Hostages’ families describe ’emotional rollercoaster’ as they wait for releases

Relatives of those held in Gaza hope their loved ones are freed as soon as possible, describing the uncertainty as unbearable

Relatives, friends and supporters of Alon Ohel (22) held hostage in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel, take part in a protest to ask for the release of Israeli hostages in Tel Aviv on November 22, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Relatives, friends and supporters of Alon Ohel (22) held hostage in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel, take part in a protest to ask for the release of Israeli hostages in Tel Aviv on November 22, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Emotions ran high among Israeli families of hostages Thursday, ahead of the expected implementation of a deal to free dozens of hostages held by Gazan terror groups in exchange for Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners.

The breakthrough swap, set to be staggered over four days, is due to start Friday at 4 p.m. with the freeing of 13 Israeli women and children and the reciprocal release of some 40 Palestinian women and minors convicted of terror offenses.

The deal was pushed back overnight from an intended Thursday start, drawing out the anguish for families of the about 240 hostages seized by Hamas terrorists on October 7, when they staged the worst massacre in Israel’s history.

The families of those set to be released Friday have been notified, while dozens of others are expected to return in the coming days. The identities of those to be released in the first group are being kept from publication until they are back in Israel. Hamas is supposed to notify Israel each day which hostages will be released the next.

“We’ve already been on an emotional rollercoaster for 47 days and today is no different,” said Eyal Kalderon, 38, whose cousin Ofer was kidnapped along with his two children, Erez, who turned 12 in captivity, and Sahar who is 16.

“We are hoping at the very least that the children will come back as soon as possible,” he said. “Time is running out and they can’t wait anymore — not them, not the elderly people, nor those who are sick or wounded.”

Standing at his side, Kalderon’s twin sister Yael said they were trying to keep their hopes in check but it was difficult with the situation in flux.

Erez Kalderon, 12, who is being held hostage with his sister, Sahar, 16, and their father, Ofer, 53. (Hadas Kalderon, via Sabrina Belhassen via AP)

“We are trying not to get our hopes up too much and we will only be able to breathe easy when we see them with our own eyes, with the Red Cross,” she told AFP.

“But it’s hard to ignore the news and it shakes you up.”

The siblings said their cousin Ofer would be marking his 53rd birthday in captivity in Gaza on Saturday, after his son Erez turned 12 on October 27.

“For Ofer, the best present will be knowing that his children are coming back to us here, and will be with their mum Hadas and with the whole loving family,” Eyal Kalderon said.

Shelly Shem Tov, the mother of Omer, 21, who was abducted at the Supernova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im, told the Kan public broadcaster the wait was like “very severe emotional abuse.”

“I knew that Omer wouldn’t be on the list of those who are being released in the deal, it makes it hurt a lot,” she said, adding she was happy for those who will receive their kids.

“Everyone wants everyone at home. It makes it a nightmare,” she added.

Danny Engel, whose brother Ronen was kidnapped alongside his wife Karina and children Mika and Yuval, told Channel 12 news he only found out about a delay in the hostage release from the media.

The Bibas family, father Yarden, mother Shiri, baby Kfir and four-year-old Ariel were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. (Courtesy)

“I found out about it at 3 a.m., because I was sleeping. I usually crash early, because everyday life is unbearable,” he said, adding that he was ignoring any information until he is told to “get in the car and go here or there.”

“From October 7 and even a lot longer before then, I had no reason to believe the words of anyone who sits at the top. I am unable to, I have no faith in anyone. Maybe because I’m a realistic guy, until I see it with my eyes — it’s not happening,” he stated.

Yossi Schneider, whose cousin Shiri Bibas and her two children Ariel and Kfir are being held hostage, said that his family had no idea if and when their relatives would be released.

“The situation is terrible for us because the information does not actually exist. We are waiting and waiting for the unknown.”

The deal, which was mediated by Qatar and the US, would see Hamas release 50 Israeli women and children it took hostage on October 7, over the course of four days, in exchange for a lull in the fighting during those four days and the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel for terror offenses, all of them women or minors.

Dozens more could be released in the following days in exchange for an extension of the lull in fighting.

Israeli authorities have released a list of 300 eligible detainees, without specifying the order of release.

The deal will also enable an influx of fuel and humanitarian supplies to Gaza during the pause, which would be the first cessation of fighting since Hamas sparked the war nearly seven weeks ago, when its terrorists rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, massacring some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking the hostages.

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