Relatives of Americans thought abducted to Gaza urge Biden ‘not to take a backseat’

At a press conference, families put a human face on loved ones whose last actions as free citizens demonstrated valor and resolve

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A press conference held by relatives of missing US citizens, in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023. (Eliyahu Friedman/JTA)
A press conference held by relatives of missing US citizens, in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023. (Eliyahu Friedman/JTA)

Flanked by an Israeli flag and an American one, Rachel Goldberg quoted the last message she received from her son, who was at the large outdoor festival where 260 people were killed on Saturday.

“I love you,” Hersh Goldberg-Polin wrote in a text message just after 8 a.m. Saturday, followed immediately by a second message that said: “I’m sorry.”

Goldberg, a mother of three, recalled those moments at a press conference Tuesday that she attended with four other dual citizens of Israel and the United States whose loved ones were missing following Hamas’s deadly shock incursion into Israel Saturday.

The conference, which a rocket alarm briefly interrupted, and some of the language that it featured were designed to resonate with an American audience in the hope of ensuring the maximum level of US commitment and involvement in efforts to retrieve at least four US citizens who went missing and may have been abducted (there are 10 dual citizens believed to be missing.)

At least 900 Israelis — and some foreign nationals — were slaughtered by Hamas after its men stormed into southern Israel and opened fire at the music festival near Kibbutz Re’im and in numerous border towns on Saturday. Bodies are still being located and collected and the death toll is expected to rise. In addition, around 150 Israelis and foreign nationals are believed to be held captive by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza after they were snatched by terrorists.

Families of US citizens thought kidnapped by Hamas to Gaza hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, October 10, 2023. (Video screenshot)

Goldberg, who took her son’s most recent message to mean an apology for the pain and worry that she would soon be hurled into because of his situation, shared information about her son that shocked the 30-odd journalists in the room.

“His arm from the elbow down was severed, was blown off,” the mother said calmly, summarizing information that her family has gleaned over the past 72 hours from other survivors.

Hersh tied a tourniquet around his injured arm in a bomb shelter where he and other festival participants hid from the gunmen who tried to hunt them down on the grounds of a music festival. The terrorists caught the survivors and marched those who could walk out, put them on a pickup truck and drove them off.

Jonathan Polin, Hersh’s father, added that witnesses also said Hersh and a friend of his saved the lives of people in the bomb shelter by throwing out a grenade that the terrorists had lobbed in.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen pleads at a press conference in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2023, with the US government to take a prominent role in the release of its citizens, including his son Sagui, who are believed to be prisoners of Hamas in Gaza. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Jonathan Dekel-Chen described efforts to retrieve his son Sagui from Gaza as part of a fight between good and evil. The United States, Dekel-Chen said, needs to side with good.

“I’m a lifetime member of kibbutzim on the border,” Dekel-Chen, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said in his introduction. Since 1990, he’s been living in Kibbutz Nir Oz with his children and grandchildren. “Kibbutz Nir Oz is no more, it was destroyed in a barbaric, inhuman attack,” the academic said, adding that out of about 400 members, only 160 are known to have survived.

Dekel-Chen proceeded to deliver a heart-rending description of his son who went missing, and who seems to epitomize the volunteering and hardy spirit that many believe characterizes the broader community of immigrants from English-speaking countries.

Sagui, who is 35 and has two daughters and another one on the way with his pregnant wife, “is exactly the kind of son that every father would want to have,” said Dekel-Chen, “a leader, a friend, a loving man.”

Sagui is believed to have gone missing while fighting along with other men from the kibbutz, many of whom have been found dead. But Sagui disappeared, leaving his family to hope that he is still alive and being held prisoner by Hamas in Gaza.

“I’m what is called a peacenik in Israel,” Dekel-Chen added. “But what we’ve witnessed, this kind of savagery, this kind of inhumanity, must be stopped.”

Several of the relatives of missing US citizens asked US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to intervene for the release of their relatives and others held by Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as US President Joe Biden addresses the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 7, 2023. (Jim Watson/AFP)

Blinken said Sunday that the US is “actively working” to verify reports of missing or dead US citizens. “We have reports that several Americans may be among the dead. We are very actively working to verify those reports. Similarly, we’ve seen reports about hostages, and there, again, we’re very actively trying to verify them and nail that down,” he told NBC.

Two of the four children of Adrienne Neta, 66, a retired nurse and midwife who made aliyah from California in 1981, heard her suspected abduction from Kibbutz Be’eri — a border town that was the site of a massacre in which more than 100 people were killed — on the phone, her eldest, Nahar, said during the conference.

Adrienne called her children in a conference call when she heard gunshot sounds outside her home. Terrorists busted into the sheltered area where she was holed up as her children tried to calm her down on the phone. They heard Adrienne scream until her side of the conversation fell silent.

Neta said there had been “zero communication from the Israeli government” on the situation and that none of the families has received an official notification that their loved ones are being held as hostages.

“I can appreciate the total mayhem and mess that the combat environment is creating, but I think that after three days… now is more than a reasonable request to have somebody from the Israeli government or the US administration [approach] us with any kind of information that they may have,” he said.

Diana, the youngest of Adrienne Neta’s children, contrasted her mother’s dedication as a nurse in Beersheba’s Soroka hospital with the actions of the Hamas terrorists.

“When she walked into a delivery [room] she saw a human being in front of her,” she said. “Not a religion, not a race, not a hijab, not an Orthodox Jew.”

Rubi Chen wears a t-shirt with a portrait of his missing son during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 10, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Rubi Chen, the New York City-born father of Itai Chen, an Israel Defense Forces soldier who went missing Saturday, said that his son asked to stay on base near Gaza Saturday so that he would be able to spend the following weekend at home to celebrate the bar mitzvah of his younger brother Alon.

He added, “I invite all the people who want to celebrate with us to join the bar mitzvah… and pray for all the hostages who are missing,” and also pleaded to Hamas to “treat him as a prisoner of war according to international law.”

“Please think of us not just as a headline,” said Chen. “We’re people. We’re families. We want to be families again. We want to amplify this message to the US government, which has been saying all the right things. But we want to ask it not to take a backseat.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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