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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘I went through hell,’ freed Israeli, 85, says of subterranean captivity in Gaza

From Left, Natalie Raanan and her mother, Judith Raanan, speak with President Joe Biden after being released by their Hamas captors, in a photograph released on Oct. 20, 2023, by the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.

By Aaron Boxerman

In harrowing detail, an 85-year-old Israeli grandmother described her 17-day ordeal as a hostage, offering for the first time a captive’s account of the armed Palestinian group Hamas’ subterranean garrison beneath the Gaza Strip, the conditions in which the group’s hostages are being held and the operatives deployed to tend to them.

The woman, Yocheved Lifshitz, a peace activist from Nir Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border, was released Tuesday along with another woman, Nurit Cooper, 79, after negotiations between Israel and Hamas were facilitated by Egypt and Qatar. Only two other hostages out of at least 222 have been released since the Hamas rampage on Oct. 7 left more than 1,400 people dead in Israel.

“I went through hell,” Lifshitz told reporters at a Tel Aviv, Israel, hospital Tuesday, one day after her release. Speaking from a wheelchair, she delivered her remarks in a faltering voice, still visibly tired.

Her account of Hamas’ tunnel network, which she likened to “a spider web,” offered a glimpse of the difficulties facing Israel as it weighs when and how to launch a ground invasion of Gaza. Hamas, which oversees the territory and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, has dug an enormous warren of tunnels and underground chambers, in which it is believed to be hiding weapons, fighters and some hostages.

After reaching the tunnels, “we walked for kilometers underground,” Lifshitz said of the complex, which she said included rooms large enough to contain dozens of people. Hamas was responsible for releasing Lifshitz to the Red Cross on Monday, but it remained unclear if the group or an affiliate organization had captured and detained her.

Despite a weekslong bombing effort by the Israeli military, which has left thousands dead, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, Lifshitz described a seemingly well-organized operation, with operatives given special responsibilities, including doctors, guards and medics.

The militants brought her to a large underground hall where they had gathered 25 people, before five from Nir Oz were separated and placed in a room on their own, Lifschitz said. “We were closely guarded by their guards and a medic. At a certain point a doctor also arrived and made sure that we received our pills and medication,” she said.

Lifshitz said her captors paid special attention to the health of the hostages, providing medication, shampoo and feminine hygiene products. The hostages were fed the same meager provisions their guards ate: a single daily meal of pita bread, two kinds of cheese and cucumber.

“They were very attentive to the sanitary aspect,” she said, “so we don’t get sick on them, God forbid. There was a doctor nearby who would come every two or three days to check in on us. And the medic took the responsibility to bring us medication. If they did not have the exact same medication, they brought us the equivalent.”

In a video documenting Lifshitz’s handover to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was filmed and released by the armed wing of Hamas, Lifschitz appears to grasp one Hamas member’s hands and repeat the Hebrew word “shalom,” meaning goodbye and also peace.

Her grandson, Daniel Lifshitz, said in a televised interview that his grandmother would remain in the hospital for now, adding that she would “need a lot of time to recover from this, even though she looks strong.”

Israel has historically made the return of captives a national priority. In 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — including Hamas’ current leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar — in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

But the country has never faced a crisis in which so many citizens were being held hostage at one time. Hamas has said it is willing to consider releasing “foreign nationalities under temporary custody, as and when security circumstances permit.”

Before Tuesday’s release of Yocheved Lifshitz and Cooper, the group had allowed the release of only two other captives, dual American Israeli citizens Judith Raanan and her daughter, Natalie. The Raanans, released Oct. 20, have not spoken publicly about their ordeal.

Both Lifshitz’s husband, Oded, 83, and Cooper’s husband, Amiram, 85, are believed to be held in Gaza. Michael Milshtein, a former senior official in Israeli military intelligence, said Hamas appeared to be working under the assumption that releasing the hostages a few at a time would delay, or even scuttle, an anticipated ground invasion of Gaza.

“Hamas understands that there’s pressure from the families, even American pressure,” Milshtein said in a phone interview. “If we were talking about Hamas’ war crimes, now we’re starting to talk just about the hostages,” he said, noting that the window for a ground invasion could eventually close.

Lifshitz said her community was overrun during the terror attack Oct. 7. As Hamas-led combatants broke “into our homes,” she said, “they beat people, they kidnapped some of us, including me. It made no difference if they were elderly or young.”

Her captors, she said, threw her sideways across a motorcycle and drove her out of the kibbutz. They beat her, she said, not enough to break her ribs but enough to make breathing difficult.

The couple’s captivity also reflects the arbitrary nature of who the Hamas-led assailants chose to kidnap as they rampaged through border towns close to the Gaza border.

Both were left-wing peace activists living in Nir Oz, a broadly liberal community less than 2 miles from the border with Gaza.

On Tuesday, Yocheved Lifshitz was critical of the military and Shin Bet, the domestic security service, who she said had ignored warning signs of the threat to towns near Gaza. The Israeli military’s chief of staff acknowledged after the attack that the military had failed to live up to its mission to protect Israel’s citizens.

Weeks before the assault, Palestinians had rioted and fired explosive balloons near the sophisticated border fence separating Israel from Gaza.

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