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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Families of hostages in Gaza are desperate for proof of life


An installation has supporting messages for hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel on Oct. 21, 2023. In total, nearly 240 people are believed to be hostages in Gaza.

By Michael D. Shear


Forty-four days after Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, was seized by Hamas, his left arm blown off by a hand grenade, his parents have no idea if he is dead or alive, hidden somewhere in the rubble of the Gaza Strip.


There is no information about the fate of Goldberg-Polin or any of the nearly 240 people believed to be held hostage in Gaza. There has been no proof of life, no evidence that they are being fed or given medicine, no contact with the outside world.


The not knowing, families of the hostages say, is nearly unbearable, leaving them desperate for information at a moment when they are receiving practically none, even as reports swirl about a possible deal for the release of some women and children.


Negotiations are taking place far from public view, and the Israeli and U.S. governments have shared very little about who might be included in a deal, the families say. Publicly and privately, officials have told relatives that the talks are too sensitive to reveal anything.


Being kept in the dark for six weeks has left the families frustrated with aid organizations including the Red Cross, which says that Hamas has refused to give its workers permission to see the hostages.


Jon Polin, Hersh’s father, rejected that explanation.


“Don’t let anybody tell you, ‘Sorry, we’re not letting you in,’” said Polin, an American living in Israel whose wife and children are also U.S. citizens. “That’s not acceptable. Go get global leaders. Go get the pope. Go get rabbis. Go get imams. Don’t take no for an answer. Shame on you for taking no for an answer.”


The pleas have been heard inside the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in 1949 was designated as the world’s neutral organization charged with discovering and disseminating information about the wounded, sick or detained during times of war.


But the organization’s leaders insist they are doing all they can — publicly and behind the scenes — to negotiate with Hamas.


“We share the frustration. We understand the pain,” said Jason Straziuso, a spokesperson for the Red Cross. “We’re not bulletproof, and it’s not possible for us to walk into a conflict zone in hostile territory without permission — to walk up to a group of people, most certainly holding guns that they will use, and demand that they let us inside. It’s not possible.”


The Red Cross has about 130 employees in Gaza, he said, giving it some ability to deliver humanitarian aid and to visit the scenes of destruction from the war. But even with that access, meeting with the hostages requires an agreement with Hamas.


Straziuso said Red Cross officials were talking to Hamas, Israel, the United States and other nations about the condition of the hostages.


But those talks have been shrouded in secrecy.


In a statement Monday, the Red Cross said the group is “insisting that our teams be allowed to visit the hostages to check on their welfare,” but added that “the I.C.R.C. does not take part in negotiations leading to the release of hostages. As a neutral humanitarian intermediary, we remain ready to facilitate any future release that the parties to the conflict agree to.”


Separate discussions about a possible release of some hostages are being conducted through intermediaries, with Israel and the United States communicating with Hamas only by way of messages passed back and forth by negotiators in Egypt and Qatar.


A leader of Hamas said in October that not all of the Israeli hostages who were taken to Gaza were being held by the group, a claim that most likely complicates negotiations for their release. Osama Hamdan, a member of Hamas’ political bureau in Lebanon, said other groups, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a separate organization that is an ally of Hamas, were also holding some of the hostages.


In late October, Israeli forces rescued one hostage, and four others were released by Hamas about a week earlier. But there have been no further breakthroughs.


Warring nations have blocked the Red Cross from visiting hostages or prisoners of war in previous conflicts. In 2022, eight months into the war between Ukraine and Russia, the Red Cross still had little access to prisoners held by either side. In a statement at the time, the group wrote that “blaming the I.C.R.C. for being denied full and immediate access does not help prisoners of war or their families.”


But the fact that there is no definitive playbook in the case of hostages during wartime, no exact timing for reporting about whether they are dead or alive, leaves the family members with little to hold on to as the days slowly pass.


Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great-aunt of Abigail Idan, recounted on NBC News how 3-year-old Abigail watched on Oct. 7 as Hamas fighters shot and killed her mother and ran with her father and two siblings.


“Abigail was in her father’s arms,” Naftali said on “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt. “And as they ran, a terrorist shot him and killed him, and he fell onto Abigail.”


She added, “We learned that Abigail actually had crawled out from under her father’s body and, full of his blood, went to a neighbor, and they took her in.”


Hamas later seized the neighbor, her three children and Abigail, Naftali said.


Rachel Goldberg, who is married to Jon Polin, and other family members have said they have no idea when — or whether — they will discover anything definitive about their loved ones. Goldberg detailed the grief of a mother who has no idea if her son is alive “or if you died yesterday, or if you died five minutes ago.”


(In 2004, before moving to Israel, Jon Polin and Rachel Goldberg’s son, Hersh, attended the same preschool as my children in Richmond, Virginia.)


Inside Israel, where the faces of the hostages are plastered everywhere on posters that proclaim them “KIDNAPPED,” activists have mounted an aggressive campaign to demand swifter action from the Red Cross.


“It’s very clear, we expect them to do more,” said Dr. Hagai Levine, chair of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and a leader in a group formed to keep attention focused on the hostages. “To be more assertive, to rise to the occasion.”


“They don’t have a minute of mercy,” Levine said of the families of the hostages. “It is killing them. It is killing them.”


In a video posted this week to X, the site formerly called Twitter, Cardon Christian, the chief protection officer for the Red Cross, explained why the group maintains its neutrality.


“We know by experience by denouncing one side or the other, we risk losing access to people when they are most in need,” he said. “By not taking sides, we want to gain the trust of all those involved in the fighting so we can try to ensure prisoners of war are being treated humanely.”


He acknowledged, however, the uncertainty that adds to the frustration among those desperate for information and said that the organization does not always rule out denouncing the actions of one side or the other.


“We do,” he said in the video. “But only, and I insist absolutely only, when this is in the interest of the civilians, the sick, the wounded, and the detained.”


For Goldberg, that answer is not enough.


“Why is no one crying out for these people to be allowed access to the Red Cross?” she said in a speech outside the United Nations Security Council last month. “Why is no one demanding just proof of life?”

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