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Gaza hostage families are still living 7th October

While Netanyahu’s government defends itself at the International Court of Justice, Israelis with family members held by Hamas are in agonising limbo
May 17, 2024

When she found out Hamas had released her mother from captivity, Sharone Lifschitz was on her way to the airport. It was a few weeks after the 7th October assault on southern Israel. Hamas had kidnapped Lifschitz’s elderly parents from their home in Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the small Gaza border communities attacked that day. The 52-year-old grew up in the small community. Of around 400 residents, at least 46 were killed in Hamas’s onslaught and 71 were kidnapped. More might still die in captivity—including Lifschitz’s father. 

Lifschitz has lived in London for much of her adult life. On 21st October, two weeks after Hamas’s attack, the group announced that they wanted to release her mother, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifschitz alongside Nurit Cooper, a 79-year-old Israeli grandmother—but claimed that Israel had refused. On 23rd October, when Lifschitz was heading to Israel, on a train on the way to her flight, she saw footage on her phone of her mother set free. Both elderly women were ill, Lifschitz tells me when we meet in a café in London this week. Yocheved was vomiting and had diarrhoea. Before the attack, the 85-year-old was already unwell. It’s still not clear why Hamas released her. Maybe it was to prove it had hostages alive, or a show of some humanity, or maybe to just get rid of two difficult-to-look-after captives. Either way, says Lifschitz, “there wasn't a deal.”

I first spoke to Lifschitz on 9th October last year, two days after Hamas struck. Her parents were missing, but she had yet to hear anything official. Over the phone, she told me she was scouring social media, looking for Red Cross lists of the missing, for any information. When we speak again it is 220 days since Hamas’s attack, but for Lifschitz, as for the families of some 130 hostages that remain in Gaza, it is the “220th day of 7th October”, she tells me. 

The artist and academic has shoulder length brown hair and black-rimmed glasses and is dressed in dark and light denim. Her jewellery is the only hint at what she has endured. On one chain is an IDF dog tag, which many Israelis wear in solidarity with the hostages. On other is a delicate pendant like the yellow ribbon which is worn with the same symbolism. You feel “contaminated”, she says, of her ordeal. “In so many ways you are just there. You feel them in your body, there [in Gaza]. It’s hard when the topic [of conversation] moves on to something else, so you spend time with other [hostage] families.” She has recently returned from a long visit to Israel. “It’s hard to be here,” she tells me.

Lifschitz’s mother is in Tel Aviv now, but her father Oded, 83, is still in Gaza. The family know it is unlikely he will have survived—“220 days—that’s many months for a very old and sick man.” The first thing Yocheved said to Lifschitz after her release was: “dad is dead”. But they haven’t lost hope because there’s no other option. “We are fighting for him like he is alive.”

The war is in its seventh month and the hostages that remain in Gaza include the Bibas family (two children under five and their parents), who also come from Nir Oz, as well as migrant workers. More than 30 of the remaining hostages are believed to have died (including the Bibas children and their mother, according to Hamas). In the early days after 7th October, Israel’s government outlined the two aims of its war on Gaza: to release the hostages and defeat Hamas. It has become clear that these two aims are mutually exclusive. Recently, weeks of negotiations with Hamas, mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the US, have not yielded a deal, despite much pressure on both sides. The last time a deal was agreed was in November.

On Sunday 12th May, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told Sky News that an agreement to release the hostages was the right way to end the war. He blamed Hamas for turning down a good offer, for the impasse: “The real pressure should be on Hamas to agree that hostage deal. The fighting could stop tomorrow.” This week, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed the banner on its X account from the slogan “Bring Them Home” to “Let them go now”—a rebrand that removes the implied expectation on the Israeli government to make a deal, and puts the onus on Hamas to free the captives. Lifschitz is sure Israel’s government also has motivations “that aren’t related to the good of the hostages.” Partly she blames the religious fundamentalism of the more extreme members of the Israeli cabinet, which “moves us from the sanctity of life,” she says, “there are people willing for girls [still held in Gaza] to keep being raped.”

