Frustration and heartbreak underscored the pleas of families whose loved ones have been held by Hamas for more than 100 days, as they advocated Wednesday on Capitol Hill and called for their release.
Families shared gut-wrenching stories of the last moments of contact with their loved ones on Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel, slaughtering people at a music festival and in their homes and taking an estimated 240 people hostage.
Yarden Gonin recounted the final conversation she had with her 23-year-old sister Romi, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival.
“Mom, we were ambushed, they are shooting at us. Ben is most likely dead, Gaia was shot and she’s not responding, Ophir is wounded badly. I was shot in my arm. If no one will come quickly, I will be dead,” Gonin recounted.
“A phone call that ended with my sister, my beautiful, amazing, gentle, caring and loving little sister, being kidnapped into Gaza by cruel terrorists after she saw her best friend murdered in front of her eyes. 103 days. No daylight. No fresh water. No food. No air.”
More than 130 people are still being held hostage by Hamas, their specific conditions unknown.
But testimony from hostages released during a short-lived deal at the end of November have provided insight into harrowing conditions. This includes people being held in a maze of underground tunnels, at hospitals and in Palestinian homes, with little access to food, water and fresh air, relating stories of torture and sexual violence.
Ashley Waxman-Bakshi spoke on behalf of her 19-year-old cousin Agam Berger, who she said was kidnapped in her pajamas.
“What’s really scary for us is being a family member of such a young girl, and we know that there is sexual abuse … we know that in captivity there is, and three months later pregnancy could be an issue. Every day that passes, you can only have an abortion up until a certain date, and this is something we’re really fearful [about]. Everyone needs to come home, but specifically young women cannot be, teenagers,” she said.
The families were joined by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other senior lawmakers promising to keep efforts to secure the hostages’ release as their most important priority. Schumer said that he discussed with the families “a new strategy that we can implement, and I promise to try and do that,” but he did not elaborate.
“Don’t give up hope, there are always new initiatives as there are now,” Schumer said.
“Slow, slow, slow but important progress, not that that progress cannot come fast enough.”
There’s little public insight into any potential deal between Israel and Hamas to secure the release of hostages.
An agreement to pause fighting between Israel and Hamas at the end of November saw about 100 hostages released by Hamas in exchange for the release of 180 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and a scaling up of humanitarian deliveries into the Gaza Strip.
The deal fell apart after Israel accused Hamas of holding back the release of women and children, leaving about 130 people — including children, women, men, elderly, the injured and the bodies of those killed — in captivity in Gaza with little information regarding their safety or health.
Israel and the U.S. have relied heavily on Qatar as a mediator with Hamas, with senior political figures in the group living in Doha, but they have yet to revive a deal to release the hostages.
A bipartisan pair of senators last month urged President Biden to make clear to the Qataris that their relations with the U.S. were at risk if they did not exercise more pressure on Hamas.
But some families are critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being a major obstacle in securing a deal for the hostages’ release and are calling for the U.S. to exert more pressure on the Israeli leader.
“This holdup is not with the U.S. or with the [Qataris],” said Liz Naftali, the aunt of 4-year-old Abigail, who was released after 50 days of captivity.
“This holdup is with the Netanyahu government,” she said, accusing the Israeli prime minister of being “unwilling to agree to the terms to release our loved ones, to make these deals final.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not single out pressure on the Israeli government as a crucial factor, but he said that lawmakers will be “making some strong suggestions to our own government, to the Israelis and to third-country leaders.”
While Biden has stood by as one of Israel’s most stalwart supporters in its war against Hamas, the administration has voiced concern about the high death toll of Palestinians — an estimated 24,000 people, which includes thousands of Hamas fighters — and about the delay in humanitarian assistance deliveries into Gaza.
Axios reported last week that Biden — who had been outspoken in criticisms against Netanyahu before Oct. 7 — is frustrated with the Israeli leader and has been running out of patience over the course of the war.
But not all families of hostages are centering criticisms on Netanyahu.
Waxman-Bakshi pointed to the hardship of feeling like there is a choice between securing the release of the hostages — an option Hamas has called contingent on Israel ending military action and releasing all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails — and the necessity for Israel to ensure Hamas cannot launch another attack like that of Oct. 7.
“I’m not a politician or a military strategist, but for me I want a solution that will solve both simultaneously,” she said. “I’m not speaking politically, I have nothing for Netanyahu personally, if I’m in favor or against, I do think that whatever solution comes out has to take into account both the release of the hostages and the security and safety of Israel.”