When Neta Heiman last spoke to her 84-year-old mother, Ditza, her kibbutz was under fire amid the bloodiest assault on Israel in 50 years. Heiman has since learned Ditza was kidnapped by the Palestinian militant group Hamas and taken into the Gaza Strip ― and she is determined to give the world three messages.
Governments worldwide should push to make sure the Hamas hostages get their medication, Heiman told HuffPost on Thursday, noting that most residents of her mother’s community were elderly people she has known “from the day I was born.”
Heiman also wants global help for those detainees to be returned to their families.
And she believes the U.S. must apply pressure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute for good.
“I hope the international community will help,” Heiman said. “This would be in the interests of everyone.”
Heiman is worried her mother could be affected by Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, a narrow, tightly packed sliver of land. Israeli airstrikes have repeatedly hit residential neighborhoods there, killing more than 1,500 people, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be preparing a ground invasion. The Israeli military on Friday ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, which is home to over 1 million Palestinians, in what the U.N. described as an “impossible” task to carry out without “devastating humanitarian consequences.”
“They are bombing Gaza, and we don’t know where she is and where all the people are,” Heiman said, referring to the scores of other hostages. “They may not be in one place.”
Hundreds of Israelis are now living each day with the knowledge that their relatives are in the custody of heavily armed fighters in murky hideouts, vulnerable to further violence in an Israel-Hamas war that could be worse than any that came before. The affected families are rallying together in private social media conversations and public appeals for help. Many have criticized the support they have received so far and, though they have not expressed a joint view on the broader conflict, they are united in asking for their loved ones to return safely and soon.
Israel and its partners, including the Biden administration, are scrambling to devise a strategy to rescue the hostages Hamas and aligned militants captured from Israeli homes, military bases and a music festival in their shock attack on Oct. 7. Their plan has to balance the anxieties of scores of traumatized families with the Israeli government’s determination to punish the armed Palestinian groups and the complexities of diplomacy between a range of players stretching far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s still not clear how large the group is or who exactly it includes; Israeli officials are still sorting through the wreckage from Saturday to identify who was killed and who is missing. Israel has said the number of detainees could be as high as 150, and the U.S. has confirmed that some of them are American citizens, but authorities have not released a full list. As of Thursday, Israeli authorities had told 97 families that their relatives have been kidnapped, according to Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari.
In an independent investigation published on Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Palestinian fighters took at least 106 captives, among them 11 children. Most were civilians, and at least 64 have been taken into Hamas-controlled Gaza, according to the Post.
Steve Gillen, the U.S. deputy special envoy for hostage affairs, has traveled to Israel and is expected to stay there to work on the issue, Axios reported on Thursday.
For many of the hostages’ loved ones, the uncertainty about the path forward is fueling fear and frustration.
Heiman published an essay in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Thursday describing how her anger has multiple targets: her mother’s kidnappers but also Israeli politicians whom she blames for not doing enough to support hostages’ families and for failing to establish peace with the Palestinians.
Her piece reflects how the hostage dilemma is inextricably tied to the question of the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ― and how the way it’s handled by Israel, the U.S., Palestinian groups and others will offer signals about the years to come after the current flare-up.
“My mother, and many of her friends on Kibbutz Nir Oz who were massacred, were people of peace, people who believe that there are human beings with rights also on the other side of the border fence,” wrote Heiman, who works at a family ice cream business. “So, from this terrifying place we are now in, I call out … and I say: Do not destroy the Gaza Strip.”
“That won’t help anyone and will only bring an even more ferocious round of violence the next time,” she said.
Working Out How To Help
Historically, Israel has gone to great lengths to free captured citizens, including through prisoner swaps. In October 2011, the government secured the freedom of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held in captivity for five years, in return for releasing more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including some who had been convicted for participating in deadly attacks against Israelis.
“Israel is incredibly sensitive to its people being taken hostage,” said Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University professor who studies the Middle East.
Officials focused on the current detainees will need to gather information on their physical condition and their captors’ plans for them.
Israel believes the prisoners taken to Gaza are being held underground, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, told CNN on Wednesday.
“Reason also dictates that Hamas, since they planned to launch this attack and they planned to take these people hostage… they planned in advance locations to hide these hostages and keep them safe from Israeli intelligence and efforts to get them out,” Conricus continued.
Since Israel and Hamas are now in open conflict, experts think their battle strategies are intertwined with the hostages’ fate.
“A question for Hamas is, will it execute the hostages in response to Israeli military operations, and the question for Israel is, will it limit its military operations because it’s afraid of Hamas executing the hostages,” Byman said.
