An empty shabbat table is set in front of the Tel Aviv Museum to symbolize over 200 missing Israeli hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023.

How the hostage crisis is changing Israel

Negotiators have reportedly been getting close to reaching a deal to free Israeli hostages taken by Hamas last month. In exchange, Israel would release Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. But so far, any agreement between Israel and Hamas has proven to be difficult to reach. 

The World

Every night, for the last 40 nights, Yoav Engel has gone to bed thinking about one thing. His 17-year-old son Ofir Engel is being held captive in Gaza by Hamas.

“I see the situation, it's like zero or one. If Ofir, my son, is there in Gaza, or is [at] home. Until then, all the noises and the things, you know, nothing else matters,” Engel said. 

Ofir Engel is a high school senior and a basketball player with an easy smile, even with a mouth full of braces. He lives with his family in a kibbutz on the south side of Jerusalem. He was taken — along with about 240 others — during the deadly Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

Ofir Engel just happened to be visiting his girlfriend in the south that morning. 

The family of Ofir Engel, from the left Yael Engel Lichi (aunt), Yoav and Sharon Engel (parents), and Yonit and Jossef Avi Yair Engel (grandparents).

The family of Ofir Engel, from the left: Yael Engel Lichi (aunt), Yoav and Sharon Engel (parents), and Yonit and Jossef Avi Yair Engel (grandparents).

Credit:

Matthew Bell/The World

Negotiators have reportedly been getting close to reaching a deal to free Israeli hostages taken by Hamas last month.The deal would involve Palestinian militants releasing a number of women and children held in Gaza, while Israel would agree to a humanitarian ceasefire for three to five days and release Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails. 

Officials from Egypt, Qatar and the United States are said to be involved in these negotiations. But so far, any agreement between the two warring parties — Israel and Hamas — has proven to be difficult to reach. And that’s causing anguish for the families and the country.

For Yoav Engel, whose child was kidnapped, what’s playing out now is not a complicated situation.  

“I’m not a military man. I’m not a politician. I’m not nothing, yes? I’m just a citizen in my country, you know? My kid [was] kidnapped from a house in Israel, you know? And they need to bring them home,” he said. 

It’s hard to overstate just how focused Israelis are on the hostages. Posters showing their faces are everywhere and people are wearing T-shirts that say “Bring them home.”

On TV and radio, citizens are sharing their personal stories.

The hostages are mostly Israelis, but there’s a large number of Thai farm workers, and dual citizens from many different countries. There are also Israeli soldiers, elderly people, kids and babies. One Israeli woman apparently gave birth while in captivity.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman began a one-man hunger strike last Friday.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman began a one-man hunger strike last Friday. He's calling for the Red Cross to be able to visit the hostages being held in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas has not permitted until now. "I can't deal with the fact that there hasn't even been a sign of life. They haven't even received a visit from the Red Cross. The families don't even know what what their status is, alive or dead. Are they receiving medicines or not? This can't go on," Freedman said. 

Credit:

Matthew Bell/The World

“It is by far the most devastating attack on Israelis, I would say even Jews, since the Holocaust,” said Nadav Tamir, a former Israeli diplomat based in Tel Aviv, who now works with the US organization J Street, which advocates for peace in Israel.

“And you know, we had another surprise attack in the Yom Kippur War in ‘73, and it was devastating but all the deaths and the casualties were soldiers. This time we're talking about civilians who were taken out of their beds or from a party,” Tamir added. 

There’s also a lot of frustration — even anger — toward the Israeli government and security establishment. 

The families of the hostages have become a powerful voice calling for accountability. 

Ya’el Engel Lichi is the aunt of Ofir Engel, the 17-year-old who was taken hostage. 

“Three from 120 parliament members came to visit us and ask how we are. And my father used to work with [former Prime Minister] Shimon Peres, so he knows a lot of people and nobody comes here. I think they feel shame,” Engel Lichi said. 

Lichi’s nephew, Ofir Engel, is a dual citizen of Israel and the Netherlands. She said Israeli leaders have mostly ignored the families of the hostages — but not the Dutch prime minister. 

“He came to Israel for six hours. He had time to meet us. And he took the time to meet us and to hug us. And he promised us he'll do anything to help, to free Ofir. And also the other 240. We don't speak only about Ofir,” Lichi said. 

Family members of the hostages are taking part in a five-day protest march, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

On Thursday, they arrived in a city called Modi’in, at the family home of Noa Marciano, an Israeli Defense Forces soldier who was taken hostage into Gaza. Her death was announced earlier this week. 

Hefzi Kopla, who lives in Modi’in, said the possible deal to free a large group of hostages is a bad idea.

“It’s not negotiable to split them or separate them. They’re all the same. So, they need to come back together,” Kopla said.

Hefzi Kopla (middle) is with her two friends from the city of Modi'in, Lizzy Mor (left) and Rotem Gil (right).

Hefzi Kopla (middle) is with her two friends from the city of Modi'in, Lizzy Mor (left) and Rotem Gil (right). They walked to meet participants with the "March of Families," relatives of the hostages led a five-day protest march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On Thursday, the marchers congregated at the home of Noa Marciano, an IDF soldier who was kidnapped, brought into Gaza and killed there. Her death was announced earlier this week.

Credit:

Matthew Bell/The World

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said freeing the hostages is a top priority. He said it again during his visit to an Israeli army base yesterday. 

“There is no place in Gaza that we cannot reach. No shelter or refuge for Hamas murderers. We will eliminate Hamas … and bring back our hostages,” he said. 

There’s a lot of skepticism in Israel, though. 

Top leaders from the military and intelligence services have said they take responsibility for the failures leading up to Oct. 7, but Netanyahu has not. 

Some Israelis are calling on the prime minister to step down, even in the middle of this war. 

But Nadav Tamir, the former diplomat, is not one of them. 

“I don't think that it is feasible right now. And I think it will be too confusing to run a war while trying to create another political arrangement. But pressuring the government to do the right thing during the war? Absolutely,” Tamir said. 

Right now, there is maximum public pressure on the Israeli leadership to find a way — to pay just about any price — people say, to bring the hostages home.

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