ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Released hostage Ofir Engel, 18, ‘physically okay,’ says dad; emotionally, ‘we’ll see’

Kibbutz Ramat Rachel basketball player was freed after 54 days in ‘a tiny room,’ having been abducted when visiting his girlfriend at Kibbutz Be’eri; her father is still held hostage

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Ofir Engel (middle), pictured a few days after his release from Hamas captivity on November 29, 2023; his girlfriend, Yuval Sharabi, is at left. (Courtesy)
Ofir Engel (middle), pictured a few days after his release from Hamas captivity on November 29, 2023; his girlfriend, Yuval Sharabi, is at left. (Courtesy)

It’s been four days since Ofir Engel, 18, was released from captivity in Gaza, and so far, at least in terms of his physical condition, he is alright, said his father, Yoav Engel.

“Physically, he’s okay,” Yoav Engel told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “It’s hard to say how he is emotionally. They say kids are elastic; maybe they are psychologically as well. With time, we’ll see what happens.”

Ofir Engel, from the Jerusalem-area Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, was abducted on October 7 from Kibbutz Be’eri, where he was visiting his girlfriend Yuval Sharabi and her family for the Simchat Torah holiday weekend.

That morning, as Hamas terrorists attacked the kibbutz, they took Engel along with Yuval’s father Yossi Sharabi, and a neighbor’s son, Amit Shani, 16, as their families watched in terror and disbelief.

Families of the released hostages are limited in what they can share about their loved ones’ captivity. What the Engels have been told is that Ofir, Shani and Sharabi were held together the entire time in “a tiny room with little food,” said Yoav Engel.

“He tells us all the stories, he wants to tell all that he knows in order to help others,” said Yoav. “It also helps him.”

Both Ofir Engel and Amit Shani marked their birthdays in captivity — Ofir turned 18 and Amit turned 16 — and Yoav Engel said they knew how many days passed while being held hostage.

“They lived in that reality of theirs, and we were in a different one here,” said Yoav Engel, adding that Ofir still doesn’t grasp the extent of the local and international efforts made to publicize the hostages’ faces, names and stories.

His father pointed out the banners and the yellow ribbons tied everywhere, the dog tags being worn, but Ofir, said Yoav, had no clue. Ofir, recovering in the hospital, “hasn’t seen all of that yet,” he said.

Ofir doesn’t know about rocker Aviv Geffen coming to sing in his Ramat Rachel backyard, or about Hapoel Jerusalem basketball fans making videos, cheering, shouting for Ofir and the other hostages to be brought home.

And yet, said Engel, the three of them — Ofir, Amit and Yossi — knew about the war, the ceasefire and about the release of the children and women.

“They knew they would be leaving Yossi there,” he said.

Amit Shani, left, and Ofir Engel, middle, reuniting with friends after their release on November 29, 2023, from 54 days of Hamas captivity in Gaza (Courtesy)

Ofir and Amit were both released on November 29.

Yossi Sharabi, 51, is still held hostage in Gaza.

Ofir, a healthy, basketball-playing 12th-grader before being taken hostage, is still at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva where he’s resting and recovering, said his father.

“We’re waiting for another day or two to see if he’s ready to come home,” said Yoav Engel. “He’s back, but it’s been a gap of two months. You have to figure out the best way to slowly return him to his life. That will take time.”

In the meantime, he reunited with his family, with girlfriend Yuval, and with other friends and family.

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While the Engel family — which includes Ofir’s parents and sisters, as well as his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, all of whom live on the kibbutz as well — are rejoicing at Ofir’s return, they’re committed to fighting for the return of the rest of the hostages and doing everything in their power to share Ofir’s story.

“We have our boy with his stories, and we don’t want anyone else to be there for even another day,” said Engel. “We’ll fight until the last one comes home.”

Engel’s grandfather, Yosef “Jucha” Engel, who once worked closely with Shimon Peres, as well as Ofir’s aunt Yael Lichi Engel, repeatedly said in interviews that they didn’t feel the government sufficiently grasped the enormity of the hostage situation.

Yoav Engel said he would keep working with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum to press the government on its efforts to bring every hostage home.

“That’s the government’s job,” he said.

“Netanyahu listed the names of the released hostages as if he were giving out graduation certificates,” said Engel, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference at the Kiryah army headquarters in Tel Aviv Saturday night.

“He should be apologizing to us that they were ever taken captive in the first place,” he said. “Instead, he read off their names like he was doing roll call at a day camp.”

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