At UN, Israeli officials and hostage families demand action to bring back Hamas captives

FM Eli Cohen is heckled during speech; UN Secretary General Guterres meets with families after his controversial comments that Hamas onslaught ‘did not happen in a vacuum’

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Ronen Nuetra, right, and Ruby Chen, both of whom have sons being held hostage by Hamas, speak during a rally in front of United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Ronen Nuetra, right, and Ruby Chen, both of whom have sons being held hostage by Hamas, speak during a rally in front of United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)

JTA — A photo of 3-year-old Israeli twins Emma and Yuli Cunio lay on a brick walkway across from the United Nations, alongside a red rose and two pairs of children’s shoes.

The image was arrayed among dozens of flyers with photos of other captives held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, each sheet headlined with the word “kidnapped.” In the center of the display, an Israeli flag was wrapped around a tree.

The installation was part of an effort by Israelis and their supporters to demand action from the international community to release the hostages, and show support for some of their families as they visited the United Nations headquarters — with many flying in from overseas. The visit was part of two days of programs and events surrounding the families’ visit, part of a broad effort in New York City to keep the world’s attention on the hostages’ plight.

The outdoor display was set up shortly after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres incensed Israeli officials by linking the Hamas atrocities to Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza.

“It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” Guterres said in a speech. “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence; their economy stifled; their people displaced and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing.”

That statement led Gilad Erdan, Israel’s UN ambassador, to call for Guterres’s resignation — an unusually harsh break between the Israeli mission and UN leadership.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan speaks about Israeli hostages being held by Hamas in front of United Nations headquarters in New York, Tuesday, October 24, 2023. (Seth Wenig/AP)

“We have not yet finished identifying bodies burned beyond recognition and the UN is already blaming Israel for the massacre of our people,” Erdan said. “The secretary-general is responsible for spreading a blood libel. There is no clearer proof that the UN has become a stain on humanity.”

Amid the controversy surrounding Guterres’s statement, the families of the hostages hoped to keep the focus on their captive loved ones.

“We are here not only talking about ourselves, we’re here representing 220 families of kids, Holocaust survivors, women, being held hostage,” said Ruby Chen, a New Yorker whose 19-year-old son Itay is being held hostage, after relatives of the hostages met with Guterres at the UN “We urge the international community not to talk, which we just experienced now, but to do.”

Alana Zeitchik, whose relatives are held hostage, said, “I still cry as soon as my eyes open,” 18 days after terrorists took the captives on Oct. 7 in a massacre that killed and wounded thousands.

“I just want to get them home. That’s all I think about. All we want is for them to come back and we want the world to come with us to help us,” she said.

Guterres seemed to partly walk back his comments on late Tuesday night, writing on X, “After meeting with families whose loved ones have been taken hostage, I reaffirm my call for the immediate and unconditional release of all the hostages held in Gaza. Nothing can justify the killing, wounding, and abducting of civilians by Hamas.”

In a separate, later post, he added, “The grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the horrific attacks by Hamas. Those horrendous attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

Erdan, and Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, castigated the UN for its perceived inaction in rescuing the hostages. Erdan and Cohen also demanded that Qatar, which funds Hamas and hosts some of its leaders, act against the group. Cohen canceled a meeting with Guterres after his speech linking Israeli policy to the Hamas attack.

But Israelis’ anger at their own government was also visible on Tuesday. When Cohen spoke at an event on Tuesday afternoon in front of the UN alongside the hostages’ families, Israeli audience members berated him with cries of “shame” and “resign.” The backlash caused officials behind the podium to be visibly uncomfortable and prompted demands for quiet from Roz Rothstein, the head of StandWithUS, the pro-Israel activist group that led the event.

Efforts in the United States to assist war victims and return the hostages are driven in large part by the organizers and volunteers who, just weeks ago, were leading the protest movement against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have been repeatedly shouted down at their appearances since Oct. 7 by members of the Israeli public who blame them for not preventing the Hamas attack. Polls show that most Israelis want Netanyahu to take responsibility for the tragedy and resign following Israel’s war against Hamas.

Cohen stuck to the topic of the hostages.

“There are babies that are captives, twins, Holocaust survivors, and we have one mission – to bring them home,” Cohen said above the heckling. “I want to assure you all that we will not rest until everyone will be back, alive and secure, [with] his family.”

Earlier, as the families of the hostages arrived at the UN, hundreds of Israelis and other supporters lined five blocks of First Avenue, facing the UN and bearing red roses and photos of the captives. The crowd chanted “Bring them home” as UN staffers and dignitaries strode by and tourists lined up on the sidewalk for UN guest passes.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who declined to condemn Hamas at the UN on Tuesday, hustled past the demonstration, surrounded by his security detail. Some of the demonstrators, many of whom wore black, wept and embraced each other on the sidewalk.

“They took every person that they saw, they killed every human being that they saw, so it should be in the interest of the entire world to end Hamas,” said Michal Zussman, who organized the demonstration, noting that Hamas had taken citizens of dozens of different countries hostage.

“We need our son back,” said Ronen Neutra, whose American son Omer, from Long Island, was taken while stationed on the border with his tank unit. “We demand that the UN and all the countries that are involved, and there are 33 different countries with hostages, will get involved and work together hand in hand condemning what happened there and bring our kids back.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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