Interview'After October 7, I feel equal to everyone else'

‘We challenge the narrative that Hamas are good Muslims,’ says Bedouin hostages’ relative

Bashir Ziyadne has been lobbying for the release of two family members held in Gaza, protesting the Israeli government’s perceived inaction and the Arab world’s indifference

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Bashir Ziyadne, 28, at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, holding images of his second cousin Youssef Ziyadne and Youssef's son Hamza, taken hostage by Hamas, June 27, 2024. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
Bashir Ziyadne, 28, at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, holding images of his second cousin Youssef Ziyadne and Youssef's son Hamza, taken hostage by Hamas, June 27, 2024. (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Bashir Ziyadne, 28, has spent the past nine months campaigning for the release of his relatives, still in the hands of Hamas: his second cousin, Youssef Ziyadne, 53, and Youssef’s son, Hamza, 22, who were abducted to Gaza while working in Kibbutz Holit on the Gaza border on October 7.

The Ziyadne are a Bedouin clan from the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Youssef’s two teenage children, Bilal, 18, and Aisha, 17, were also taken hostage, but were freed on November 30 after more than 50 days in Hamas’s captivity, in a ceasefire deal that saw the release of a total of 105 hostages, mainly children and their mothers, the elderly, and foreign workers.

Since that tragic day, Bashir Ziyadne has come forward as the family’s English-speaking spokesperson. At least once a week, he is involved in public advocacy activities to lobby for the release of his hostage relatives, meeting with international press, diplomats, or groups of foreign visitors.

His involvement has become increasingly outspoken and political. Two weeks ago, he took the podium at a rally calling for an immediate deal to release the hostages, and for elections to replace the Netanyahu government.

“On October 7, like countless families in the south and the north, my family and I woke up to a nightmare that, in my opinion, a responsible government could have easily prevented,” he said at the outset of his speech, to cheers from the crowd.

The protest was held in Beersheba, the southern city where Ziyadne studies law. He is originally from nearby Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel.

Over the first two months after October 7, Ziyadne said, he met twice with members of the now-defunct war cabinet, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

But soon after the weeklong ceasefire with Hamas at the end of November, Israeli politicians seemed to have forgotten about his family, he said.

“The problem is, the government is not doing what it is supposed to do, namely bring back the hostages. We feel that every politician is conducting his own election campaign,” Ziyadne said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum headquarters in Tel Aviv.

More recently, the law student met with high-profile international actors, such as former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan, during their respective visits to Israel.

The four members of the Bedouin Ziyadne family – a father and three children – from near Rahat, in southern Israel, who were kidnapped by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and taken to Gaza as hostages. From top left, clockwise: Aisha (17), Youssef (53), Bilal (18), and Hamza (23) (courtesy)

The Ziyadne clan was hit hard on October 7. Beside Youssef and his three children abducted to Gaza, another family member, Abd Alrahman Atef Ziyadne, 26, was murdered by terrorists while camping on Zikim Beach, north of the Gaza Strip. His body was only found days later, riddled with 11 bullets.

Another relative, also named Youssef Ziyadne, 47, is credited with having rescued 30 people from the Supernova party in his minibus, and possibly hundreds more, as revelers followed his vehicle in their cars as they scrambled to find a way out of the site of the massacre.

Ziyadne did not conceal the difficulty of being a student while he and his family are gripped by anxiety for the fate of their loved ones, and during the disruptions caused by the war to the academic calendar and the time he devotes to his PR engagements. “I’m still trying to make something out of the current year,” he said.

As he was thrust into the spotlight, the tragedy that befell the Ziyadne family ended up having unexpected repercussions on his personal life, and on how he perceives his place inside Israeli society as part of a marginalized minority.

“Before October 7, I didn’t feel equal to [Israeli] Jews, to be honest. I felt that there is a way for me to feel equal, but I need to work harder than them,” he said.

“Because of the nation-state law, I always felt that at some point I would hit a glass ceiling,” he added, referring to a controversial 2018 law that defined Israel as the Jewish nation-state and abolished the status of Arabic as an official language, “even though I get help from the government, which covers most of my tuition fees in the framework of affirmative action.”

“But after all that happened after October 7, I feel equal to everyone else,” he said.

