US must deliver 'hard messages' to Netanyahu, hostage relatives tell Washington

Abigail Mor Edan's aunt says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prolonging Gaza war for political gain

Liz Hirsh Naftali, great aunt of Abigail Mor Edan, joined by other relatives of people held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a bipartisan press conference by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. AFP.
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Relatives of hostages held by Hamas visited Washington on Wednesday to call on the US to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu's government to stop the war in Gaza.

They accused the Israeli Prime Minister of playing politics and failing to bring their loved ones home.

The Senate foreign relations committee hosted a bipartisan press briefing to mark more than 100 days since the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel that killed about 1,200 people. About 240 people were taken hostage.

Liz Hirsh Naftali, the aunt of returned hostage Abigail Mor Edan, 4, who survived after Hamas killed her parents, said the Israeli government is not doing enough for the hostages, 132 of whom remain in Gaza.

“This hold-up is with the Netanyahu government,” Ms Naftali said.

“The lack of action to bring home these loved ones clearly demonstrates to us that he wants to keep this war going to remain an office.

"Let me be clear, the loved ones all these family members, they will not come home alive if there is a prolonged war."

The far-right Mr Netanyahu has in phone calls with President Joe Biden “made clear that Israel will pursue the war until all of its objectives are fully met”, his office said in December.

With bipartisan support, Mr Biden's administration has circumvented Congress and fast-tracked extra military sales to Israel for its operation in Gaza, which has so far killed more than 24,000 people.

The US is Israel's largest donor country, providing billions in funding that largely goes towards its military and defence systems.

Israel says 25 hostages have died in captivity. Dozens of the original 240 hostages were released during a short-lived November truce.

It has been a roller-coaster week in the hostage negotiations.

Hamas on Monday released photos of what appeared to be the dead bodies of two Israeli hostages.

Then came a small breakthrough after the militants struck a deal with Israel to deliver medicine to hostages in exchange for more aid deliveries for civilians in Gaza.

“The announcement now that medicines will be brought in to some hostages after 103 days is not enough,” said Jon Polin, father of Hersh Goldberg Polin, 23, who was taken hostage by Hamas at the Supernova music festival.

“While world leaders have worked toward a deal to secure the hostage release, international aid organisations must be permitted to offer medical care to the hostages."

Mr Polin said the last image he has of his son was from October 7 footage that showed he'd “his left arm, his dominant arm, blown off".

Ms Naftali urged the Biden administration, which has increased its financial and military support to Israel since it launched its siege on Gaza, to take a tougher stance with the right-wing administration in Israel.

“President Biden has been very clear that he and the US government are friends of Israel and the Israeli people," she said.

"But sometimes friends have to deliver hard messages … We need to make sure that Israel is put under the pressure to make a deal to stop this war and bring home these hostages."

The Senate committee chairman Ben Cardin said Washington's focus is on “using every effective avenue” to get the hostages home.

Mr Cardin avoided questions on whether he agreed that the US should take a harder line with the Israeli government.

“We're going to continue to use every method we have and that at times will mean we'll be offering some strong suggestions to our own government, to Israelis and to third-party countries, their country leaders,” he told The National at the briefing.

Another family member, who identified himself as the father of an Israeli-American hostage, stepped forward to show group consensus.

“We all recognise the fact that [Mr Netanyahu] is responsible because it was on his watch what happened on October 7, and he has the authority of bringing this to the finish line for us, the families,” he said.

Updated: January 17, 2024, 9:46 PM