“Israel has to worry that when it does airstrikes or otherwise uses military force in the Gaza Strip, that it will kill its own people,” he added, while Hamas “has a way of striking back, even when Israel is triumphing militarily.”
Conditions in Gaza, which were already bleak after a decade-plus blockade and have gotten darker with the current bombing, will inevitably plummet as Israel and Hamas continue to hit each other. That will likely bolster concerns about the hostages’ conditions, since many require essential medication and they are unlikely to be shielded from an overall collapse of Gaza’s food, water and fuel supplies.
Even amid the fighting, talks beyond the battlefield could lead to freedom for some hostages.
Qatar, a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf, has long been a major force in discussions about Gaza because of its openness to dealing with Hamas, whose leader lives in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Its foreign ministry told Reuters that Qatari officials are involved in discussions about a possible prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. White House National Security Council official John Kirby seemingly blessed possible negotiations on Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, saying: “To the degree that Qatar can play a useful role here, we’re going to encourage that.”
The situation provides a chance for the small Gulf state to take on a historic role, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Though “there is no indication that progress has been made” on a deal so far, “Qatar will be eager to deliver on these negotiations, to demonstrate that its connections with Hamas may be beneficial to all parties,” she told HuffPost via email.
Israeli officials have publicly denied participating in any negotiations. Acknowledging such a role could be politically toxic, as Israel continues to reel from the Hamas offensive and as it learns additional details about its brutality.
One widely discussed possibility is the prospect of Hamas trading the women and children it has kidnapped for 36 Palestinian women and children who are in Israeli jails.
Yet some analysts are skeptical that Hamas will engage in a trade under the current circumstances.
“Can you reason with Hamas while they’re on the run right now?” asked Yossi Mekelberg, a fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London. “They know what’s coming their way.”
And while hostage takers elsewhere in the world often keep their captives away from war zones to keep them alive and to eventually secure major demands in exchange for their freedom, it appears the Palestinian militants are thinking “not about trading them for concessions but using them… to prevent Israeli missile strikes,” said Danielle Gilbert, a Northwestern University professor and member of the Commission on Hostage Taking and Wrongful Detention at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The most likely alternative to a negotiated release is to try to free the civilians through military action ― an option that Israel is reportedly considering but that would be extremely challenging and could quickly go wrong.
The presence of foreign nationals makes the debate over which plan to choose even more complex. Some hawks in the U.S., such as 2024 Republican presidential candidates Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and former Vice President Mike Pence, are already saying U.S. special forces should be sent in to save the American hostages. The Biden administration has ruled out that option, calling it a no-go for Israel.
Being responsible for people with non-Israeli nationalities is a complicating factor for Hamas, too, Mekelberg said.
“It adds to the support that [Israel] gets abroad and also to the involvement of other powers in this,” Mekelberg said.
Getting To Freedom
The intense emotions in this situation make it hard for officials or experts to draw on historic parallels ― and threaten to overwhelm fundamental concern for life.
“This creates such a complex situation, which neither Hamas nor Israel has ever experienced,” Mekelberg told HuffPost. “So it’s almost impossible to predict what will be the response.”
Some Israeli hard-liners are already indicating they see vengeance as the priority. Belazel Smotrich, a far-right politician who serves as Netanyahu’s finance minister, on Saturday said Israel should “hit Hamas brutally and not take the matter of the captives into significant consideration.”
On Thursday, Israeli energy minister Israel Katz inflamed tensions with a provocative post on X (formerly Twitter). “No electrical switch will be turned on, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli abductees are returned home. Humanitarian for humanitarian. And no one will preach us morals,” Katz wrote.
Still, Israel’s government would face a tremendous public backlash if it were perceived as allowing further harm to Israeli civilians.
Asked if Netanyahu would be unwilling to entertain prisoner exchanges this time around given the horrific scale of the Palestinian militants’ assault, Byman said the country will inevitably have to engage in talks given that its citizens’ lives are at stake.
“Israel will be pragmatic on that even as much as it hates negotiating with them,” Byman told HuffPost.
As Heiman waits to be reunited with her mother, she hopes the eventual negotiations at the end of this round of fighting will lead to a lasting deal with the Palestinians.
In her Thursday piece in Haaretz, she wrote that Israel should look to the parallel of the accord it signed with Egypt four years after Arab nations launched the surprise Yom Kippur war against the country in 1973.
“History proves that it is possible,” Heiman wrote. “It’s not an ideal peace but it is peace.”