinian health officials, world attention has increasingly shifted to the victims of the bombardment and away from the hostages and the 1,200 Israelis and foreigners killed by Hamas on the first day of the war.

The mood appears far from the outpouring of emotion seen in November when much of Israel gathered in front of televisions to watch the first of the hostages return home, brought to safety in Red Cross landcruisers.

For some from the leftish kibbutzim communities around Gaza, where many had hoped to build bridges with the Palestinians, there is also the sense that they had underestimated the threat from Hamas, Brindza said. "Hamas does not want Israel to exist," she said. "They don't want any of these people here."

But while most of Israel supports the military operation, many hostage families appear ambivalent, not necessarily opposed to the war on Hamas, which has made clear it would repeat the Oct. 7 attack if possible, but aware of the danger the longer fighting continues.

It is unclear exactly how many of the 136 thought to remain in Gaza are still alive but at least 23 have been declared dead by Israeli authorities. The death of three escaped hostages, mistakenly shot by Israeli troops last month as they tried to identify themselves, provided a bitter lesson in the risks they face.

"I understand the importance of returning the security to the area, especially as someone who lives in a community by the fence, but not at the expense of our citizens," said Sharon Alony-Cunio. "The citizens must come before all else."

For those who have returned, they must live with the memory of the ordeal, for the most part unable to return to their homes near Gaza while the invasion of the enclave, launched in October continues and the hostages left behind face an uncertain wait.

"The families being reunited is wonderful and it is moving, but it's not just a saying that our hearts are still (with the hostages) in Gaza - so many families have been torn apart," Alony-Cunio said.