Relatives of US hostages lament apathy to their plight among American public

Families say deal ‘with the devil’ only way to free their loved ones, note stark difference between warm embrace of US officials and ‘lack of knowledge’ by members of the public

Families of Americans being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, from left, Jonathan Dekel-Chan, Ruby Chen, Ronen Neutra and Orna Neutra, are interviewed by the Associated Press, June 5, 2024. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Families of Americans being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, from left, Jonathan Dekel-Chan, Ruby Chen, Ronen Neutra and Orna Neutra, are interviewed by the Associated Press, June 5, 2024. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jonathan Dekel-Chen dreams of the moment when his abducted 35-year-old son, Sagui, is reunited with his wife and three young children, including a daughter born two months after the devastating attack on Israel on October 7th that initiated the war.

Ruby Chen longs to recover the remains of his 19-year-old son, Itay — a soldier who Israeli intelligence says was killed in the October 7 massacre — so that he can be buried and his “soul” finally given “a place to rest,” in accordance with Jewish practices.

For many Americans, the Israeli-Hamas war is seen through the daily reports of Israeli ground incursions and airstrikes in Gaza and warnings of a humanitarian crisis. There are college campuses riven by anti-Israel protests and great uncertainty over ceasefire prospects.

But the families of the Americans taken hostage are laser-focused on one thing: their loved ones. They fear that with all the tumult of the war, Americans often forget about their fellow citizens who remain missing. They’re doing whatever they can to make sure they are not forgotten and to keep pushing to get them — or their remains — back home.

“For most of us, we are doers. So we wake up in the morning and we say, what are we doing today? What’s on the agenda?” said Ronen Neutra, whose son, Omer, a dual Israeli-American citizen and Israel Defense Forces soldier was ambushed and pulled from a tank on October 7. “What can I do to make sure that my son will come back home today?”

The families were in Washington this week for meetings with US government officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department is investigating the deaths and kidnapping of Americans at the hands of Hamas. The meetings came at a sensitive time as Washington endeavors to get Israel and Hamas to commit to a ceasefire deal to end the eight-month-old war.

Families of Americans being held hostage in Gaza by Hamas walk into the US Justice Department for a meeting with Attorney General Merrick Garland, June 5, 2024, in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Speaking as a group Wednesday to The Associated Press, the families recounted their shared sadness, angst and uncertainty but also their hopes for a resolution that would result in the release of scores of hostages, including their loved ones. Eight Americans are believed to be held by Hamas, including three who were killed.

The three-part proposal described on May 31 by US President Joe Biden calls for a full and complete ceasefire, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from densely populated areas of Gaza, and the release of hostages — initially women, the elderly and the wounded and later, all living remaining captives, including male soldiers.

“The only way they are going to emerge alive from these Hamas tunnels is through some sort of negotiated agreement with the devil, which is Hamas,” said Dekel-Chen, whose son was kidnapped while protecting his kibbutz, Nir Oz, which endured a disproportionate toll of murders and hostage-taking by Hamas.

“Hamas clearly has to be forced or coerced to enter negotiations and complete them,” he said, and must decide whether it’s about “perpetual warfare and perpetual suffering of its own people” or about “some better future.” The Israeli government, for its part, must “stay the course” and “put aside any kind of narrow political interests” for the good of the country, he said.

That won’t necessarily be easy, given the possibility that a ceasefire deal would shatter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Netanyahu says he is committed to bringing the hostages home, but also says he won’t end the war without destroying Hamas. He and hardliners in his coalition fear a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza before reaching this goal could allow Hamas to claim victory and reconstitute itself.

The meetings with American officials were the latest in a series of sit-downs that began last fall, shortly after the devastating Hamas onslaught in southern communities when terrorists murdered some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 251 hostages to Gaza.

So much has changed since then.

The remains of the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists when they infiltrated Kibbutz Nirim on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, January 21, 2024. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The resulting Israeli assault on Gaza has displaced most of the territory’s population and killed over 36,000 Palestinians, according to unverified figures by the Hamas-run health ministry. Of these, some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals or through self-reporting by families, with the rest of the figure based on vague Hamas “media sources.” The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Israel has drawn global criticism, with a UN court calling on Israel to halt military operations in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah that would risk the destruction of the civilian population sheltering there, while American universities from Columbia to Stanford have been convulsed by anti-Israel protests.

In Israel, thousands have protested the government, criticizing Netanyahu over his approach to the war and demanding he do more to bring back the 120 hostages still in Gaza, not all of them alive.

Many hostage families have been at the forefront of the protest movement.

The American hostage families were measured in discussing the Israeli government’s approach, placing the onus more on Hamas.

And they say the warm embrace they have received from US officials exposes a disconnect with the general American public, which they consider to be more apathetic to their plight and ignorant of the fact that so many hostages remain in captivity.

“I think there’s also a lack of knowledge,” Chen said. “I think the majority of the US people are not aware that on October 7th, this was also an attack on the United States.”

A passerby observes photos of hostages held in the Gaza Strip that are plastered to the walls of a plaza known as Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, Israel, May 17, 2024 (AP/Oded Balilty).

Compounding the sadness eight months into the war is a steady drip of somber Israeli government announcements of additional hostage fatalities — most recently on Monday, when the military declared four hostages who had been kidnapped on October 7 as now dead. Adding to the pain, the four men had been seen alive in videos released by Hamas, meaning they died in captivity, possibly from Israeli fire.

Chen spent months hoping his son, an NBA-loving soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, was alive, only to learn earlier this year that he had been killed.

“He was taken hostage even though he was killed. Who does that? Savages. Who takes dead people as negotiating chips?” he said.

Andrea Weinstein received similar news after the government in late December disclosed the deaths of her sister Judy — previously thought to be among the living hostages — and her sister’s husband, Gad Haggai. Weinstein, a teacher with a creative spirit who used puppets to help students find their voices, was on a morning walk with her husband when the attack unfolded, her sister said.

Their bodies remain in Gaza.

Optimistic feelings come in cycles for Omer Neutra’s mother, Orna, who said she could not have imagined eight months ago that the family would still be in the same position now. She is hopeful but also guarded.

“[On] October 6, it was a different life,” she said. “Nothing is the same for us.”

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