Neutra, along with other relatives of the missing Americans, are holding meetings in Washington this week, including with senior members of the Biden administration and Congress, as they urge the release of additional hostages and a continuation of the pause in fighting set to expire Thursday.
Since the cease-fire began last week, two Israeli Americans have been freed by Hamas. Liat Beinin, 49, was among those released Wednesday, her father said. A 4-year-old girl, Abigail Edan, was returned Sunday. Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens remain in Hamas captivity.
The issue of whether to broaden the focus of negotiations is a topic of contention, with the Israeli government insisting that Hamas return all remaining women and children in its possession before any agreements are made on exchanges that include men and military personnel.
“It is very important for us to stress … that all remaining women and children in Gaza will be released before we move on to any follow-on agreement,” an Israeli official said Tuesday.
The negotiations are being hammered out in the gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar in closed-door meetings involving CIA Director William J. Burns; Israel’s Mossad spy chief, David Barnea; the director of Egypt’s intelligence service, Abbas Kamel; and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.
Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political leaders in its capital, Doha, has mediated talks between Israel, Hamas and the West since the start of the conflict.
Burns, like the American hostage families, supports broadening the scope of negotiations and carried that message into the negotiations in Qatar this week.
Israeli officials said they are aware of Hamas’s proposals to release men and soldiers but said they are suspicious of whether Hamas is simply buying time before Israel’s resumption of military operations.
“The words Hamas and ‘good faith’ should not appear in the same sentence,” the Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Liz Hirsh Naftali, Edan’s great-aunt, was asked during Wednesday’s news conference about the child’s condition. Edan, she said, “was doing okay” but warned that “we will not know for years what the effect is on any of these children or adults that have been 50, 52, now 54 days somewhere in the dark.”
“It’s such a hard question … because we don’t know,” she said. “We know physically she is back.”
Neutra said pushing for the immediate release of children is critical. “Without a doubt, we feel that kids, mentally fragile, should be at the forefront of the hostage release,” he said. But as the negotiations continue, U.S. and Israeli officials should try to bring all categories of people home as soon as possible, the group of families said.
“We don’t have time,” Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, a 19-year-old member of an Israeli tank unit, said as he slammed an hourglass on a table.
After their relatives went missing, the families said they had been approached by a team of FBI and State Department officials led by special envoy for hostage negotiations Roger Carstens.
“They are very supportive, and we can’t thank them enough,” Neutra said.
But as the negotiations have resulted in the release of hostages across different nationalities, the families have wondered if Hamas is withholding Americans because of Washington’s military support for Israel.
Chen said he planned to ask White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan if that was the case in a meeting scheduled for Thursday.
“It’s all speculation: We don’t have true knowledge,” said Orna Neutra, the mother of Omer.
On Wednesday, 30 Palestinians were due to be released in exchange for 10 Israeli hostages.
Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman, Majed Al-Ansari, said officials there remain “hopeful that the progress made in recent days can be sustained, and a further extension to the humanitarian pause agreement can be reached.”