as the Battle for Gaza Rages, Hostage Families Wait With Trepidation

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Abbey Onn lost her aunt and a young cousin when Hamas attackers rampaged through Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7. Now Onn is worried about what will happen to three other family members taken hostage that day as Israel pounds Gaza City in a bid to end Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip.

She wants the world to remember that Ofer Kalderon and his children Sahar, 16, and Erez, 12, are caught in the crossfire.

“As long as they are hostage, we’re all hostage,” Onn says. “And we need them home so that whatever is happening there can be solved. I don’t think it’s a simple solution, but you can’t hold hostages and fight a war at the same time.”

As the Israeli military tightens its grip around Gaza City, friends and family of the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas fear their loved ones will be an afterthought for the politicians and generals directing the campaign. Hamas on Monday released video of the first hostage confirmed to have died in captivity.

With much of northern Gaza flattened and face-to-face battles underway, the question of how to safely free the captives is becoming more urgent. Israel’s twin goals of crushing Hamas and freeing the hostages are about to collide.

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HOW TO BALANCE WAGING WAR AND RESCUING HOSTAGES?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the goal of the assault on Gaza is to prevent future attacks on Israel by destroying Hamas and ensuring it can never again govern the territory.

On the other side, Hamas is reluctant to release the hostages because they are useful as human shields and offer leverage in squeezing concessions from Israel, says Justin Crump, a former British Army tank commander and CEO of Sibylline, a London-based strategic advisory firm.

Any rescue operation would be risky because the militants are holding their captives in secret locations, probably underground tunnels, where they can ambush Israeli soldiers and inflict heavy casualties, Crump says.

“The Israelis want the hostages, but it’s not the sole purpose of this operation. And they’re not going to be held hostage by the hostages themselves, if that makes sense..,’’ he says. “They’ve got to focus on their most important objective.”

But with the Israeli military now claiming that Hamas no longer controls Gaza, Israel may soon be willing to negotiate for the return of the hostages, says Nomi Bar-Yaacov, an associate fellow in the international security program at Chatham House, a London-based economic and global affairs think tank.

“I think we’re at a turning moment,’’ she says. “I don’t think Israel will achieve all of their military targets, but it means that that’s achieved a serious chunk of them. And therefore, I think, this is the time when a deal will have to be made, and the sooner the better.”

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, says the bombardment was necessary to crush Hamas and put pressure on the militants to release the hostages. Asked whether the attack on Gaza was putting the hostages at greater risk, Netanyahu said last week that Israel was “taking that into consideration.”

“There’s no one who wants to get our hostages back more than us,” he told ABC News.

Oliver McTernan, who has worked on hostage negation for 20 years, says the families of the hostages are right to be concerned. The only way to achieve the return of the captives, he says, is a cease-fire of enough duration to move them safely across the battlefield. Israel says such a move would simply allow Hamas to rearm.

“I think every day that goes on there is a risk — risk with bombings, risk with incursions and whatever — of the civilians, Israeli civilians, dying in Gaza,” McTernan says. That, he says, “should be a priority of any government: to ensure their safety and their return to their families.”


CONCERN AMONG WAITING FAMILIES

Eilon Keshet is one of those family members. During the attack on Kibbutz Nir Oz, Hamas abducted Keshet’s cousin Yarden Bibas, his wife, Shiri, son Ariel, 4, and baby boy Kfir, who at just 10 months old is the youngest hostage.

“I am scared about the war in Gaza, there are explosions, and gunfire everywhere,” he says. “I am afraid my family will get hurt, but I understand that we must act too, to bring them back to us.”

The families of the hostages on Tuesday began a five-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to focus attention on their loved ones. The march started with a moment of silence for Noa Marciano, the 19-year-old hostage whose death was announced Monday.

Hamas says dozens of captives have been killed by Israeli strikes but hasn’t provided evidence. Israel has dismissed such claims as psychological warfare.

Last week, Rachel Goldberg joined another demonstration at the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock in eastern Jerusalem — sites sacred to Jews and Muslims — and appealed to world leaders not to forget the hostages, even as global attention shifts to the horror of civilian casualties in Gaza.

Her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, was kidnapped from the Supernova music festival on Oct. 7.

“The hostages have been underground in Gaza for 32 days,’’ she said at the rally. “I cry out to every single person here and every single person on the planet to make it your mission to free these souls, 240 souls. They are from 33 different countries, their ages range from 9 months to 85 years old, they are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. They are human beings and they need you.”

But the desperation of the families is also tinged with hope — hope for peace and that the hostages will ultimately be rescued.

“I don’t know one Israeli or one Jew that wishes any citizen or civilian in Gaza right now to go through what they’re going through, not one of us,” Onn said. “We want our families home. That’s our No. 1 priority.”

Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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