In the disorienting aftermath of Hamas’s 7 October assault on Israel, Ruby and Hagit Chen desperately sought news of their son, 19-year-old Itay Chen, a dual American-Israeli citizen who had been on active duty for the Israeli military.
Then came an early morning knock on the door of their home in Netanya, a city north of Tel Aviv.
“Your heart stops,” Ruby Chen told journalists in Washington on Wednesday. “You want many things to happen. The only thing you do not want to happen is to open that door.”
When he finally opened the door, Chen said the officer standing before him assured the family that he came with a “good message”: his son was believed to be among the estimated 240 hostages Israel says Hamas took captive on 7 October.
“Just to put things into context,” Chen said, “the good message, the happy message, is that your son is … being held by a terrorist organization in Gaza.”
Since then, Chen said his family has received no more information about their son, not even proof of life.
“We know nothing,” he said. “It’s been a living hell.”
Chen, who wore a shirt with his son’s smiling face, was joined by the parents of American hostages Edan Alexander, 19, and Omer Neutra, 22,both of whom continue to be held in Gaza, as does Itay. Also present were relatives of four-year-old Abigail Edan, the first American released as part of a ceasefire deal in the Israel-Hamas war.
The families spoke with journalists as part of a frenetic visit to Washington that included testimony before a congressional panel and meetings with Biden administration officials, among them the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
The families were reluctant to weigh in on the politics of the war, declining to give their opinions on whether they wanted to see the Gaza truce extended or what they hoped might happen in the region after the war ended.
They were grieving parents and family members, they said, not policymakers. Their singular mission, they said, was to ensure the safe return of every hostage taken by Hamas on 7 October and, until then, to ensure that the plight of the hostages remains a top priority for both the US and Israeli governments.
“You’re asking about the future,” Orna Neutra, Omer’s mother, told reporters. “We’re still living this. This issue of the hostages has to be resolved before anything else.”
Liz Hirsh Naftali, Abigail Edan’s great-aunt, told reporters that Abigail’s release was “proof that if we hope, we pray and we do all the work, these hostages come home”.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she added.
So far, under the temporary ceasefire deal brokered by Qatar, which international mediators were scrambling to extend beyond the early Thursday deadline, Hamas has released more than 70 Israeli women and children, including dual nationals. In exchange, Israel has freed 180 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, also mostly women and children.
“We’re so happy that kids and women are coming out,” said Ronen Neutra, the father of Omer. “But it’s also time for men to come out, the wounded and people with medical conditions.”
During their visit to Washington, the families said they sought to press US officials on whether there was a reason more American citizens had not been released.
“Where are the US citizens?” asked Ruby Chen, noting that citizens of Germany, Russia, Argentina and other countries had been freed. Other foreigners, mostly Thai farm workers, have been released under parallel deals.
White House spokesperson John Kirby said this week that there was no indication that Hamas was trying to keep American hostages as leverage. Of the eight American hostages now believed to be held by Hamas, Kirby said most are adult males and therefore do not qualify for release under the terms of the current deal, which prioritized the release of women and children.
Two US citizens, a mother and daughter, were released by Hamas in October, while Adrienne Siegel, the wife of an American hostage, was released alongside Abigail on Sunday. As part of the exchanges on Wednesday, Hamas had freed Liat Beinin, a 49-year-old Israeli-American, the White House said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the families had met with representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organization responsible for transporting hostages out of Gaza and for Palestinians released by Israel.
The families said they expressed their “disappointment” that the ICRC had not been permitted to visit the hostages and assess their condition.
They all expressed gratitude to the Biden administration and the president directly for working to secure the release of the American hostages, but felt that time was of the essence.
“Every moment, there is a danger to them,” said Noa Naftali, a cousin of Abigail. “We need them back as soon as possible.”
Hamas militants rampaged through Abigail’s kibbutz, Kfar Aza, on 7 October, and murdered her parents. Relatives said they initially believed Abigail had been killed too, but that she had crawled from under her father’s crumpled body, run to a neighbor’s house and taken shelter with the Brodutch family as the fighting raged.
Hagar Brodutch, her three children and Abigail were then abducted and taken to Gaza as part of the Hamas attack. Abigail, who was released on Sunday, marked her fourth birthday in captivity.
“We are now on the other side. Abigail is home – not in her home but she is home in Israel,” Liz Hirsh Naftali, her great-aunt, told reporters. “Her home is destroyed. They can’t return to where they lived. She has no parents to go home to.”
After being released, Abigail was reunited with her older siblings, who survived the attack by hiding in a closet, and her cousins.
“That brought her life back. That brought the shine back,” Naftali said. “But keep in mind, we will not know for years what the effect is on any of these children or adults.”
Naftali recognized that Abigail’s plight had captivated the hearts and minds of many Americans and said it was important to keep telling her story – and the story of her slain parents – as a testament to the horrors of 7 October.
“This can never happen again,” she said. “No child, four years old, should spend a minute, let alone 50 days, as a hostage after witnessing her parents murdered by Hamas terrorists.”