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

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post.
Family members of hostages held by Hamas and their supporters gather at the site of the Nova music festival in southern Israel in February to demand the release of their loved ones.

TEL AVIV – As Israel and Hamas try to hammer out the thorny details of a U.S.-backed cease-fire proposal, Israeli officials are seeking the release of the remaining hostages held in Gaza. But they don’t actually know how many of them are alive.

So far, Hamas has failed to provide Israeli negotiators with a list of the remaining hostages, raising fears that the group has lost track of them amid the war – or worse, that it might not want to reveal how many have been killed.

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

But the fates of about 100 hostages – including Israelis and foreign nationals, peace activists and soldiers, mothers and grandfathers – are still unclear, six months after the start of the war. The uncertainty is not only complicating negotiations but also leaving the hostages’ families in anguish.

The pain of each passing day “is almost exponential,” said Jon Polin, the father of 23-year-old Hersh Goldberg-Polin, a dual Israeli-American citizen who was abducted from an outdoor music festival on Oct. 7.

In gruesome footage posted 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.

On that day, Hamas and allied militants killed about 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 253 others, dragging them back to Gaza and kicking off a devastating war. Since then, 112 hostages have been either freed or released, including during a four-day pause in November, but none of those who returned home said they saw Goldberg-Polin in captivity; bodies of an additional 12 have been brought back to Israel.

In Gaza, in their search for hostages, Israeli forces have raided hospitals, dug up gravesites and scoured tunnels used by Hamas to evade capture and hide from Israeli bombs. They say they found boxes of medicine meant for the captives, DNA evidence inside a tunnel, and security camera footage showing hostage Shiri Bibas and one of her two young sons after she arrived in Khan Younis on Oct. 7.

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

But, for the families of the hostages, more is unknown than known. Refael Franco, former deputy head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, who ran hostage tracking in the early days of the war, said that as Israel’s intelligence dries up, it is having trouble estimating where the hostages are. Because of this, he said, Israel is worried about miscalculating how many are dead.

None of the hostages have been seen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Israeli authorities are starting to hedge, saying that dozens are dead and dozens are alive, but not much else.

Still, Israeli officials signaled this week that a release deal might be in the offing.

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

The optimism came as talks were underway in Cairo on Sunday and Monday, mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United States. President Biden ramped up the pressure on both sides last week to secure a deal.

The goal more broadly is to reach an accord that will halt the fighting and free the 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 conflict began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

But while Israel wants the hostages released, it is also seeking to topple Hamas and sees an open-ended troop presence in Gaza as the way to keep the militants from regrouping. For its part, Hamas wants Israel to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, allow displaced residents to return to northern Gaza, including its own members, and then withdraw completely from the enclave.

On Tuesday, Hamas said it was studying the latest proposal but called the terms “nothing new.” The group has not said publicly how many hostages are alive and did not respond to a request 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 jarring, given the sheer amount of footage emanating from the original attack. On Oct. 7, Hamas and other fighters live-streamed the atrocities and flooded their social media channels with footage of the carnage. In some cases, the gunmen hijacked the victims’ social media accounts and sent images of the dead or abducted victims to their relatives.

“We’re in this roller coaster of emotion that I never knew existed,” Lifschitz said.

Her mother, Yocheved, was one of the first hostages released by Hamas in late October. Yocheved and Oded, both peace activists, were taken from kibbutz Nir Oz, less than two miles from the Gaza border.

Also abducted from Nir Oz were Shiri Bibas, 32, her husband, Yarden, 33, and their two young sons, Ariel, 4, and Kfir, then 9 months old. Shiri Bibas was filmed on Oct. 7, terrified and clutching her children as gunmen forced them into captivity. The militants also recorded Yarden’s abduction and later released a video in which he was forced to say that his wife and sons were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

Israeli officials have not confirmed their deaths but have told the family that they are “very concerned” about their well-being.

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

Ofri Bibas-Levy is Yarden Bibas’s sister. At a rally in Jerusalem on Sunday, 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 of our children, about what has changed since October 7?” she said. “There is no security, no trust – 133 hostages are still in hell.”