Israeli women and children on their return from captivity in Gaza have spoken of being beaten and threatened, moved from place to place and forced to whisper during weeks spent with little to do, their families say.
Most captives released during a six-day-old truce have been rushed to hospitals in a country still reeling from the shock of their abduction during a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed.
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Since the latest round of releases began on Friday, with Israel releasing some jailed Palestinians in exchange, the freed captives have been kept away from the media.
Their stories have come out through the filter of family members, without independent verification, offering a hint of their ordeal. Most of the 240 captives that Israel says were seized on October 7 are still in captivity.
Deborah Cohen told France’s BFM TV she had been told her 12-year-old nephew Eitan Yahalomi and others were beaten by Palestinian residents on arrival in Gaza during the Hamas attack. She said his captors made him watch footage of the Hamas violence.
“Every time a child cried there, they threatened them with a weapon to make them be quiet. Once they got to Gaza, all the civilians, everyone was hitting them … We’re talking about a child, 12 years old,” she said.
Hamas, the Palestinian armed group which governs Gaza, says it has treated the captives in accordance with Islamic teachings to preserve their lives and wellbeing.
It says some captives were killed by Israeli air raids during a military offensive that was launched in response to the October 7 attacks. More than 15,000 people have been killed in the Israeli air and ground assault, including more than 6,000 children, according to Palestinian officials in Gaza.
Speaking in whispers
Some details are slowly surfacing from medical professionals treating them and relatives of the freed captives.
Ronit Zaidenstein, head of the medical team at Shamir Medical Center where 17 released Thai nationals were treated, said they had been fed “very unnutritious food” in captivity.
“The people who came to us lost a significant amount of their body weight in such a short time – 10 percent or more.”
In an interview that has since been taken offline, Margarita Mashavi, a doctor at Wolfson Medical Centre – one of the main facilities caring for freed captives – said those she spoke to described being kept several stories underground.
“They didn’t give them light. They gave it to them for only two hours,” she was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site on Monday.
The families of two girls who were held together found it hard to hear their children on their return home because they spoke only in whispers.
“I had to put my ear close to her mouth to hear. In captivity, she was told not to make any noise. You can see the terror in her eyes,” Thomas Hand, the father of nine-year-old Emily Hand, told CNN.
Yair Rotem said his niece Hila Rotem Shoshani, 13, was held with Emily Hand, and was also now speaking in whispers. She spoke of hugging her mother Raaya, still in Gaza, who cried when the girls were taken from her before their return to Israel.
Merav Mor Raviv said captors of her cousin Keren Munder, Keren’s nine-year-old son Ohad and mother Ruth, spoke Hebrew and at times, would motion with a finger across their throats as if to warn of death if they did not do as told.
She told Israel’s Channel 12 they were moved from place to place, both underground and above ground. They lost weight as food was scarce at times, and ate mostly rice and bread.
Thoughts of reuniting
Adva Adar said her grandmother Yaffa Adar, 85, had shown toughness by constantly contemplating reuniting with family.
“She said that she was thinking about the family a lot and that it helped her survive and that she could hear the voices of the great-grandchildren calling her and that it gave her a lot of power,” the granddaughter told Reuters.
One Israeli mother, Daniel Aloni, wrote to thank Hamas’s armed Qassam Brigades before her release with daughter Emilia. Their story went viral in Arabic media.
Daniel wrote to thank them for giving Emilia sweets and fruit and treating her daughter like a queen.
“I will forever be thankful that she doesn’t leave here with trauma,” she wrote. “If only in this world we could truly be good friends.”
It was not clear whether Daniel was forced to write the letter in captivity. Attempts by news organisations to reach her or family for comment were unsuccessful.