This handout picture released by Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) on December 1, 2023, shows former Arab Israeli hostages 18-year-old Bilal Ziyadne (R) and 17-year-old Aisha Ziyadne (L) reunited with a relative at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, following their release by Hamas on November 30, 2023. (GPO / AFP

The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

The Times of Israel: What is the latest update you’ve received about your two family members still held by Hamas, your second cousin Youssef Ziyadne and his son Hamza?

Bashir Ziyadne: My family hasn’t received any updates for over 200 days. What we know is what Bilal and Aisha told us after their release from their 54-day captivity, during the temporary ceasefire.

They didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to their father and older brother. When the time came for their release, Hamas told them to get up, blindfolded them and took them out of the tunnel.

When the four of them were captured, they told Hamas that they were Muslims. Hamas responded with an Arabic sentence meaning “You should not be afraid.” But they still took them hostage.

We know that they were kept together in a tunnel, were given Quran books and prayer mats, and enough food not to starve. They were not talked to, which is very odd because the other Jewish hostages who came back from captivity said that Hamas spoke with them a lot, and conducted psychological warfare.

Aisha Ziyadne, 17, released by Hamas on November 30, 2023, is reunited with relatives at Soroka Medical Center. (Courtesy: Soroka)

Jewish hostages were shown maps of Israel and told, “This is now Palestine.” They were told the government does not care about them. But to my relatives, Hamas said nothing.

The four of them thought they were the only ones who had been taken captive, and they assumed that only a handful of people had been killed.

They feared that they could die at any point. Every day, they thought the next day would be their last day. And then the following day, the same.

We, the family, were very much opposed to them being freed “for a ransom,” in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a ceasefire. We demanded from the start that they be released without a deal. [Hamas] has no right to keep Muslim prisoners to achieve the release of other Muslim prisoners. It claims to be an Islamic group, that it does not hurt Muslims. Then how come it did?

Members of the Ziyadne family embrace upon the release of Bilal and Aiysha at the Soroka Medical Center, December 1, 2023. (Courtesy)

How are Bilal and Aisha coping with what they experienced, seven months after their release?

They are doing okay, but are still very frightened. They don’t act the way they used to, and they feel guilty that they left their father and brother behind.

They have been seeing therapists, which is something very unusual in our culture. Before October 7, I can guarantee that no one from my family knew what PTSD was. They didn’t even believe in psychology. Today, they do.

The therapy is provided by the Hostages Families’ Forum. They also provide Aisha and Bilal with private Hebrew language classes, which they don’t know because they grew up in an unrecognized village.

[The large Ziyadne clan is scattered between the city of Rahat and a handful of villages outside the urban area. The dwelling where Bilal and Aysha grew up is a village that is not recognized by the Israeli land authority, and therefore the government does not provide basic infrastructure or services to its residents, including education. Like other children in their village, Bilal and Aysha have to go to Rahat for school, but logistical difficulties render their attendance irregular.]

Men of the Ziyadne family during a vigil for the four members of their family kidnapped to Gaza by Hamas, in Rahat, October 30, 2023. (Eli Katzoff/ Times of Israel)

In March, your relative Ali Ziyadne, Youssef’s brother, confronted the Palestinian envoy to the UN [Riyad Mansour], demanding answers regarding Youssef and Hamza’s protracted captivity in Gaza. Did that have any effect?

My family was quite disappointed with Ali shouting at the Palestinian diplomat at the UN. First of all, the person in question was from the Palestinian Authority, not from Hamas, so he was not the right address. There was no way he could help us.

My family was quite distressed at what Ali did, and at the fact that the video went viral. We don’t want that much attention, because we are very afraid for the lives of our family members who are still held hostage in Gaza. We don’t really want to challenge Hamas.

Has your family received any support from Arab and Muslim countries?

I know that a delegation from the Islamic Movement in Rahat traveled to Qatar, but nobody from Muslim countries has been in touch with us.

For Jews, there is one Jewish country that is responsible for taking care of everyone. For us, there is no single Muslim country, and there is no legal obligation for other countries to take care of us. There is maybe a moral obligation, but that applies to all the other hostages as well, not only the Muslim ones.

Are you disappointed with their lack of support?

No. We are Israeli citizens, and we demand from the Israeli government to make sure that the hostages are back – not only my relatives but all of them. I come here [to the headquarters of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum] regularly, I meet with all the other families, and I know that behind each name there is a human life. I worry about them too.

