Deal to Free Child Hostages in Gaza Inspires Hope and Anguish

A 12-year-old forced to make a propaganda video for his kidnappers. A 9-year-old snatched while visiting a friend’s house for a sleepover. A 3-year-old whose last memory of her parents was seeing them both murdered. And an infant, now all of 10 months, who has spent about a tenth of his life in captivity.

They are among the more than 30 children abducted from their homes and taken to Gaza during the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Their faces have appeared on signs at marches in Israel and on fliers posted in cities around the world. And their plight has both galvanized a nation at war and forced Israel’s leaders to negotiate, albeit indirectly, with Hamas, the armed group they have vowed to destroy.

About 240 people were abducted by gunmen that day. Among them were individuals gravely injured in the attack or who suffered from chronic illnesses, infants and grandparents, peace activists and soldiers, citizens of Israel and foreign nationals.

“Each one of them is a person, not a number or a statistic,” said Eylon Keshet, a cousin of Kfir Bibas, the now 10-month-old. “Each one is a part of our lives and has dreams and ambitions.”

Kfir Bibas, right, with his father, Yarden, left, his mother, Shiri, right, and brother, Ariel, 4, center. All were taken hostage.Credit…via Bibas family

The captive children, especially, have had an immeasurable emotional impact on the traumatized country. Their fate has put the hostages at the center of the national agenda, complicating the military’s war strategy in Gaza and dividing the government about whether a deal to secure the release of at least 50 captives goes far enough and if the agreed pause in fighting would spell a premature end of the war and leave Hamas intact.

At least 36 children and teenagers, ranging in age from infancy to the final year of high school, are being held in Gaza. Now, for the first time since the war began, a deal to release dozens of the hostages is at hand, raising the hopes of the nation but creating a special kind of agony for the families desperate to learn if their relatives will be among those freed. Almost a day after the deal was announced, the families had yet to receive any information from the authorities.

“I am feeling like yesterday and the day before, only worse,” said Yael Engel Lichi, the aunt of Ofir Engel, a 12th-grader kidnapped on Oct. 7 from Kibbutz Be’eri while visiting his girlfriend.

“We are at the point of collapse,” she added.

Some, but perhaps not all, of the children are expected to be among the first hostages released in the coming days under a deal announced on Wednesday. The publicized details of the agreement include a brief pause in fighting and the phased release of at least 50 hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

Ofir Engel, a 12th grader, with his girlfriend.Credit…via Engel Family

Little is known about the children’s whereabouts or well-being, and Hamas, the dominant Palestinian force in Gaza, has denied the Red Cross access to them. It is presumed that some are being held beneath Gaza’s streets in the group’s warren of tunnels and underground chambers.

Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, who was among just four hostages released by Hamas early in the conflict, described being marched into a network of damp subterranean tunnels under Gaza that she likened to “a spider web.”

Hamas has said that it does not hold all the captives, raising questions about its ability to free everyone. Islamic Jihad, another armed group in Gaza, released the hostage video of Yagil Yaakov, 12, who was captured along with his brother Or, 16.

Kibbutz Nir Oz after the Oct. 7 attacks.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The anxious wait is straining emotions.

The deal is likely to cut through some families, possibly leaving behind fathers who were abducted with their children. It could also crack the solidarity that has so far bound the hostages’ families and made their 46-day campaign so effective.

News of the agreement and the revelation that not every family — and perhaps not every child — would be released imminently has led relatives to anguish over wanting their loved ones freed but knowing they might be the last ones to get out for a while.

Speaking before the deal was announced, Yoni Asher, 37, whose wife Doron, 34, and daughters Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2, were abducted from Nir Oz on Oct. 7, said he hoped all the hostages would return. “But I have to worry about my family,” he said, fearing for his children’s chances of survival in the hands of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which the United States, the Europe Union and Israel consider terrorist organizations.


In a video taken before the Israel-Hamas War, Aviv and Raz sing “Happy Birthday.”

Singing: Happy birthday. Happy birthday to you.

In a video taken before the Israel-Hamas War, Aviv and Raz sing “Happy Birthday.”CreditCredit…Courtesy of the Asher family.

“I hope they are together, that they are alive, and that I can get them back,” he said of his family. “Who even takes toddlers as prisoners?”

Yoni Asher, 37, right, his wife, Doron, 34, left, and daughters Raz, 4, center and Aviv, 2, bottom right.Credit…via Asher family

Thomas Hand, the Irish-Israeli father of Emily Hand, 9, who was kidnapped from a sleepover at a friend’s house in Kibbutz Be’eri, said the prospect of his daughter being among the first to be released made him feel a bit “selfish.”

Speaking at a news conference at the Israeli Embassy in London this week, he said, “I’m going to pull every little string that I can for my own daughter, and hopefully that helps the rest as well.”

Dilemmas over the hostage issue have already proved divisive. Public pressure forced the political and military leadership to declare the release of the hostages as a top priority alongside the original war goal of dismantling Hamas.

Some relatives have shied away from the glare of the news media. Others have traveled internationally and spoken tirelessly to journalists to raise awareness about the children. None are seasoned diplomats, crisis managers or military strategists.

Thomas Hand, father of 9-year-old Emily Hand, hugging Iris Haim, the mother of another hostage, Yotam Haim, at a news conference on Monday.Credit…Henry Nicholls/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Avichai Brodutch, 42, a farmer and nursing student, was out defending his community of Kfar Aza when his wife, Hagar Brodutch, 40, and three young children, Ofri, 10, Yuval, 8, and Uriah, 4, were all abducted by gunmen from their home.

Abigail Idan, 3, a neighbor who saw both her parents killed, according to relatives, was taken in by the Brodutch family and was kidnapped along with them.

A week later, Mr. Brodutch began a solo vigil outside the military and government headquarters in Tel Aviv. He said he felt at the time that the country was more focused on revenge against Hamas than freeing the hostages. Mr. Brodutch turned up for his protest with the family dog and a homemade sign that read, “My Family is in Gaza.” He was soon joined by masses of supporters.

“I think it changed things,” he said.

Avichai Brodutch speaking to reporters in October. He began a solo vigil in Tel Aviv a week after his wife and three young children were abducted.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

For many Israelis, one of the most striking images of the hostage crisis was that of Shiri Bibas being corralled by gunmen and taken to Gaza with her two red-haired children, Ariel, 4, and the baby Kfir, who was just 9 months old at the time. Yarden Bibas, Shiri’s husband and the children’s father, was also abducted, bleeding heavily after an assailant struck his head with a hammer, relatives said.

Mr. Keshet, Mr. Bibas’s cousin, described Ariel as a boy who loves being the center of attention and playing with toy tractors and cars. Kfir, he said, was a “chill” baby on formula who was just beginning to eat solid food.

On Wednesday, Mr. Keshet was still waiting to hear if the Bibas children and their parents were slated to be released.

“I want my family back. I want all the families back,” he said. “It’s not me versus you,” he said of the hostages’ families. “We share the experience and pain. We are all fighting for all.”

A yard in Kibbutz Be’eri after the Oct. 7 attacks.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from London.

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