What about the rest? Israelis torn between relief and anguish for hostages left behind

Families wrestle with hope that Hamas will release their loved ones while knowing others will remain captive

Israeli families are torn between hope their loved ones are among 50 hostages to be released soon by Hamas and the knowledge that some relatives will remain captive. EPA
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The four-day truce in Gaza and agreement to release 50 Israeli hostages has given a glimmer of hope to relatives of those held captive, but that hope is tinged with heartache and worry.

Families are torn between relief that some women and children will come home and fears that more than 180 will remain in Gaza, six weeks after 240 people were abducted by Hamas militants.

The morning after news of the hostage deal was announced, questions abound about the fate of those who don't appear on the list for release.

Any hostage that can be released, we need to have them home
Lee Siegel, an American Israeli citizen whose brother and sister-in-law are among 240 hostages

In Tel Aviv, a group of high school students were wandering around a square outside the Museum of Art that has become a shrine to the people abducted by Hamas.

One ninth grader asked, “What about the others?", as the group looked at pictures of the hostages and places set for the missing on a long table.

“There are still 180 people that we don’t know anything about,” the student said.

Keep up hope

This sentiment is echoed by families whose close relatives were kidnapped by Hamas militants.

Grandparents Keith and Aviva Siegel, aged 64 and 62, were taken in their own car by gunmen on October 7.

A mother and two children who lived in a house nearby were also abducted in the same vehicle.

The Siegels lived in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz about three kilometres from the Gaza border that was among the hardest hit in the Hamas assault.

A nephew, shot at a music festival attacked by the militant group, is also among the hostages.

Keith Siegel's brother Lee told The National: “The situation may be that my sister-in-law is released first and my brother remains a hostage or children are released and parents are not released.

“Who and when will they be released is exceptionally difficult to understand," Lee said, from his home in Gezer, a kibbutz north of Gaza.

“But any hostage that can be released, we need to have them home.

“We have to keep our hope that it’s all part of a bigger deal in the negotiations and that everyone will be released even though it may take time.”

Call for permanent ceasefire

The Siegel brothers are American-Israeli citizens from North Carolina who made Israel their home more than 40 years ago.

Keith, a dairy farmer, and his wife Aviva, a kindergarten teacher, have four children and five grandchildren who also live in Israel.

The couple sent messages on WhatsApp when the strikes began at 6.30am on October 7 but their family lost contact hours later.

“Keith and Aviva said they were in the safe room and hoped everything would be all right,” Lee Siegel said.

“When communication stopped, we wanted to assume their phones had just lost charge.

“There was a Hamas video clip, a week later, where you can see my brother, his wife, the mother and two children being driven to Gaza.”

Lee Siegel is among those in Israel who want an end to military strikes in Gaza.

More than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed in the 46-day war declared after more than 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities near the Gaza border.

“I personally want a permanent ceasefire,” Mr Siegel said.

“I don’t think further military activity serves the goals that I would like to see in the country I live in and the countries around me.

“I actually also hold on to a belief that non-violence and peace are the only solutions and we, everyone, needs to continue to work towards that.

“There need to be enough people who can open their minds and hearts that human beings are human beings and we need to find a way to at least respect each other if not live together.”

Hostage release a priority

Back in Tel Aviv, others echoed the growing opinion in Israel that hostage release must take precedence over the government’s goal of destroying Hamas.

Joseph Bitton, who lives in Portugal, has returned to Israel to show solidarity, and said the priority must be bringing all hostages home.

“Bringing them home of course, because finishing Hamas will not happen overnight, it will take time,” he said.

In the plaza outside the museum, other school groups were making trips to remember the hostages.

“They have to see everything,” teacher Moshe Sidi said of the children. “When you see the TV, emotionally, it does something to you, but when you come here, the emotion gets pictures, gets images and it becomes a part of us.”

Mr Sidi said the hostage deal was a good start but the government must eventually find a way to bring everyone home, “including the [hostages] who have died in Gaza.”

The deal, secured with help from the US, Qatar and Egypt, promises a four-day pause in fighting with 50 Israeli women and children hostages released in return for 150 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Updated: November 22, 2023, 2:49 PM