Families of hostages held by Hamas mark somber 6-month milestone

The families of four hostages still held by Hamas in Gaza marked a somber milestone Sunday, exactly six months from the day the Palestinian militant group invaded southern Israel to kidnap some 240 people.

The families, along with a former hostage, Aviva Siegel, spoke to The Hill on Sunday ahead of a major rally in Washington, D.C., where they called for all parties involved in the negotiations of the war between Israel and Hamas to immediately reach a deal that frees their loved ones in Gaza.

Yarden Gonen, the sister of 23-year-old hostage Romi Gonen, said she was grateful for the work that negotiators are doing to free the hostages but added “they can do more.”

“We are encouraging them and [pushing] them to do more. We know that they can do more,” she said. “Everyone is saying that they’re doing the best they can … but they’re still not here. So it means we haven’t done enough.”

Orna Neutra, the mother of 22-year-old hostage Omer Neutra, said the rally was important to put pressure on the U.S. government and other parties to reach a deal.

“The need to put together a deal that’s agreed upon by all sides is urgent more than ever,” she said.

Aviva Siegel, a former hostage, was freed in the November truce, but her husband, Keith Siegel, 64, still remains in Gaza. Aviva said she remains concerned after hearing news about some of the hostages dying.

“We are so scared that it could happen” to our loved ones, she said.

While a temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in late November saw the release of dozens of hostages, there are still 134 held in Gaza, with about 100 believed to be left alive in the coastal strip.

Family and supporters of hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 march in Washington on Apr. 7, 2024.
(Leigh Vogel)

Along with freeing the hostages, Israel has a stated goal of destroying Hamas in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack — when the Palestinian fighters killed about 1,200 people — to ensure that day can never be repeated again.

But the two goals of freeing hostages and defeating Hamas appear to be more and more in conflict with one another, a complication underscored in the elusive ongoing negotiations between the U.S., Qatar, Israel and Hamas on securing a hostage release deal and a cease-fire.

Hamas is calling for a permanent cease-fire, and Israel is rejecting that condition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel must carry on the war to defeat Hamas, and current negotiators appear to be far from reaching any deal.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett admitted Sunday that “there’s no easy way to do it,” referring to the two goals of a hostage release and destroying Hamas. But he stressed that Israel must destroy Hamas.

“By and large, the goal is to defeat Hamas,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “We can’t finish this war when Hamas is standing.”

But Yarden Gonen described the hostages as being in an urgent situation in which it was critical to get them out as soon as possible.

“We don’t need some complex deal that will make a lot of statements and rules and everything,” she said. “If Hamas will release the hostages, we’ll get a cease-fire.”

She added that the “first step to fight against terrorism is to release all the hostages.”

Ronen Neutra, the father of Omer, said he wasn’t sure the hostages were the top priority for the negotiating governments, particularly for Israel, which he said should make the hostages the “first priority.”

The families have been restless in pushing for the release of their loved ones, traveling the world and meeting with officials to put pressure on world leaders and raise awareness.

“It’s insane that we need to do all these things and all those meetings for something that is so clear,” said Elan Siegel, whose father is the kidnapped Keith Siegel.

Family and supporters of hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7, 2023 march in Washington on Apr. 7, 2024.
(Leigh Vogel)

Each passing day has been unbearable for the families, who say they worry constantly for their loved ones.

For Michael Levy, the brother of 33-year-old hostage Or Levy, the six-month somber milestone doesn’t mean much.

“Every day is the worst day of our lives since Oct. 7,” he said. “My life stopped there.”

Yarden Gonen said “every day is a nightmare” as she fears for how her sister is being treated, pointing to a New York Times article that detailed a released hostage who reported that she was sexually abused in captivity.

“It’s like my nightmares came to life. And if no one screamed after the article in The New York Times, enough to get them out of there, it’s an even worse nightmare than it already is,” she said, adding that every day, “I’m waking up to the knowing that my sister is already kidnapped.”

At the Sunday rally, up to 2,000 people turned out to support the families of the hostages in calling for an immediate deal that secures a cease-fire and a hostage release.

Speaking at the rally was Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who pushed for the immediate release of hostages as “part of a comprehensive deal.”

“Hostage-taking is a war crime. Hostage-taking is a crime against humanity,” he said. “We say that Hamas let the hostages go now.

“We say to all the governments of the world that the freedom, the security and the peace of the hostages and all civilians is the paramount ethical imperative and consideration at this moment,” he continued. “It takes precedence over all other political and ideological agendas.”

After six months, the war in Gaza has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe in the strip, where more than 33,000 Palestinians have died and there is a major shortage of supplies for critical aid such as food, water and medicine.

The spiraling situation has led to growing international pressure for an immediate cease-fire to end the suffering in Gaza.

President Biden is facing calls from Arab Americans, young voters and progressives to call for an immediate cease-fire. Those groups are protesting him at the ballot box in primary contests and threatening to do the same in November.

In Israel, Netanyahu’s government also faced massive demonstrations at the end of March as the families of hostages called for the release of their loved ones amid growing frustration with the inability to secure another deal.

Family members of hostages taken from Israel gather in Washington, DC.
Family members of hostages taken from Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, gather in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 2024. (Brad Dress)

The families of the hostages say any cease-fire must involve humanitarian protections for all sides, which also means the release of their loved ones.

“Human rights is supposed to be for all, it’s not something that you take and apply only to one side,” Yarden Gonen said. “We support the humanitarian aid [for Gaza], but only if it will affect both sides. Every call for a ‘cease-fire now’ should be conditioned with immediate release of all hostages.”

Elan Siegel added that the hostages are a “humanitarian story,” since many of them were civilians.

“People were kidnapped from their houses,” she said, referring to Oct. 7. “They were innocent. They were taken in one day with no reason.”

Aviva Siegel, the former hostage, said those held in Gaza have lost their human rights while in captivity.

“Hamas has taken their human rights,” she said. “The leaders of the world need to wake up now and understand that … no mother should [see] their children killed.”

“I was there,” she added, “and I think it’s the worst thing that could ever happen to anybody.”

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