Sheikh Khaled, a resident of Rahat, shows pictures of relatives being held by Hamas in Gaza to supporters and other hostages' families at Tel Aviv's Hostage Square, on Feb. 10, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.
Sheikh Khaled, a resident of Rahat, shows pictures of relatives being held by Hamas in Gaza to supporters and other hostages' families at Tel Aviv's Hostage Square, on Feb. 10, 2024. Photo by Amelie Botbol.
featureIsrael at War

‘It’s day 127. All we ask is to bring them back’

Israel's defense minister vows that every day the IDF continues to operate in Gaza brings the hostages closer to freedom.

“We wanted to be here with the families of other hostages and share the pain of being separated from our loved ones held in Gaza,” said Abu Salem, a resident of Rahat in southern Israel.

“Four members of our Bedouin community are still held by Hamas in Gaza. Our hearts are with them and we are waiting for their return. Their situation is precarious. At war, it is impossible to know who will live and who will die,” he added.

On Oct. 7, 25 residents of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel’s Negev desert, headed to Gaza border communities Kibbutz Holit and Kibbutz Sufa to work and did not return.

They were among the 1,200 people killed by Hamas during its invasion of Israel that morning. Thousands more were wounded, and more than 240 were taken back to Gaza as hostages, including six Bedouin.

Two of them, Bilal Ziyadne,18, and Aisha Ziyadne,17, abducted from Holit, were among the 105 hostages returned as part of a November ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

A poster of Yosef Alzayadni, 53, a Bedouin who was kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, Feb. 10, 2024. Photo: Amelie Botbol 

Every Saturday, Abu Salem travels 55 miles from Rahat to Tel Aviv to attend the Hostage and Missing Families Forum’s weekly rally and demand the release of 136 hostages still being held in Gaza.

“We are in constant contact with the government and have met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” he told JNS. “We must bring them back at any price. They are held in horrible conditions. They have nothing to eat, drink, some are sick,” he continued. 

While freed captives have revealed that Arab hostages were treated more fairly, given substantial meals, mattresses to sleep on and a Koran to read, Abu Salem remains pessimistic.

“If we don’t come to an agreement with Hamas, the hostages will die. If we attempt to rescue them in a military operation, Hamas will kill them, they have said so,” he added. 

View of the Bedouin city of Rahat in southern Israel on Feb. 13, 2016. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

In addition to the grief that the Bedouin community was confronted with in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 massacre, some residents of Rahat have also had to cope with the loss of family members in Israel’s strikes on Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. 

“Many members of our community have family in Gaza and lost relatives in the war. What can we do? Some woke up on Oct. 7, went to work and were massacred. This is war,” said Abu Salem. 

In Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square, survivors from Kibbutz Be’eri, Kibbutz Nir Oz and Kibbutz Nahal Oz set up tents and arranged tables bearing posters of those who remain in Gaza over four months after the massacre.

The Kibbutz Be’eri tent in Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square, Feb. 10, 2024. Photo: Amelie Botbol.

“In the aftermath of the attacks, the Nir Oz community was evacuated to Eilat. It was difficult for us to come to Tel Aviv every week. We have now resettled in Kiryat Gat which allows us to be more present,” said Illy Markovich, 28, as she finished building the Nir Oz tent ahead of the rally. 

Markovich, the manager of a Nir Oz student village established by Kedma, an organization which settles students and young adults in villages close to Israel’s national borders, told JNS the importance of showing the Israeli community and the rest of the world the faces of those still held in Gaza.

Sarah Verdene Vahabi (right) and the family of Tsachi Idan at the entrance of the Nahal Oz tent in Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square, Feb. 10, 2024. Photo: Amelie Botbol 

“Ofer Kalderon [currently held in Gaza] used to help us organize holiday celebrations in the kibbutz. Yirmi Shafir, our postman, was murdered. Noya Dan, one of the children we volunteered with, as well as her grandmother, Carmela, were also massacred,” said Markovich.

“Unless [the hostages] come home, our community can’t move on and will not be able to rebuild its resilience,” she added.

Families and friends of Tsachi Idan, 49, who was kidnapped from Nahal Oz after his daughter Maayan, 18, was murdered, converged at the entrance of the Nahal Oz tent. 

“It’s day 127. All we ask is to bring them all back,” said Idan’s best friend, Sarah Verdene Vahabi, 49, a resident of Nahal Oz who resettled in Ganei Tikva in the aftermath of the attack. 

Illy Markovich inside the Nir Oz tent in Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square, Feb. 10, 2024. On the table are pictures of those murdered or kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7. Photo: Amelie Botbol. 

“Seventeen people were brutally murdered in Nahal Oz on Oct. 7. People were taken from their homes, in their pajamas, barefoot, in their underwear, without shirts. Families were torn apart, it’s unacceptable,” she added. 

Empty chairs with posters of hostages whose death in captivity has been confirmed, including Itay Svirsky, 38, and Sahar Baruch, 25, were set by the entrance of Kibbutz Be’eri tent. 

“Ninety-seven people from my community in Be’eri were killed and almost 30 were kidnapped. There are still some left and we must bring them back,” said Be’eri survivor Inbal Alon, 59, whose house was burned to ashes during the massacre. 

Alon is one of the few from her neighborhood that survived. Hamas terrorists entered her house while she hid in the safe room with her husband and two sons, who held the door shut, preventing the terrorists from entering. When they failed to get into the safe room, the terrorists set the house on fire; by some miracle Alon and the rest of her family made it out on time. 

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said intelligence recovered by the IDF in Gaza is making a “realistic” hostage deal possible.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant visits IDF Artillery Corps reservists near the Gaza Strip, Jan. 29, 2024. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.

“You can see a small part of [what forces have found, including] missiles, explosives, maps, documents and computers,” said Gallant. “We penetrated into the heart of Hamas’s most sensitive places and are using their intelligence against them,” he said.

“The more we deepen this operation, the closer we are to a realistic deal in order to return the captives,” he added.

Alon, however, does not share the defense minister’s optimism.

“There were some reports of potential deals in the past. We feel that we are taking steps backwards instead of forward and we just can’t anymore,” she said. 

On Tuesday, Israel will reportedly dispatch negotiators to Cairo to discuss a hostage deal with senior U.S., Egyptian and Qatari officials.

Mossad chief David Barnea, Israel Security Agency head Ronen Bar and Nitzan Alon, who is overseeing intelligence efforts to find the abductees, will meet with CIA Director Bill Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel.

On Wednesday, a delegation of 100 families will be traveling to The Hague to file a complaint at the International Criminal Court against Hamas for kidnappings, sexual violence and torture, among other crimes, in an effort to exert additional pressure for the release of hostages.

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