‘Every girl there is sexually harassed’: Freed captives beg MKs for hostage deal

In emotional Knesset meeting, relatives of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7 call on government to secure their release; committee chair: ‘We need to bring them home’

Released hostage Maya Regev speaks during a Knesset’s women’s rights committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Released hostage Maya Regev speaks during a Knesset’s women’s rights committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s women’s rights committee held an emotional session on Tuesday on the situation of female hostages held by terror groups in Gaza since October 7, attended by two released abductees along with family members of those still held captive.

“Every girl there is sexually harassed in one way or another. It doesn’t matter how you try to spin it. As a citizen, on October 7 I didn’t understand why no one came to rescue me in a matter of hours; so did all the women who are [in Gaza],” said Maya Regev, who was released on November 25 as part of a temporary ceasefire deal brokered by Qatar and the United States between Hamas and Israel.

“Every day there is an emergency, every minute is important,” she added tearfully, lamenting a six-week Knesset recess slated to run from April 7 to May 19.  “Hearing that [lawmakers] are going on recess, what will the [hostages] do there? Sit and wait for the Knesset and the government to return to their comfortable chairs and decide what to do? I personally could not believe it.”

Regev was kidnapped on October 7 from the Supernova music festival along with her brother Itay, who was also released during the November truce. “I came back after 50 days and I’m still dealing with issues. I don’t want to describe what they’ve been going through through there for 179 days.”

While no ministers attended the session of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, Regev called on the MKs present to push for a hostage release deal. “Your job is to bring them back home, to the country that has already disappointed us once,” she said. “Another day and another and another and we go on vacation. We need your help. All the families here are crying out every day. How does this make sense?”

It is believed that 130 hostages are still held in Gaza of the 253 abducted on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and committing wholesale atrocities including sexual assault.

Israelis protest for the release of hostages held by terror groups in Gaza since October 7, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sharon Aloni Cunio, who was also released during the November truce along with her 3-year-old twin daughters, Emma and Yuli, also made a statement to the committee.

“As a woman who was there, I can tell you that the terror is never-ending,” she said tearfully. “To be a woman in captivity is to be in constant fear. Helplessness is a feeling that I don’t wish on anyone. Time stands still, every minute is an eternity, every movement the terrorist makes turns her stomach because who knows what will happen? Will he hurt me? Will he take one of my girls?”

“The terrorist is the sole decider. I cannot oppose any of his orders,” she continued. “My opinion doesn’t count, my wishes are irrelevant. Only he decides if I will live or die, only he decides if Emma and Yuli can hug me.”

Aloni Cunio also called for the release of the men in captivity and expressed concern for the fate of her husband, David, who has been held in Gaza since October 7.

“Men are also subjected to terrible abuse in captivity. We’ve heard the testimonies and they are horrifying,” she said. “They are desperate. The tears ran out long ago and hope has dwindled; I can testify to this firsthand. I understand and accept that the first step must be the release of the women — but after 179 days, my David is by now also a humanitarian case.”

Released hostage Sharon Aloni Cunio reads a statement during a women’s rights committee session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ayelet Levy Shachar, whose daughter Naama Levy, 19, was seen in a video from Gaza on October 7 following her kidnapping with her hands tied and bloodied sweatpants, giving rise to widespread speculation that she had been sexually abused, also begged the committee to advance a hostage release deal.

“We, the families of the girls, of the women there, did not need the UN report or the New York Times investigation, the testimonies of the women who returned from captivity and also the difficult testimonies that were published recently. From Day 1 we understood the panic and the urgency.”

A United Nations report in March presented evidence that rape, including gang rape, had likely occurred during the October 7 Hamas onslaught, that “clear and convincing” evidence shows that hostages were raped while being held in Gaza, and that those currently held captive were still facing such abuse. Reports in international media including The New York Times and The Washington Post have also reported evidence of sexual abuse perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

National Unity MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, who chairs the committee, said that Tuesday’s discussion was scheduled in order to pressure the government to secure a hostage release deal and broaden the mandate given to negotiators.

Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality chair MK Pnina Tamano-Shata leads a session at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 2, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’ve all heard the testimonies. We need to bring them home. This is in our hands,” she said during the committee discussion. “We can’t imagine what you are all going through as relatives [of the hostages].”

Israel’s negotiating team headed home from truce talks in Cairo on Tuesday after putting together an “updated proposal for Hamas to address,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The talks to bring about a pause in fighting and a hostage deal after nearly six months of war have been deadlocked in recent weeks, with Israel blaming Hamas’s refusal to show flexibility on its demand for all northern Gazans to be allowed to return and its conditioning of any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to ending the war and withdrawing all IDF forces from Gaza.

A total of 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 34 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

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