Relatives of the two hostages rescued in a daring overnight operation in the Gaza Strip described their disbelief and excitement upon seeing their loved ones, who were starved and pale but alive after 128 days of captivity by Hamas terrorists.
But the operation was highly significant, as it marked a long-awaited reunification of a family that is now together again after three of their relatives who were also captured were freed in a temporary ceasefire in November.
Rinat Har Sheleg, Har’s daughter, said that Har and Marman are “very weak but in a stable condition,” after seeing her father for the first time in over four months.
“My father is in shock. They thought they were going to die from the bombardments, and that they would be hurt,” she told the Ynet news site, noting they were held under “unfavorable conditions” while in Gaza.
“They were not in tunnels, but they were hungry. They mostly ate pita, cheese, and labneh, no meat or anything else. There were days when they would go hungry,” she said, adding that they haven’t described much further, and the family was keeping some details private.
“In captivity, they spoke a lot about soccer with the hostages. I don’t know if they showered, and we didn’t ask. We want to give my father time. At the moment we aren’t pressuring him and not interfering too much. My father is very skinny, Fernando is also. They lost half of their body weight,” she said and expressed hope the remaining hostages would be released.
In a statement Monday evening, the Sheba Medical Center said Har and Marman were in stable condition, but that the signs of their captivity were clear, and neither received any medical attention during their time held hostage.
ושבו בנים לגבולם:
תיעוד רגעי המפגש של פרננדו מרמן ולואיס הר, שחולצו הלילה מעזה, עם בני משפחתם, במרכז הרפואי שיבא תל השומר.
וידאו: דובר צה"ל pic.twitter.com/efXKxKP98S
— ראש ממשלת ישראל (@IsraeliPM_heb) February 12, 2024
“We expect further follow-up and checks, and we are very happy and feel the embrace of the entire nation of Israel,” said Dr. Yael Frankel-Nir, deputy manager of Sheba.
Har and Marman were taken hostage from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak by Hamas terrorists on October 7, along with Clara Marman, 62, who is Marman’s sister and Har’s partner, their other sister Gabriela Leimberg, 59, and Gabriela’s daughter, Mia Leimberg, 17.
The women and teenager were freed on November 28 as part of the weeklong truce deal that secured the release of 105 of the 253 hostages taken on October 7.
Mia Leimberg gained particular attention after it emerged that she had had her pet dog Bella with her for the duration of the captivity.
Marman, his sister Gabriela, and her daughter Mia were visiting the kibbutz for the Simchat Torah holiday weekend.
The extended family of five were hiding in their safe room that morning, trying to keep the heavy door jammed shut with a chair. When the terrorists broke into the home and ordered them out of the room, they were sure they were about to be killed.
Mayaan Segal-Koren, Marman’s niece, said her partner, who woke her in the middle of the night to tell her of the rescue, had to relay the information a few times before she understood.
“Unlike the release of my mother, my aunt, and my cousin on November 28 with the agonizing wait, this time we didn’t know it was coming. It was a shock, it took me a few moments to understand what to do,” she told Ynet.
Meeting her uncle was “very exciting,” she said. “I repeated the same sentence while we hugged. ‘I don’t believe you are here.'”
She said the two hostages argued during their time in Gaza over Israel’s efforts to secure their release, stating that “Fernando was more optimistic and believed that something was being done to free them.”
“Louis was probably a little more pessimistic, and said he thought that probably nothing was being done, or not much was being done,” she said, adding they were clueless about what was going on in Israel.
She hailed the “heroism” of the soldiers that freed them and said she would continue to campaign for a deal to release the remaining hostages.
“They brought my father from the darkness,” Natalie Afghan, Har’s other daughter told Channel 13. “Now my heart is whole. We are still in shock, stunned. I just want to hug Dad.”
“They didn’t understand what was happening during the rescue. Fortunately, everything went smoothly,” she said.
“It’s impossible to explain the feeling we’re experiencing right now, it’s just shock. We are all very excited, the grandchildren are not ready to leave Louis,” she added.
Afghan added that despite promises, her father did not receive medicine that was transferred into the Gaza Strip as part of a Qatar-brokered deal last month.
Louis Har’s son-in-law Edan Bejerano told Channel 12 it was a “surrealistic” feeling to see the family’s hopes and prayers fulfilled.
“Shortly after 3 a.m. I came back from the airport because my son had returned from abroad. I got home, I was about to go to sleep, and after 15 minutes there was a call… They said, ‘Come, he’s here.’”
“There were hugs, tears. Not many words,” he said. “It seems he was very worried about us all.”
Asked about his first impressions of the pair, Bejerano said: “We met him, he is still in his bed, undergoing tests. He looks thin, pale, a bit shocked by all the commotion, and by what has happened to him. For 128 days he was in a very difficult, very complicated situation. He spoke less about what happened there, and more tried to worry and understand what was happening with us, what is happening with the children, what is happening with the grandchildren.”
Speaking to reporters later on, Bejerano also urged leaders to “be serious and strike a deal” to free the remaining hostages.
“The Israeli people need the deal done. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, today,” he said.
Geffen Sigal Ilan, Marman’s other niece, and the daughter of Har’s partner Clara, told the Kan public broadcaster that their captors waged “psychological warfare” against them until the last moment.
“Until yesterday, they told them everyone had gone back to work, and nobody was waiting or searching for them. They believed it, and continued to strengthen one another,” she said.
“From two o’clock in the morning, we started hearing booms and noises,” said Moshe Schori, from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, who recounted hearing the raid, adding that “we couldn’t sleep.”
“Only in the morning we saw on the news that they (Israeli forces) released two people who were in our kibbutz,” he added, standing outside the home from which they were snatched on October 7.
Families of other hostages held in Gaza also expressed joy over the rescue operation, but highlighted that their own loved ones remained in Gaza, and continued to urge for an agreement to bring the remaining captives home.
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אילה מצגר במסר אישי:
"בוקר טוב לכל הפעילים והתומכים.
בוקר טוב כי היה הלילה מבצע צבאי מאוד משמח, ויחד עם זאת, אני כאן להזכיר שלא נעצור, שלא ננוח על זרי הדפנה.
לא יהיו פה עוד הרבה מבצעים כאלה.
צה"ל מתכונן הרבה זמן לכל מבצע כזה, רוב הפעמים… pic.twitter.com/1hqM3nRc9L
— Eyal ???? (@NoButtsIL) February 12, 2024
In a video posted to social media, Ayala Metzger, whose in-laws Yoram and Tami Metzger remain hostage in Gaza, welcomed the rescue of Marman and Har and called for a hostage deal.
“It needs to be remembered that 134 hostages are still held captive by Hamas, and we need to do everything to bring them home,” she said.
“The upcoming days are critical for a decision on a framework, if we are going with it or not,” she added, calling for supporters to increase pressure on the government to agree to a deal, even if there are “heavy costs.”
Iris Haim, whose son Yotam Haim was killed accidentally by the IDF in a tragic incident in December along with two other hostages who had escaped captivity, said that her feelings were “mixed” upon the rescue of Marman and Har — both happiness for the families but sadness over her own loss.
“We, and I personally, made efforts to not have the feeling of a missed opportunity, what could have happened if,” she told Kan radio, adding that she knew there would be a day when hostages would be successfully rescued.
It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, including in Monday’s operation, and the bodies of 11 hostages have been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.
The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new 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 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, as well as the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014.
AFP contributed to this report.