Yocheved’s house was razed to the ground on 7th October. Everything she has is new. She is angry, but says Lifschitz, her mother’s “opinion hasn’t changed. She sees human beings in front her.” Lifschitz’s parents, like many other residents of those Gaza border communities, are long-time peace activists. When it was still possible, her father would visit his Palestinian friends in Gaza for lunch. “I refuse to hate and stay cool-headed and work for something that makes sense,” she says, “what’s happening doesn’t make sense.”

Like many other members of Kibbutz Nir Oz, Lifschitz’s mother is living in Tel Aviv, which is the epicentre of the hostage families’ activities to pressure the government to do something—anything—to see their loved ones again. Throughout our conversation, I lost count of how many people Lifschitz lost that day, the number of people she knew, she grew up with, who were murdered or kidnapped. “It’s hard to explain this level of trauma,” says Lifschitz, “but in a way it’s simple. Put the people you love most in the situation and you will know too.”

Before 7th October, Israel was riven by protests against the Netanyahu government over its plans to reform the judicial system (an anti-democratic move, according to critics). The momentum for elections paused after the attack and as the war began, but in recent weeks protests have ramped up again, ignited by the rage and grief of the hostage families who feel abandoned by the government. In difficult-to-watch footage from a recent rally, Reuma Kedem, whose daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren (five-year-old twins and a two-year-old) were killed by Hamas in their home at Kibbutz Nir Oz, calls out to “all the mothers and all the grandmothers….the blood of my children cries from the earth. I am calling you, we will set the country alight.” 

The war in Gaza is in its seventh month, and the world watches on. An Israeli invasion of Rafah in the south looms. Amid US pressure for Israel to refrain, on 15th May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video reiterating there is “no alternative to military victory”. At the International Court of Justice, South Africa, which brought a case accusing Israel of genocide in its war on Gaza, this week alleged that the Rafah operation is an escalation in a genocidal campaign—something Israel has denied. The death toll in Gaza is now past 35,000, according to Gaza health ministry figures. As many as 85 per cent of the population of Gaza (1.9m people, according to the UN) have been displaced. In Israel 135,000 people are still displaced from the south, but also from the north, amid cross-border violence between the Israeli army and Hezbollah. Some 278 soldiers have died in the war, adding to the around 1,200 Israelis killed that Saturday, 348 of whom were soldiers. Some 252 people were taken hostage.

Amid all this, the hostage families linger in limbo, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive, or whether they will ever get them back. Every once in a while, there is news about a potential hostage release deal—leading to yet another disappointment—or Hamas releases footage of a hostage (the most recent was of the British-Israeli Nadav Popplewell, 51). All the families can do is try to remind Israel’s government, and the wider world, of their plight, but it is dwarfed by the devastation in Gaza. On 16th May, one former hostage and others with family in Gaza met with representatives of UN Security Council members to push for their release. Next week, the Israeli embassy in London is holding a press conference with family members of those still held captive. A few months ago, in the windowless room of a London hotel, the niece of one of the hostages addressed a room of mostly British Jews. All she could ask for was that if anyone knew anyone who could help, they would try. The room was in tears, and there was little anyone could really do. 

Their plight only grows more desperate, and more urgent. On Friday, the Israeli army announced it had recovered the bodies of three hostages in Rafah. They had been killed on 7th October, but held by Hamas in Gaza since, the army said.

Lifschitz will head back to Israel soon. It’s hard to be far away from the other families. There are things that she finds difficult about British attitudes to the crisis, like how little people talk about Hamas, or how people don’t make a separation between Israelis and their government. 

“I think this is a desire to see the other as less human, as flatter,” she says, “it’s hard to deal with it otherwise. A lot of people are dehumanising—Israelis to Palestinians, here [in the UK] to Israelis—everyone wants something that makes it easier to deal with this horrible situation.” 

International pressure and attention continue, alongside public spats between Joe Biden and Netanyahu (and between Netanyahu and his cabinet members) over what will happen in Gaza after this war. For Sharone Lifschitz, true victory over Hamas, and over Israel’s religious fanatics, will be a two-state solution. But the two sides have to find stable ground to deal with their shared history. Maybe one day, like in other bitter conflicts, Israelis and Palestinians will get their truth and reconciliation process, she says—“if we do things right.”