As Israel bombards Gaza with missiles, the families of those held captive by Hamas grapple with the knowledge that it could come at the cost of their loved ones’ lives.
The group that rules Gaza has warned it will kill one of the 130 captives every time Israel’s military bombs civilian targets in Gaza without warning.
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Hamas fighters took the captives mostly from a music festival in the Nir Oz kibbutz in the Israeli Negev desert on Saturday after blowing through Israel’s heavily fortified separation fence and crossing into the country from Gaza.
The captives include Israeli soldiers and civilians along with foreigners. Hamas has said it seeks the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails – about 4,500 detainees, according to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem – in exchange for the captives.
According to the ZAKA rescue service, 260 people were also killed on the Supernova electronic music festival grounds.
Soon after the news broke, Ahal Besorai learned from witnesses that the fighters had seized his sister, her husband and their teenage son and daughter, along with dozens of others.
“Should I cry because they are dead already? Should I be happy because maybe they are captured but still alive?” Ahal Besorai, a life coach and resort owner who lives in the Philippines and grew up in the Be’eri kibbutz, told the Associated Press news agency. “I pray to God every day that she will be found alive with her family and we can all be reunited.”
Ahuwa Maizel told the DPA news agency that he is looking for his daughter.
“I don’t know if my daughter is lying somewhere bleeding, I don’t know if they took her to Gaza, I don’t know if she is suffering,” he said, adding that the last time he spoke to his daughter Adi was on Saturday morning.
“There is a massacre here, they are causing a massacre, hundreds of terrorists are shooting,” Adi told Maizel during their brief conversation.
“If someone is holding her captive, please, please, stay human. We all have the same DNA, we are all just human,” Maizel said.
Eli Elbag said he woke on Saturday to text messages from his daughter, Liri, 18, who had just begun her military training as an army lookout at the Gaza border.
The fighters were shooting at her, she wrote. Minutes later, the messages stopped. By nightfall, a video circulated by Hamas showed her crowded into an Israeli military truck overtaken by fighters. The face of a captive next to Liri was marred and bloodied.
“We are watching television constantly looking for a sign of her,” Elbag said. “We think about her all the time. All the time wondering if they’re taking care of her, if they’re feeding her, how she’s feeling and what she’s feeling.”
On Tuesday, US relatives of missing people held an emotional news conference in Tel Aviv, appealing to the Israeli and US governments to bring their loved ones back.
“I want to bring forward the responsibility that the Israeli government has to bring back all the hostages,” one man said, choking up. “I want also to speak about the responsibility that the US administration … has for the lives of every US citizen that is out there; they are responsible to bring the US citizens back home safe and sound. We expect nothing less.”
For Israel, locating captives in Gaza may prove difficult. Although the strip is tiny, subject to constant aerial surveillance and surrounded by Israeli ground and naval forces, the territory just over an hour from Tel Aviv remains somewhat opaque to Israeli intelligence agencies.
Fighters posted videos of the captives, and families were left in agony wondering about their fate.
Yosi Shnaider has wrestled with worry since his family members were kidnapped from Nir Oz. He saw a video of his cousin and her two young boys held captive.
“It’s like an unbelievable bad movie, like a nightmare,” Shnaider said on Monday. “I just need information on if they are alive,” he added.
Also missing is his aunt who requires medicine to treat her diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Since the family found out they were taken captive, the woman’s sister has been so mortified that she is “like a zombie, alive and dead at the same time”, said Shnaider, a real estate agent in the Israeli city of Holon.
Warning to Hamas
Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the country is committed to bringing the captives home and issued a warning to Hamas.
“We demand Hamas not to harm any of the captives,” he said. “This war crime will not be forgiven.”
Uncertainty also weighs heavily on families who still do not know whether their relatives have been killed, taken into Hamas captivity, or have escaped and are on the run.
Tomer Neumann, whose cousin was attending a music festival near the Gaza border and has since vanished, hopes it is the last of the three options.
The cousin, Rotem Neumann, who is 25 and a Portuguese citizen, called her parents from the festival when she heard rocket fire, he said.
She piled into a car with friends, witnesses said, but fled when they encountered trucks filled with fighters. Later, her phone was found near a concrete shelter.
“All we have is bits and pieces of information,” said Neumann, who lives in Bat Yam, a city just south of Tel Aviv.
“What now is on my mind is not war and is not bombing,” he said. “All we want is to know where Rotem is and to know what happened to her and we want peace.”
The families of Thai labourers who are among the captives spoke to the AFP news agency on Tuesday of their fears for their safety.
Kanyarat Suriyasri, whose husband Owat Suriyasri is among those taken, recounted her horror at learning the news.
“When I heard that he was among the 11 captives taken by Hamas my heart dropped,” she said. “I am waiting to hear some good news.”
Owat, 40, from Sisaket province in eastern Thailand, is a “very friendly, caring and happy man”, she said.