Reporters notebook

Eight months after Oct 7, hostage families struggle to keep loved ones in headlines

Ahead of hostage families’ testimonies at UN, conference in Sderot spotlights public relations troubles of relatives of Hamas captives, invites journalists to give their input

Israeli actor Eyal Kitzis (left) interviews cousin of Hamas hostage Gil Dickmann (center) as part of a panel at Hostages and Missing Families Forum conference in Sderot on June 17, 2024. (Paulina Patimer/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)
Israeli actor Eyal Kitzis (left) interviews cousin of Hamas hostage Gil Dickmann (center) as part of a panel at Hostages and Missing Families Forum conference in Sderot on June 17, 2024. (Paulina Patimer/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Eight months out from October 7, hostage families say they are struggling to keep their missing loved ones in the headlines, both within Israel and internationally.

The families have tried almost every trick in the book to keep their cause in the spotlight, from art displays in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv to bursting into Knesset committee meetings, but many feel that they are losing the public’s interest.

“I feel that we need to do all sorts of different things to rouse people,” said Meirav Leshem-Gonen, the mother of Romi, whom Hamas kidnapped on October 7 during their assault on the Supernova rave, speaking to journalists and social media influencers gathered in the Sderot community center on Monday afternoon.

Designed as an appeal to members of the media on behalf of the families, the series of panels organized by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum drew some hundred people to the southern Israeli city, still recovering from Hamas’s massacre.

Though many residents of Sderot have since returned to their homes to rebuild their lives after October 7, the streets were relatively quiet, and soldiers guarded the entrances to the city.

Many panelists — hostage relatives, spokespeople and journalists — felt that the plight of the hostages is losing the attention of the public in Israel.

“After more than 200 days, there is a feeling that this has become normalized,” lamented Gil Dickmann, the cousin of Hamas hostage Carmel Gat. “How can you normalize the taking of hostages, something so abnormal?”

Dickmann described his approach to advocacy: “You always need to innovate. If we did something this week, we need to do something different next week – come with tents under the homes of cabinet members, or a protest in the Knesset.”

Israelis with family members held abducted by Hamas terrorists in Gaza since October 7 attend a Knesset National Security Committee hearing, November 20, 2023. At center is Gil Dickmann, whose cousin Carmel Gat is one of the hostages. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Other participants on the panels focused on the indifference, and even antagonism that advocates for the hostages face overseas.

“The scary thing is that the ante has to continuously be upped, what else can they [the hostage families] possibly do to grab the attention of the international media?” said ABC chief national correspondent Matt Gutman to the audience.

The Forum held the conference a few days ahead of their latest plea to the international community on Wednesday, where a couple of hostage family members testified in Geneva before the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of a commission of inquiry.

The Council has been met with hostility from the Israeli government for its perceived longstanding bias against Israel.

A commission it sponsors accused the IDF of committing crimes against humanity during its offensive in Gaza, charges Israel strenuously denies. It also found that Hamas terrorists had committed war crimes, including in connection with its unprecedented October 7 attack and the seizing of hostages.

On Wednesday, Israel offered its speaking slot at the council session to Leshem-Gonen.

For Leshem-Gonen, the report’s findings did not capture the reality of the October 7 attack. She testified to the rights council, marking the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on June 19.

She lamented that the commission trivialized “the severity of sexual violence experienced by women in captivity by reducing their suffering to mere parading of women as trophies.'”

Meirav Leshem-Gonen, mother of Hamas hostage Romi Gonen, speaks about Hamas atrocities on October 7 to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 19, 2024. (Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in Geneva)

Gonen accused the body of “over-simplification and dismissive attitude” in the commission, which she said is “indicative of a broader problem: the unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths and the shocking decision to look away and not reach out to help the helpless ones.”

At Monday’s conference, Leshem-Gonen and other hostage family members shared similar frustrations, and afterward, heard from freed hostages about their experiences in Hamas captivity.

Danielle Aloni, 44, who was released during a weeklong truce in November, recalled on stage that Hamas terrorists brought her and other residents of Nir Oz down to Gaza’s subterranean tunnels on the morning of October 7, when invading terrorists killed over 1,200 people and kidnapped 251.

Danielle Aloni, a freed hostage who was taken captive with her daughter by Hamas, speaks to her experience in captivity at a Hostages and Missing Families Forum conference in Sderot on June 17, 2024. (Paulina Patimer/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

“I’ve already told this and I have nothing to be ashamed of — the terrorist who was waiting for me in the tunnel as I descended the ladder grabbed my jewelry and tore it off me,” she said. “He groped and grabbed me in intimate places in the most humiliating way in front of my daughter — and I kept quiet out of fear.”

In the back-to-back discussions at the outset of the conference, journalists discussed their previous coverage of the hostages, explaining what resonates most with the audiences of their respective outlets. Many spoke to a large rift between the international and Israeli press when it comes to coverage of the war.

“I’ll put it honestly, the Israeli media deals less with what is happening in Gaza, is less empathetic to what happens there, and rightfully so,” said former Ynet editor-in-chief Ron Yaron to the crowd.

In Yaron’s view, this is because Israelis better understand the hypocrisy of Hamas, “which on one hand shouts the cry of innocent civilians, and on the other hand, hides weapons and the hostages inside the homes of innocents.”

ABC’s Gutman, who spoke on the previous panel of foreign, English-speaking journalists, carefully described the balance he tries to strike between coverage of the hostage families and the “absolutely immense, very real” suffering on the Palestinian side.

“There is this dissonance between the issue of the hostages and the very real war that is going on, and the massive amount of casualties that are, in fact, happening on the Palestinian side,” Guttman said.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. The toll, which cannot be verified, includes more than 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

“That’s the thing that has to constantly be balanced, and you know in the news, we also have to report about those people being killed, and about the hardships that many people in Gaza are undergoing. It’s very hard to juggle those two things,” he continued.

Somewhat contrary to others on the panel, Gutman caveated that the stories of the hostages do in fact resonate with many of his network’s viewers

“The story of the hostages, in particular their families, is something that has resonated, at least at ABC with a lot of our viewers, who tend to skew a little bit older,” he said. “There are lots of people in America’s heartland who can really identify with these families, parents and with the grandparents of the hostages.”

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