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Hostage families say Israel operation in Gaza could endanger loved ones

TEL AVIV — Ayelet Samerano, whose 21-year-old son Jonathan was abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7, watched on television Friday night as Israel’s ground and aerial attacks on Gaza ramped up.

The expanded military operation with ground troops caught her by surprise. Israeli officials had not warned the families of more than 200 hostages held by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, that the military was intensifying its siege, despite concerns that the captives could be imperiled by the government’s offensive.

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Samerano weighed two deep urges: one for her son’s release and the other for the decimation of the group that kidnapped him as he fled a music festival in southern Israel.

“I’m not afraid of what my government does in Gaza,” she said. “I’m afraid of what Hamas can do to Israel.”

Samerano told herself that her son would be safe during the Israeli offensive — that Hamas, she believed, was keeping the hostages underground to protect them. “For Hamas,” she said, “the hostages are power.”

But not all of the families of the hostages — who span Israel’s political spectrum — were as certain that their relatives would be protected in an Israeli ground invasion or a widening bombing campaign. Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Friday that the confirmed number of hostages was 229.

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“Maybe they kept them alive until now,” said Imbal Zach, 38, the cousin of Tal Shoham, who was taken hostage with his wife and two children, 3 and 8, after Hamas militants attacked the Beeri kibbutz. Zach now worries that Hamas’s calculations on the captives could change because of the Israeli ground operations and perhaps “they did something to them.”

Shoham’s family, like the others, had been assigned a government representative who checks in periodically. But those meetings almost never yielded any answers to the families’ questions about the government’s plans to free the captives. So far, Hamas has released four hostages.

And now there was a new question: How would the Israeli government keep the hostages safe as it conducted its most aggressive bombing campaign of Gaza in more than a decade?

Yonatan Shamriz, whose brother Alon was kidnapped from the Kfar Azza kibbutz, said he had stopped believing on Oct. 7 in the possibility that Israel could coexist with Hamas-led Gaza. He found himself craving a military response. But the timing was important, he said: A military operation on the ground should begin only after the hostages are released.

“Then Gaza should be leveled,” he said.

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More than 1,400 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attacks, according to the Israeli government. Gaza’s Ministry of Health said Saturday that more than 7,700 people have been killed during Israel’s military response. It’s a campaign that has laid waste to entire neighborhoods, displaced more than 1 million people, cut off Gaza from internet and cellphone networks and pushed the territory’s health-care system to the brink of collapse.

The families of Israeli hostages have formed a group called the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. They communicate constantly on a WhatsApp group, which was active throughout Friday night’s military operation in Gaza. The families debated the risks of a ground invasion as it intensified.

“We have about 200 different opinions,” said Danny Elgarat, 63, whose brother Itzik was abducted from the Nir Oz kibbutz.

The group released a statement on Saturday expressing concern about the impact of the military operation on the hostages.

“This night was the most terrible of all nights. It was a long and sleepless night, against the backdrop of the major IDF operation in the Strip, and absolute uncertainty regarding the fate of the hostages held there, who were also subject to the heavy bombings,” the statement said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF.

On Saturday, more than a dozen families of hostages gathered in central Tel Aviv and demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Some family members held signs that read “POW exchange now” and “At any cost.”

Elgarat held a sign with photos of his brother and the message: “Bring him home now.”

Yet he believed strongly in an assertive military response in Gaza. Watching the news of the operation on Friday night, he said, “I was satisfied.”

“If we don’t defeat Hamas, Israel will be defeated,” he said.

Later on Saturday, the group of hostage families issued another statement: plans to remain at the gate of a government building in Tel Aviv until Netanyahu and Gallant agreed to meet with them. A few hours later, a few of the families met with Netanyahu.

“We came with an unequivocal demand that military action takes into account the fate of the hostages and missing, and that any move considered will take into account the well-being of our loved ones,” Meirav Leshem Gonen, mother of hostage Romi Gonen, told a crowd in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu released a video saying that securing the hostages’ release was an “integral” component of the military campaign.

“The key is the level of pressure,” he said. “The greater the pressure, the greater the chances [of freeing the captives].”


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