AP — Avigayil Idan is just three years old, yet when Hamas terrorists stormed her kibbutz, Kfar Aza, on Oct. 7 and killed her parents, she knew enough to run to a neighbor’s for shelter.
The Brodutch family — mother Hagar and her three children — took Avigayil in as the rampage raged. Then all five disappeared, later confirmed by the government to be captives of Hamas, both families said, some of more than 200 people dragged to Gaza on Israel’s bloodiest day.
The waking nightmare has plunged the families of the captives into a foggy limbo distinct from grieving, even as tight-knit Israel mourns the more than 1,400 people killed by terrorists. The families of an estimated 30 children taken hostage from Israel describe a more exquisite agony, one of being haunted by the knowledge that their captive loved ones are defenseless.
“She’s a baby, just three years old, and she’s all alone,” said Avigayil’s aunt, Tal Idan, in a telephone interview, her voice quivering. “Maybe she was with a neighbor, but I don’t know if they’re still together. She has no one.”
Children in both Israel and Gaza have taken an outsized share of the toll from the Hamas massacre and the consequent intensifying Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-run enclave. Israel says it is seeking to eliminate the terror group while avoiding civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of using Gaza’s citizens as human shields.
Nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are children. The Hamas-run health ministry reported Thursday that the total death toll has soared past 7,000 Palestinians, including 2,913 minors. More than 800 children in Gaza remain missing, it said. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own terrorists and gunmen, killed in Israel and in Gaza, and the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by an Islamic Jihad missile misfire that Hamas falsely blamed on Israel. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.
Taking civilians hostage is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
But taking children hostage in a war is almost never done, said Danielle Gilbert, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, who has interviewed hundreds of captors and hostages in different countries. The reasoning is brutal: Abductors see value in live hostages, typically men ages 18 to 65. Children are less likely to survive the ordeal.
“Holding onto someone vulnerable and not predisposed to surviving in those conditions will make the kidnappers’ job more difficult,” Gilbert said. “It remains to be seen whether Hamas intended to take this wide a range of hostages.”
The families of the Israeli children being held describe lurching along a spectrum of emotions, from hope to despair and anger, with sleep elusive and distraction from worst-case thoughts welcome. Many are spending the time speaking to the media in a frantic drive for information, proof of life and their loved ones’ return.
Roee and Smadar Idan were buried Oct. 20, which began the traditional, seven-day Jewish mourning period. But there’s no precise ritual for children who are held hostage in war. So the Idans did their best to keep Avigayil present.
“She comes into my dreams,” said Tal, who is married to Roee’s brother, Amit. “She comes into every conversation we’re having here. Everyone keeps asking about her, how was her night was, if there is anyone holding her. Because she is all alone.”
Maayan Ziv is spending the interminable time without information on her missing daughters, Ella Elyakim, 8 and Dafna Elyakim, 15, spreading the word about them. On Oct. 7, they were visiting their father, Noam Elyakim, at Nahal Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, where he lived with his partner, Dikla Arava, and her son, Tomer, 17.
Video she viewed later appeared to show all five seated under duress, Dafna weeping and Noam bleeding from his leg, while terrorists make demands. Then she saw photos of the girls seated on mattresses in pajamas that weren’t their own. Two fingers on Ella’s hand appeared bandaged.
The bodies of Noam, Dikla and Tomer were later found near the border with Gaza, according to local media.
Now, Maayan says in interviews that she worries that the girls saw their father murdered. She tries not to think about who changed her daughters into other clothes. She wonders: What happened to Ella’s hand, and how is Dafna, who is old enough to understand what’s happening?
Maayan was happy to hear that four hostages had been released, and hoped that her daughters will be next. She hasn’t been sleeping well.
“I’m thinking that I hope that they won’t return them to me in a coffin,” Maayan Ziv said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a rollercoaster of feelings.”
Some families who spent the first few weeks careful not to criticize the government publicly are losing patience.
“We’ve been abandoned by our government twice: On Oct. 7, and now, because our children are still there,” said Hadas Calderon, whose son, Erez, turned 12 in captivity Thursday.
Avichai Brodutch, the bereft husband of Hagar, 40, and father of Ofri, 10, Yuval, 8 and Uriah, 4 who disappeared along with Avigayil, pulled up a chair across the street from Israeli army headquarters at 3 a.m. one recent night and held up a sign. “My family,” it read, “is in Gaza.”
Hadas Calderon, Erez’s mother, says she has barely had a moment to grieve her own mother, Carmela, 80, and niece, Noya, 12, who were killed at Nir Oz. She’s too busy campaigning for the release of the rest of her family: Erez, Sahar, 16, and Ofer, 53, the children’s father.
She told reporters Thursday that a video exists showing them in captivity. At first she refused to watch it.
“And then I’m very very happy because it means that he’s alive,” she said. “And then I’m very happy they’ve been kidnapped, because the other choice was to be murdered. To save their life is to save my life.”
She says she finds herself moving along a sliding scale of emotions. Erez, she recalled, has long been afraid of being alone, fearing just such an event.
“Now it’s like his worst nightmare come true,” said Hadas said of the boy she says is “full of love.”
“I can hear him all the time,” she added. “I hear him crying and screaming to me, ‘Mom, Mom, save me.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.