'I have friends in Palestine': Israeli hostage's plea to her Hamas captors lays bare yearning for peace

Video shows a bloodied Naama Levy pleading with her captors.

“I have friends in Palestine,” she tells the Hamas fighters who are holding her.

And Levy did, her mother said — a result of a U.S. program promoting dialogue between young Palestinians and Israelis she had been part of before beginning the mandatory military service that led to her being taken hostage on the morning of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

It was the friendships she forged during her time in the Hands of Peace program — which has since shut down — that Levy was likely referring to, her mother told NBC News, when she appeared on video showing female soldiers being captured by Hamas militants. The footage released Wednesday showed the fighters calling the women, some of whom were bloodied, “dogs” and threatening to shoot them.

The video sparked outrage in Israel, with officials holding it up as proof of Hamas’ brutality, while hostage families said it should be a reminder to focus on securing a deal to see their loved ones released and bring an end to fighting in Gaza. Levy’s words are also seen by some as a symbolic blow to Israel’s already beleaguered left, after decades of hard-line voices drowning out those who have been calling for peace and reconciliation with Palestinians.

“She always had a great passion for bridging between people and communities and for speaking up, hearing the other side,” Ayelet Levy Shachar said of her daughter in a phone interview Thursday.

Ayelet Levy-Shachar, mother of Naama Levy, at a demonstration demanding the hostages' immediate release in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 2023. (Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters via Redux)
Ayelet Levy-Shachar, mother of Naama Levy, at a demonstration demanding the hostages' immediate release in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 2023. (Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters via Redux)

The video showing her capture was released by the Hostage and Missing Families Forum, which said the footage was caught on body cameras worn by Hamas militants and obtained by the Israeli military. The group said the video was “edited and censored to exclude the most disturbing scenes.” It was not immediately clear who edited it and what had been excluded.

The group identified the other women in the video as Liri Albag, Karina Ariev, Agam Berger and Daniela Gilboa. All are still believed to be in the hands of Hamas.

Levy Shachar said she and other hostage families had hoped the video would push the Israeli government to focus on negotiating a cease-fire deal to see their loved ones released and bring to an end the war in Gaza, where more than 35,000 people have been killed since Israel launched its offensive after Oct. 7.

“We felt that things were not moving ... to the right direction or to the direction of negotiations,” she said.

After weeks in training, Levy had been serving for just days when she was taken hostage. Levy Shachar said her daughter had no interest in being a “combat soldier” and had hoped to pursue a career in diplomacy.

As part of that pursuit, Levy Shachar said, her daughter had joined a Hands of Peace summer program in San Diego, California, in 2022. The program brought Israeli, Palestinian and American teens together in a bid to promote dialogue and empower them to become “agents of change” in the bitter and long-lasting conflict.

“They sat together and spoke to each other, which is, you know, revolutionary, and was very hard. But still they could do it,” she said.

Hands of Peace founder Gretchen Grad told NBC News in a phone interview Thursday that she never met Levy personally but that colleagues remembered her as a “bright, engaged and outgoing” young woman during her time participating in the summer program.

In describing its mission on its website, Hands of Peace said it believed “the existing conditions among Israelis and Palestinians are unacceptable and there must be an urgent, non-violent end to occupation that leads to safety and security for all.”

Grad said the organization “recognized that occupation exists,” but said it did not have an “educational agenda.” She said it sought to provide a platform for young Palestinians and Israelis to “speak their truths” and to equip them to “become change makers.”

Naama Levy appears in an image from the body camera of a Hamas fighter on Oct. 7, 2023, as she and others were taken hostage.  (via Families Forum )
Naama Levy appears in an image from the body camera of a Hamas fighter on Oct. 7, 2023, as she and others were taken hostage. (via Families Forum )

Hands of Peace was one of many organizations that took root as part of a broader global movement to see a resolution to the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict that might offer peace, security and stability to both sides.

Israel’s once-robust peace movement once informed much of the vision of the country’s kibbutzim, which were central to the establishment of the Jewish state. Kibbutz communities were the hardest hit in Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault.

The peace movement propelled the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which sought to develop a pathway toward implementing a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But with the breakdown of the Oslo process and the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the movement dwindled. The war in Gaza poses an unprecedented challenge to the range of peace organizations that continue to operate in Israel, with many advocating for a two-state solution and for the rights of Palestinians.

Levy Shachar said she had never spoken at length with her daughter about her beliefs on the conflict, but she said she believed Levy would want to see a “two-state” solution — a sentiment she shared.

Her comments came as three U.S. and Israeli allies announced this week they would recognize a Palestinian state, joining more than two-thirds of the United Nations’ membership.

But Israeli officials said the footage showing female soldiers’ capture only supported its argument against Palestinian statehood.

“Recognizing a Palestinian state is rewarding the monsters who did this,” said a post on Israel’s official account on X, which is run by its foreign ministry.

A Gallup poll taken in the weeks after the Oct. 7 attack showed that 65% of Israelis opposed a two-state solution, a reversal from a decade ago when 61% of respondents supported the idea.

Noting Levy’s comments in the video, former Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said they “didn’t help. Hamas didn’t care about its victims’ political beliefs.”

Grad noted that Hands of Peace shut down in March after two decades running, which she said was due to a lack of funds and volunteers, which she largely attributed to a hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Asked whether the events over the past eight months had contributed to the decision to cease operations, she said they did not.

But, despite the organization’s closure, she said she believed initiatives like Hands of Peace are more important than ever.

Hands of Peace, she said, gave young Palestinians and Israelis a space for dialogue that she said is rarely an option “in their home communities.”

“I believe that the work needs to go on,” she said.

Levy Shachar said she believed her daughter would want the same.

“She thought that, and she still thinks, maybe, I hope, that the world can be a better place,” she said. “And that we can make changes for the better.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com