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Israel works to free hostages, without knowing if they are alive or dead

TEL AVIV — As Israel and Hamas attempt to iron out the thorny details of a proposed U.S.-backed ceasefire, Israeli officials are calling for the release of the remaining hostages held in Gaza. But they don’t actually know how many of them are alive.

Hamas has so far not provided Israeli negotiators with a list of the remaining hostages, raising fears that the group has lost track of them during the war – or worse, is unwilling to reveal how many hostages were killed.

Israel says 133 hostages remain in captivity, ranging from toddlers to elderly people, and that 36 of those hostages are confirmed dead.

But the fate of around 100 hostages – including Israelis and foreign nationals, peace activists and soldiers, mothers and grandfathers – remains unclear, six months after the start of the war. The uncertainty not only complicates negotiations, but also plunges hostages’ families into anguish.

The pain of each passing day “is almost exponential,” said Jon Polin, father of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, a dual Israeli-American citizen who was kidnapped at an outdoor music festival on October 7 .

In gruesome footage released by his captors, Goldberg-Polin is shown packed into the back of a truck, his arm blown off by a grenade. Maybe he was treated, Polin and his wife, Rachel Goldberg, hoped. “We remain optimistic because we have no choice,” he said.

That day, Hamas and its allied militants killed around 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 253 others, bringing them back to Gaza and sparking a devastating war. Since then, 124 hostages have been freed or released, including during a four-day break in November, but none of those who returned home reported seeing Goldberg-Polin in captivity.

In Gaza, in their search for hostages, Israeli forces attacked hospitals, dug graves and searched tunnels used by Hamas to evade capture and hide from Israeli bombs. They claim to have found boxes of medicine intended for captives, DNA evidence inside a tunnel and security camera footage showing hostage Shiri Bibas and one of her two young sons after arriving in Khan Younis on October 7.

In February, Israeli commandos freed two hostages in Rafah, southern Gaza, in a rescue operation that killed at least 67 Palestinians. Earlier this week, Israeli troops recovered the body of Elad Katzir, 47, a farmer who the army said had been buried by his captors south of Khan Younis.

But, for the families of the hostages, we know more than we know. Refael Franco, former deputy director of Israel’s National Cyber ​​Directorate who led the search for the hostages at the start of the war, said that as Israeli intelligence dries up, they are having difficulty estimating where they are find the hostages. It is for this reason, he said, that Israel fears miscalculating the number of deaths.

None of the hostages have been seen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Israeli authorities are going into hiding, claiming that dozens are dead and dozens are alive, but not much else.

Still, Israeli officials signaled this week that a release deal could be in sight.

“We are ready to pay a price to return the hostages,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday, calling their return “the greatest commitment of the army.” Also Monday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said negotiations had reached a “critical point.”

This optimism came as talks were underway in Cairo on Sunday and Monday, mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United States. President Biden increased pressure on both sides last week to reach an agreement.

The broader goal is to reach a deal that will end the fighting, free hostages and some Palestinian prisoners, while increasing aid to Gaza, which is on the brink of famine. At least 33,482 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza since the start of the conflict, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

But while Israel wants the hostages released, it also seeks to overthrow Hamas and views an unrestricted military presence in Gaza as a way to prevent militants from regrouping. For its part, Hamas wants Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, allow displaced residents to return to northern Gaza, including its own members, and then withdraw from the enclave completely.

On Tuesday, Hamas said it was studying the latest proposal, but called the terms “nothing new.” The group has not publicly said how many hostages are alive and has not responded to requests for comment.

Biden, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said the United States was “still negotiating” a deal.

For Sharone Lifschitz, whose 83-year-old father Oded remains in Gaza, the lack of information about the hostages is particularly shocking, given the amount of footage emanating from the initial attack. On October 7, Hamas and other fighters livestreamed the atrocities and flooded their social media with images of the carnage. In some cases, the gunmen hijacked victims’ social media accounts and sent images of dead or kidnapped victims to their loved ones.

“We’re on this roller coaster of emotions that I didn’t know existed,” Lifschitz said.

Her mother, Yocheved, was one of the first hostages released by Hamas at the end of October. Yocheved and Oded, both peace activists, were taken to Kibbutz Nir Oz, less than three kilometers from the border with Gaza.

Shiri Bibas, 32, her husband, Yarden, 33, and their two young sons, Ariel, 4, and Kfir, then 9 months, were also kidnapped in Nir Oz. Bibas was filmed on October 7, terrified and holding her children as armed men forced them into captivity. Activists also recorded Yarden’s kidnapping and later released a video in which he was forced to say that his wife and sons had been killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Israel did not confirm their deaths but told the family it was “very concerned” about his well-being.

“The grief and anxiety are already unbearable,” said Ifat Zeiller, a cousin of Shiri Bibas. After six months, she said, our “message to the world changed from ‘listen to us’ to… ‘don’t forget us.’

Ofri Bibas-Levy is the sister of Yarden Bibas. At a Sunday rally in Jerusalem, she lamented that Kfir, the youngest hostage, would not be with the family for the upcoming Passover holiday.

“What can I tell my children, all our children, about what has changed since October 7? she says. “There is neither security nor trust: 133 hostages are still in hell.”

News Source : www.washingtonpost.com
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jack colman

With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class.After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim.Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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