Health workers join campaign to advocate for hostages, care for their families

Top health experts volunteer with #BringThemHomeNow to fight for information on the medical status of the hostages, lobbying Red Cross and WHO to do more

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Demonstrators calling upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to take action for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 and currently held in the Gaza Strip, outside the ICRC offices in Tel Aviv on November 9, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Demonstrators calling upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to take action for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 and currently held in the Gaza Strip, outside the ICRC offices in Tel Aviv on November 9, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The faces on the #BringThemHomeNow posters seen around the world are those of the approximately 240 Israeli and foreign hostages being held captive by Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza.

The hostages — among them many babies, children, women, elderly; some of them injured, some of them likely dead — were dragged by the terrorists to Gaza after Hamas burst through Israel’s southern border on October 7, massacring some 1,200 people, mainly civilians.

In their wake, the hostages left devastated families and friends fighting day and night for their loved one’s release and safe return home. While keeping the spotlight on the abductees, many of those keeping the candle burning are in need of support themselves.

“The health condition of the hostages is critical, and the families of the hostages also need health support,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israeli Association of Public Health. “The lack of contact between the families and the hostages is horrible for both sides.”

Since October 7, Levine has led the #BringThemHomeNow Hostages health command center, a sub-group of the global campaign, also known as the Missing Families Forum, which counts thousands of volunteers assisting the families of those kidnapped.

The health team is made up of leaders in the spheres of public health, mental health and resilience, and medical law. Many young doctors in training who have not been called to military duty during the war have also joined.

A man walks past posters of Israelis held hostage in Gaza during a protest in solidarity with the hostages’ families, in Rehovot, October 29, 2023. (Meir Conforti / Protest Organizers)

The campaign’s health group has three main goals, according to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, head of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s School of Public Health: To support efforts to return the hostages; to ascertain signs of life from the hostages and renew their connections with their families; and to help address the health needs of the hostages’ families and those of the campaign volunteers.

A month ago, the #BringThemHomeNow health team sent the International Committee of the Red Cross a letter appended by a database of the medical conditions from which the hostages —aged 9 months to 90 years old — suffer. These include: Diabetes, cancer, heart failure, chronic kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cardiac arrhythmias, hypertension, asthma, allergies, glaucoma, autism, and psychiatric disorders.

There was also a list of 107 different prescription drugs that the hostages and missing need to take regularly to treat their illnesses and conditions.

“The clock is ticking. We don’t know what Hamas is doing with the hostages, where they are keeping them, and in what conditions. We don’t know if the terrorists even have the capacity to treat the hostage’s injuries and illnesses,” Levine said during a recent webinar hosted by #BringThemHomeNow, the Israeli Medical Association, and other health organizations.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch. (Courtesy)

In interviews a month ago with The Times of Israel, Levine and Davidovitch lamented the fact that despite their regular contact with the WHO and the ICRC, they had not been able to get more public and forceful action on behalf of the hostages.

Efforts by international medical colleagues have been similarly unfruitful.

“We don’t need just words. We need actions,” said Davidovitch.

Levine cited a claim by the ICRC that it prefers to work under the radar.

“We don’t accept this. It’s their responsibility. They need to use all means at their disposal, including public relations and the media,” he said.

Since that conversation, four hostages have been released by the terrorists for supposed “humanitarian reasons,” and one other was rescued by IDF forces. All five women appeared to be in relatively good physical health, but nothing is known about the condition of the rest of the hostages. Pictures and videos of some hostages released by Hamas are seen as propaganda. For a more reliable gauge of their condition, Israel needs the intervention of an independent party, such as the ICRC.

Hagai Levine (Screen capture: YouTube)

Attorney Yoni Davis, an expert in medicine and the law, has been active in drafting letters to the WHO, ICRC, human rights organizations, the European Union, and others.

“I highlight over and over that what we are dealing with is exceptional and unprecedented — and not only in terms of the number of hostages taken. This was a crime against humanity committed during a genocide and amidst other crimes against humanity. I also emphasize that Israel is responding appropriately to the situation,” Davis said on the webinar.

Davis is also assisting families of the missing with Israeli authorities. He has warned the Religion Ministry against burying unidentified body parts recovered from the massacres in common graves, reminding it that the state is responsible for processing all remains via The National Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir.

As the team’s lawyer, Davis advocates for the rights of the hostages and their families. He does not want to see them fall off anyone’s agenda — especially not that of the Israeli government or that of the international community.

People hold up posters of the missing as they gather outside the Qatari Embassy in London on October 29, 2023, to demand the release of the estimated 240 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas. (Justin TALLIS / AFP)

“Israel has a history of forgetting or ignoring or forgetting certain populations, like wounded IDF veterans and the Yemenite babies,” he said.

While some members of the health team focus on the health and fate of the hostages, others turn their attention to supporting the families of the hostages and the campaign’s volunteers.

“We are talking about 1,000 people, when we consider the family members of the hostages. These family members live all over the country,” said Orna Dotan, who is heading up the resilience team.

During the webinar, Dotan divided the families into four groups: those whose loved ones were taken hostage from the Supernova outdoor music festival near Re’im; those whose loved ones just happened to be passing through the area of Hamas attacks; those whose loved ones were captured while in military or police uniform; and those whose loved ones were kidnapped from their homes in the kibbutzim and towns near Gaza.

Their experiences are the same and different all at once.

Dotan said that undoubtedly the outpouring of public support in Israel and abroad has given the families strength and a sense of resilience. However, over time, many who at first were resistant to help for psychological trauma from a professional started to ask for it.

A protest on behalf of hostages held captive by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, November 11, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“So many people want to help the families, but we need to make sure about professionalism. We also have limited resources, so we have to focus on helping those who need it the most,” Dotan said.

Another member of the team, psychoanalyst Dr. Ofrit Shapira-Berman, has started First Line Med, to ensure the lasting recovery of Hamas massacre survivors and the hostages and their families.

She assigns specially trained mental health professionals and assigns them to the hostages’ families.

“It’s important that there is just one key person for each family to respond to their physical and psychological needs. They must listen to what the families say and want and embrace their every need,” she said.

“The message to the families is, ‘You deserve everything possible,'” Shapira-Berman said.

Part of the work is also to protect them from the psychological terror Hamas and the other groups in Gaza intend to inflict on Israelis — and particularly the hostages’ families — with propaganda videos in which the hostages say what the terrorists force them to.

Hostages Hannah Katzir, 77 (left), and Yagil Yaakov, 13, are seen in a propaganda clip aired November 9, 2023, by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. (Screenshot)

Levine admitted that it is not easy hitting the right balance between talking about the atrocities of October 7, as part of the campaign’s advocacy work, and protecting the mental health of the families.

Ichilov Hospital geriatric nurse Yarden Gonen told those watching the webinar the story of how her younger sister Romi was kidnapped after being shot by terrorists, as she tried to escape the Supernova festival on the morning of October 7.

Gonen has recounted her sister’s story in many different forums, even traveling outside Israel to do so in recent weeks.

“Retelling it is really hard, but it is necessary,” she said.

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