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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Davos, Israel’s hostages get a hearing

By Bret Stephens


The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is largely an opportunity for the powerful to mingle with the even more powerful. For the most part, I’ve spent my time here listening to government leaders — Iran’s foreign minister struck me as an exceptionally talented dissembler — and schmoozing with business leaders, think tankers and officials at Davos’ famous private dinners and after-parties.


But the most moving stories I heard last week came from some of the least powerful people here.


“I open my eyes and feel my throat close,” Rachel Goldberg said, describing her mornings over the previous 100-plus days. “I say a Jewish prayer and ask, ‘Let today be the day.’ And then I say, ‘Pretend to be human.’ And I put on this costume because if I’m a ball on the floor, I can’t save him.”


She is speaking — with extraordinary self-composure — of her 23-year-old son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin. On Oct. 7, he was attending the Nova music festival with a friend when terrorists from Hamas, arriving in paragliders and vans, murdered 364 people in cold blood. Hersh and nearly 30 others tried to hide at a small roadside bomb shelter. Terrorists attacked it with hand grenades, then a rocket-propelled grenade, killing nearly everyone inside.


Hersh survived the assault, barely. Goldberg showed me video footage, taken by Hamas, of him being put into the back of a truck and driven off to the Gaza Strip. The lower half of his left arm has been blown off, leaving a bloody stump. It’s stomach-churning to watch.


Goldberg is in Davos to talk to anyone who can help save and return the remaining 132 hostages, including Hersh. So is Noam Peri, who works for Google in Israel. Peri’s father, Chaim, a welder and artist from the kibbutz Nir Oz, near Gaza, was taken from his home on the morning of Oct. 7.


He was hiding with his wife, Osnat, in the safe room of their house when Hamas broke through. Chaim heroically shoved a terrorist away, giving Osnat time to hide in a corner of the room. When Hamas returned, he walked out with them, losing one of his sandals along the way. They never thought to go back to check the room for additional people.


“He saved my mother,” Noam said. She last had proof of life nearly two months ago, when Hamas shot a video of Chaim and two other elderly hostages, looking frail and afraid. He’s without his glasses, hearing aid and medication, most likely in an airless tunnel deep underground, sustained, according to the testimony of hostages who have been released, on a starvation diet: typically, two dates in the morning, a half-pita and some rice, another half-pita.


He will turn 80 in April, assuming he’s still alive.


Another elderly resident of the Nir Oz kibbutz was Eli Margalit, who was murdered that day. Hamas took his corpse with them to Gaza — presumably as a negotiating chit, cruelly denying his family the chance of a burial and a place to mourn.


Also taken by Hamas that morning was his daughter, Nili Margalit, a pediatric nurse in a hospital in southern Israel that largely serves the Bedouin community. She was taken alive at knifepoint.


“On Friday morning, the day before the attack, I was on shift in the hospital, and I was telling a friend of mine, ‘You know, tomorrow is a holiday, and our tradition is to fly white kites for peace on the border to show solidarity for Palestinians,’” she said. “That was my intention.”


She spent the next 54 days with 20 other hostages in a tunnel that, according to her captors, was 130 feet underground. “There’s no air. You feel like you’re suffocating. No running water. There was a toilet but no running water; we flushed it once a day. The hygiene conditions are terrible.” She was repeatedly told by her captors that “nobody cares about us; the government isn’t looking for us.”


As a nurse, she took it upon herself to care for the other hostages — some of whom had arrived in the tunnel with heart conditions, kidney and respiratory diseases, diabetes and other afflictions. Worse than the physical deprivation, she said, was the psychological terror. “When your spirit is not strong, you can’t survive,” she said. “The mind will make the body shut down.”


I asked her what her homecoming — which came about as part of a temporary truce in which Israel released Palestinian prisoners — was like. “My house was burned down; I don’t have a house to go back to,” she said. “It’s not about the clothes. It’s memories. Photos. My entire life on two hard drives, all gone. No sense of how my father died.


“I want to give my father a proper burial,” she added. “To say the prayers.”


In my talks with Goldberg, Peri and Margalit, they took care to stay away from expressing any political opinions. Smartly so: The powerful in Davos take sharply different views about the war.


But I struggle to imagine how anyone of good conscience can take any view except to desire — and loudly demand — that Hersh come home to his parents, and Chaim to his daughter and wife; and that Nili be able to bury her father; and that all the hostages, irrespective of every other consideration, be freed and brought home now. It bears repeating everywhere, every day, until the day finally comes.


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