Day 3 of hostage releasesKibbutz member: 'We didn’t sleep all night from excitement'

Israelis greet newly freed hostages with joy, but can’t forget those left behind

Spontaneous celebrations welcome returnees on way from Gaza; grandfather of 4-year-old Avigail Idan elated, but her parents’ deaths are ‘an open wound that will never heal’

  • Maayan Zin embraces her daughters, Dafna Elyakim, 15, and Ela Elyakim, 8, after they were released from Gaza captivity on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)
    Maayan Zin embraces her daughters, Dafna Elyakim, 15, and Ela Elyakim, 8, after they were released from Gaza captivity on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)
  • People cheer as a vehicle carrying hostages released by Hamas drives towards Hatzerim army base in Ofakim, southern Israel, on November 26, 2023, after they were released from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
    People cheer as a vehicle carrying hostages released by Hamas drives towards Hatzerim army base in Ofakim, southern Israel, on November 26, 2023, after they were released from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
  • Gal and Tal Almog-Goldstein play with toys at the IDF Hatzerim airbase following their release from Gaza on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)
    Gal and Tal Almog-Goldstein play with toys at the IDF Hatzerim airbase following their release from Gaza on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)
  • Hostages released by Hamas are seen through the window of a bus transporting them to an army base in Ofakim in southern Israel as a crowd waves to them outside after they were released by the Palestinian terror group from the Gaza Strip on November 26, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Hostages released by Hamas are seen through the window of a bus transporting them to an army base in Ofakim in southern Israel as a crowd waves to them outside after they were released by the Palestinian terror group from the Gaza Strip on November 26, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • Yahel Shoham, 3, is seen with grandmother Shoshan Haran, 67, upon their return to Israel after 50 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where they were held with Yahel's mother Adi and her son Naveh, 8, on November 25, 2023. (Courtesy)
    Yahel Shoham, 3, is seen with grandmother Shoshan Haran, 67, upon their return to Israel after 50 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where they were held with Yahel's mother Adi and her son Naveh, 8, on November 25, 2023. (Courtesy)
  • Naveh Shoham is seen upon his arrival to Israel after 50 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where he was held with his sister Yahel, 3, mother Adi and grandmother Shoshan Haran, 67, on November 25, 2023. (courtesy)
    Naveh Shoham is seen upon his arrival to Israel after 50 days in Hamas captivity in Gaza, where he was held with his sister Yahel, 3, mother Adi and grandmother Shoshan Haran, 67, on November 25, 2023. (courtesy)
  • Sharon Avigdori greets her son, Omer, in the early hours of November 26, 2023, after she was released from 50 days of Hamas captivity. (Haim Zach/ GPO)
    Sharon Avigdori greets her son, Omer, in the early hours of November 26, 2023, after she was released from 50 days of Hamas captivity. (Haim Zach/ GPO)
  • Members of the Goldstein-Almog family posing after members were freed from Hamas captivity, on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)
    Members of the Goldstein-Almog family posing after members were freed from Hamas captivity, on November 26, 2023. (Courtesy)

Scenes of Israeli joy greeted the arrival of a third group of freed hostages Sunday upon their release from Hamas captivity after 51 days.

Fourteen Israelis and three Thai citizens were transferred from terrorists’ hands to Israel, as part of a deal with Hamas that includes a four-day truce and the release of at least 50 Israeli prisoners out of the 240 abducted by the group on October 7. One of the Israelis, who also has Russian citizenship, was released as a gesture by Hamas to Moscow, and all three Thais were set free as part of a separate deal reached with Bangkok.

In a first scene of its kind since the hostage releases began Friday, hundreds of cheering people greeted vans ferrying the freed hostages, as the convoy made its way from Gaza to Hatzerim Airbase near Beersheba.

Excited onlookers in Ofakim brandished flags, sang and waved at those inside the vehicles, with some of the returnees seen waving back at the rapturous crowd.

From Hatzerim, the freed Israelis were sent to hospitals to get a medical checkup and meet with their families.

The hostages were abducted on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, killing at least 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages, under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

Families, friends in disbelief

Ten of those freed were from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, and hundreds of evacuated residents of the kibbutz celebrated Sunday evening at an event hall at Shefayim in central Israel as they watched news of the release.

Earlier, kibbutz members erupted in cheers at the first glimpses of their neighbors in videos from Gaza. “There she is, look!” screamed one excited man, pointing at a giant screen broadcasting Channel 13’s live feed of the Red Cross transporting the freed hostages.

Each time a new face was identified, the crowd roared, with several people clutching their faces until the next hostage was visually confirmed.

In the US, President Joe Biden joined those celebrating, saying at a press conference that he, his wife, and so “many Americans are praying” that 4-year-old Israeli-American Avigail Idan would be all right after her release. Idan saw her mother killed in front of her in Kibbutz Be’eri during Hamas’s October 7 massacre and then ran to her father who shielded her with his body, as terrorists then shot him dead, Biden said. She then ran to her neighbors’ home, from which she, along with those inside, were taken hostage into Gaza.

“What she endured is unthinkable,” Biden said, noting that she had celebrated her 4th birthday on Friday in captivity and that he had personally pressed for her release in a recent call with the emir of Qatar.

Avigail’s grandfather Carmel Idan said he could not believe his eyes at first when he saw pictures of Avigail on her way back to Israel. “It was just wow. I didn’t believe it until I saw it,” he told reporters outside his home. “Now I’m calm, but not completely calm because there is happiness, but there is also the absence of Roee and Smadar.” Avigail’s parents were murdered by Hamas terrorists at their home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on October 7.

