Thousands gathered this week at 25 protests across Israel, organized by 130 organizations including women groups, calling for the immediate release of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“Many women here in Israel feel responsible to do everything they can to promote a deal to bring our sisters back,” Ophir Shoshan, one of the organizers of the demonstrations, told JNS.
“They are running out of time. We have seen horrific images released by Hamas. The thought that they are wounded, deprived of food and medication and being raped is unbearable,” she said.
In the evening, protesters gathered in Tel Aviv’s “Hostage Square,” marched together to the Kirya military headquarters and briefly blocked the main Ayalon Highway running through the city.
“My daughter is in the highest-risk group; some have mentioned pregnancies. We are afraid that it might be too late,” Shlomi Berger told JNS.
His daughter Agam, 19, was kidnapped by Hamas from Kibbutz Nahal Oz on Oct. 7 and is one of 19 women still held by the terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip.
“All the other girls were released. Aside from the Bibas children, my daughter is among the youngest held in Gaza,” Berger added, referring to a November ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas which led to the release of more than 100 hostages, mostly women and children.
Bloodied and terrified
On Jan. 9, the plight of Agam Berger entered the Israeli consciousness when screenshots from a Hamas video, featuring her along with three other young female captives, Liri Albag, 18, Karina Ariev, 19, and Daniela Gilboa, 19—bloodied and terrified, were shared by Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.
“They were all injured from guns fired at them and grenades thrown at them. The faces of all four girls in the Hamas video truly illustrate the word ‘terrifying,’” Berger said.
“We think about her all the time and we will do everything to make sure that she comes home, not in a week, not in a month, but now,” said Berger, who advocated for his daughter’s release at a U.S. Senate meeting in Washington last week.
The last sign of life Berger received regarding his daughter was through Aviva Siegel, Chen Goldstein and Agam Goldstein, who were among the released hostages.
All three were at one point held with Agam Berger and have been vocal about their appalling experience in the Hamas tunnels.
On Tuesday, Siegel testified to the Knesset Caucus for Female Victims of Sexual and Gender Violence in the Gaza War.
“The terrorists bring ‘doll clothes,’ inappropriate attire for those girls, as they turn them into puppets on a string; they do whatever they want to them, whenever they want to. And it must be said that the boys also go through what the girls go through. They don’t get pregnant, but they are also puppets on a string. There was not a minute that we were not abused in every possible way, and those girls are still there,” Siegel told lawmakers during the session.
“My heart is still there, and it explodes. I can’t understand that the world is silent.”
Siegel had already addressed Knesset members on Jan. 9, at a session held by a non-partisan lobby for those still held captive in Gaza. She described to the lobby how a young hostage returned upset from the bathroom. But a terrorist stopped Siegel from hugging her. At this point, Siegel realized that the girl’s mood was unusual—shut down, quiet.
“This son of a bitch had touched her. And he wouldn’t even let me hug her after it happened. It’s terrible, it’s just terrible,” Siegel told the lawmakers.
Chen Goldstein and her daughter Agam Goldstein were the last ones to see Agam Berger. They too mentioned fears of being raped. While none of them referred to Agam Berger by name in this regard, her father Shlomi said he is very concerned that something could have happened to his daughter.
“Agam could have been assaulted and not shared her story with Aviva Siegel. They were together for only about a week,” he told JNS.
“I don’t really know the situation, but what I know is that she’s been held underground for 107 days, with no air, food, water or access to daylight and for us it’s a disaster. We don’t even know if she is still alive. We know nothing,” he added.
‘We all know what can happen there’
Karina Ariev, 19, was captured along with Agam Berger in Nahal Oz on Oct. 7. She, too, remains in Gaza.
“I’m really afraid, Karina is a young girl, an innocent child and we all know what can happen to women there,” Sasha Ariev, Karina’s sister, told JNS.
“Everyone saw Karina’s picture in the Daily Mail, her terrified look, her bloodied face. We know nothing about her for over 60 days, and she has been there for more than 110 days. I’m helpless,” she lamented, pointing out that the last sign of life from her sister was back in November.
Responding to reports that Hamas had rejected an Israeli proposal for a two-month ceasefire in exchange for the staggered release of the 136 remaining hostages (some no longer alive) being held in the Gaza Strip, Sasha Ariev expressed disappointment.
“I heard about the ceasefire talks a few days ago, but now I hear that the negotiations stopped,” Ariev said.
“I plead for everyone to do whatever it takes to bring my sister back home. I’m ready to switch with her right now, just free her and take me instead,” she added.
Berger said he preferred not to speculate on media reports. “If there really was a proposal and Hamas actually rejected it, I believe it’s bad for both sides,” he said.
“When I met members of the Israeli government, they all told me that returning my daughter and the rest of the hostages was their highest priority and that the problem lies with the other side. I think the Israeli government is doing the maximum.
“Hamas does not know the word ‘peace,’ all they want is to kill Jews and get us out of here [Israel],” Berger said.