I see the Israeli government and Hamas treating the hostages as pawns. They take them, move them around. But when I meet with the families [of other hostages], and hear their personal stories, I am reminded that they are real people with goals and dreams.

Ali Ziyadne showing an image on his phone of his brother Youssef and his nephews Bilal and Hamza, kidnapped by Hamas and taken hostage in Gaza on October 7, Rahat, October 30, 2023. (Eli Katzoff / Times of Israel)

If our government really saw all the hostages as human beings and not as pawns, I think there would already have been a deal.

I don’t have anything to say to Hamas, because I am not represented by them. I see Hamas as a terrorist organization, so I don’t expect much of them.

I’m an Israeli citizen, and I am represented by Israel. I want to see that my government, which takes pride in the fact that we choose life over death, will actually walk the talk.

To tell the truth, I am a bit disappointed with the Hostages Family Forum. I think we are too polite. We are trying too hard not to hurt anyone inside Israeli society. [The Forum has adopted an explicit stance of political neutrality]. But I think we should be firmer in demanding new elections.

Illustrative: Danny Elgarat, brother of hostage Itzik Elgarat, speaks at weekly hostage families protest in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square on June 29, 2024. (Adar Eyal/Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

How would that help overcome the stalemate with Hamas, in your view?

I don’t think that this current government will bring back the hostages, and I think that’s something that we should have realized months ago. Because in a government where you have members such as [Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich, it’s very hard to be optimistic. They’d be willing to sacrifice the hostages for their own political gain.

[Ziyadne referred to the national security minister and the finance minister respectively, two firebrand government members known for their hardline stances in negotiations with Hamas and other Palestinian groups.]

Hamas’s foremost condition to release the hostages is for the IDF to stop all military activity inside the Gaza Strip and withdraw its forces. Should this or any other Israeli government agree to that condition?

If that is what Hamas wants, so be it. I don’t think Hamas will refrain from shooting rockets at Israel in the months after the ceasefire, and when it does, it will be legitimate for Israel to attack it again. But destroying Hamas is impossible; even the IDF spokesperson recently admitted that Hamas is an idea that cannot be eradicated.

In order to destroy an idea, one should put forward an alternative. I’m not a politician and I can’t say what the right thing to do would be right now, but I am 100% positive that the goals of the war are not realistic. We must think of a way to pressure our current government to come to its senses.

The families of Bedouin hostages, including your own, have mostly maintained a low profile, keeping media appearances to a minimum or avoiding them altogether. This is quite striking compared to most families of Jewish hostages, some of whom have embarked upon international campaigns to call for the release of their loved ones. Why is that?

[Beside Youssef and Hamza Ziyadne, there are two other Bedouin hostages in the hands of Hamas, Farhan al-Qadi, 52, abducted on October 7 from his workplace in a moshav near Gaza, and Hisham al-Sayed, who according to Israeli authority is mentally unstable and entered Gaza of his own accord in 2014 and has been in Hamas captivity ever since. His father Sha’ban has issued appeals for his release on various occasions over the past decade. Another member of the Bedouin minority, Mohammed Alatrash, was presumed to have been taken captive, but the IDF revealed last week that he was killed on October 7 and his body taken to Gaza. A sixth Bedouin hostage, Samar Talalka, was mistakenly killed by the IDF in December with two other hostages, after they had managed to escape from captivity.]

The families of Bedouin hostages are caught between a rock and a hard place. Some in Arab countries view us as collaborators and traitors because we are part of the Families Forum and demand the release of all the hostages. They see reality as black and white, either our [Arab] narrative or their [Israeli] narrative, but the situation of the families of Bedouin hostages is quite the same as that of the Jewish hostages.

Al Jazeera did not want to speak with us, because we challenge their narrative that Hamas is the resistance, that they’re good Muslims. Some Muslim viewers would be okay with the fact that Hamas killed Jews in Israel because they think every one of them is a soldier or a potential soldier. Hamas always says that there are no real civilians in Israel, including children. Some think that each [Israeli] is eventually going to join the army, so it’s okay to kill them. By the way, nobody from my family served in the IDF.

People really like this polarization where Israel is portrayed as the occupier and Palestinians as freedom fighters, but it’s not true. We [Bedouins] show that Hamas captured Muslims and even killed 17 from our community. Hamas does not really want peace or prosperity. It is a terrorist group run by fundamentalists who will destroy everyone and everything in order to achieve its goal, which is unrealistic, and quite horrifying as well.

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