Carmel said he had originally understood that Avigail, 4, would be released in the first phase of the hostage releases, on Friday, “and we were looking. She’s not there! What disappointment. Russian roulette. We were waiting on the second day. Again, Avigail isn’t there! We couldn’t believe it.”

While it was an incredible joy to see Avigail on her way home, he said, “There are many people who haven’t yet come back. I greatly want them to be returned and that the IDF finish what it has promised: all the hostages [back] and Hamas [destroyed].”

4-year-old Avigail Idan’s grandfather Carmel Idan speaks to the media after Avigail’s release from Hamas captivity, November 26, 2023. (Screenshot)

He said he had “an open wound that will never heal” with the murders of Smadar and Roee.

Asked what he would tell his granddaughter when he is allowed to see her, he said: “I won’t tell her anything. I’ll kiss her, stroke her, hug her. Speak, no? There’s nothing to say.”

Families from Kfar Aza said they had learned Saturday night that several of their neighbors were scheduled to be released, and had experienced an emotional rollercoaster capped by joy when the 14 Israeli hostages were confirmed to be in Israeli hands.

Hostages released by Hamas are seen through the window of a van in Ofakim as they are taken to an army base after their release from the Gaza Strip on November 26, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The release took place on time, following concerns the terror group would once again hold up proceedings, as it did on Saturday when it delayed the release of the second group for hours, putting the temporary truce deal at risk.

“We didn’t sleep all night from excitement,” said Meitar Yacobi, 30, who grew up on the kibbutz, in a house sandwiched between the Brodutch and Goldstein families, both of whom had members returning from 51 days of Hamas captivity.

Meitar Yacobi, who grew up in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in Shefayim on November 26, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

“No,” she said, she had not trusted Hamas to release them as promised, and “we were worried, we waited until the last minute to see if it would happen.” Her hopes were raised and then periodically dashed, especially following a vague report on Sky News that the Red Cross did not have complete confidence in the coming hostage transfer.

Yacobi, who is currently staying with her evacuated parents in Tel Aviv, said she came to Shefayim for the solidarity.

“I came to see and to feel with everyone. We’re all feeling the same feelings, here they understand us,” she said “I am really, really excited and happy but it’s a happiness that coupled with pain because I have friends who aren’t being freed in this deal,” she added, saying her “heart breaks” for them.

Waiting for this for 51 days

Amir Tibon gripped his head with emotion, as he studied the first picture of Ela and Dafna Elyakim, 8 and 15, after their release from captivity.

Tibon, a journalist and member of Nahal Oz, told another journalist: “I worried about all of them, all the three members of our kibbutz. But I’m telling you: Dafna was the one I thought the most about. She was the sunshine of the kibbutz. I have been waiting for this picture for 51 days.”

Hamas hostage Dafna Elyakim is seen in a Red Cross vehicle as she is handed over to Israel, November 26, 2023 (Video screenshot)

The sisters’ mother Maayan Zin later posted a photo of the three reunited.

Yael Raz-Lahiani was feeling “happiness filled with suspense” as news broke of the return of three members of Nahal Oz — the Elyakim sisters and Elma Avraham, 84.

“We are breathing three sighs of relief. But we are not relieved, not until all seven members of the kibbutz who have been abducted are back,” said Raz-Lahiani, a mother of three, at a press conference at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek near Afula. Living there are most of the surviving members of Nahal Oz, a small kibbutz of about 400, where 14 people were murdered by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

The joy over the release quickly turned to concern as the elderly Avraham was rushed to Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba. The hospital said Avraham was in serious and life-threatening condition.

Rotem Katz, an emergency officer at Nahal Oz, said the return of the hostages brought out emotional turmoil.

People wave to the convoy carrying newly released hostages from the Gaza Strip, in Ofakim, Israel on November 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

“It makes me happy, but it also shakes me to the core, it releases so many emotions,” said Katz. One of the emotions is guilt, Katz said. “It makes no sense, but these are people I was responsible for, yet one of the worst things imaginable happened to them. It’s jarring.”

Footage broadcast by Al Jazeera showed Hamas handing over some of the Israeli hostages to the Red Cross in Gaza City, amid a show of force of armed gunmen in a square. The Al Jazeera footage could indicate that the hostages were being held in areas of Gaza City that the IDF had not yet reached during its ground offensive in northern Gaza.

The many who remain

Following the release, 183 hostages are still held by Hamas and other terror factions in Gaza, according to a Times of Israel tally confirmed by the IDF spokesperson.

Hamas on Sunday announced that it was seeking to extend the truce beyond the initial four-day period in order to secure the release of additional Palestinian prisoners. The sides had previously agreed that each 10 Israeli hostages freed would extend the ceasefire by a single day.

In Shefayim, Shachar Tzuk-Bazak, 32, who personally survived the October 7 massacre because she was away on a family vacation, but lost two family members to the Hamas onslaught, said that she was “overjoyed” that several Kfar Aza residents were freed, but holds the Israeli government and military responsible for both the failure that led to their capture and the failure to return all hostages remaining in Gaza.

Shachar Tzuk-Bazak, from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, at Shefayim on November 26, 2023 as her neighbors are being released from Gaza. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Tzuk-Bazak said she expected the government to do all in its power to repatriate the remaining hostages. “I hold my government, my military chiefs responsible for their safety,” she said.

The Israeli government says military pressure created conditions for the current truce and hostage release, now in its third day. Tzuk-Bazak attributed the deal to international diplomatic efforts.

“I feel that those kids that are being freed today were in many ways left waiting for help that didn’t come” from Israel’s leaders, she said. “The gravitas of worldwide leaders helped to negotiate this deal. My government wasn’t enough, my military wasn’t enough to protect me and this is hard.”

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