Friends and relatives fight to keep spotlight on Israeli hostages

Pierrick Yvon - Agence France-Presse
Friends and relatives fight to keep spotlight on Israeli hostages
A woman holds a sign for Israelis Amiram and Nurit Kooper, taken hostage by Palestinian militant group Hamas, as supporters gather to remember and ask for the safe return of the Israeli hostages held in Gaza by Hamas after the October 7 attack, in Washington, DC, on November 12, 2023.
AFP / Roberto Schmidt

TEL AVIV, Israel — Five weeks after the Hamas attacks, the families and friends of Israelis taken hostage by the militant group are doing everything to ward off public fatigue and keep attention on their plight.

Hadas Kalderon's daughter Sahar, 16, son Erez, 12, and ex-husband Ofer, 53, are among those believed to have been taken by Hamas to Gaza on October 7. 

She has had to describe her nightmare "a hundred times", she said. 

The most recent occasion came in Tel Aviv on Saturday on the sidelines of another protest calling for the release of all the nearly 240 hostages missing since the attack, which also killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

"I suffer! I try not to think about it and all the time I have to talk about it," said 56-year-old Kalderon.

A survivor of Hamas's attack at the Nir Oz kibbutz, where her mother and niece were killed, Kalderon approaches interviews on "automatic pilot", she said.

At night, she finds it hard to sleep, waiting until she passes out from exhaustion.

Despite her work "nothing" has happened to get her children released, she said.

The Israeli government has "abandoned" and reneged on their "duty" to bring them back, she said. 

'Number-one priority'

Like Kalderon, many of the hostages' loved ones have travelled to Western capitals to make their cause heard among diplomats and the international media.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum has organised more than 20 foreign delegations each comprising three or four family representatives, according to Daniel Shek, head of the group's diplomatic cell.

With the Israeli army's operation in Gaza intensifying, the group is alert to the possibility of a "decrease in the sense of urgency" over hostages, said Shek, a former ambassador to France, who is now retired.

On the domestic front, public opinion is entirely behind the families of the hostages.

"For the past two weeks, the figures show the number-one priority for Israelis is the return of the hostages," in contrast to the start of the war when it was "fighting Hamas", said Shek.

But abroad, the focus has also been on Israel's relentless bombing campaign and ground invasion in Gaza, which has killed over 11,100 people, most of them civilians, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

"Widespread empathy towards Israel is beginning to crumble and the story of the hostages is also suffering perhaps," Shek added.

Kinneret Stern, whose cousin Moran Stela Yanai was taken, now resents that in the "three to four" interviews she gives daily "it feels like it's not empathy as it was".

At first "the questions were very soft and sensitive, but now the time passed," said the computer engineer.

"It's very difficult because we don't have anything new to say," she said.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US media "there could be" a deal to release the hostages, but declined to provide details for fear of disrupting the plan.

But for Stern said: "until they are here and safe it means nothing to us."

Beach tournament

The square across from the meeting place of Israel's war cabinet in Tel Aviv has become the rallying point for those seeking to bring the hostages back.

On Saturday night, thousands of people gathered in front of a screen with a clock counting the days, hours and minutes since the their loved ones went missing.

Other installations invite passers-by to picture themselves among the captives, seeing their face reflected in a mirror lined up between the captives' portraits.

Friends of Ofir Tzarfati, abducted from the Supernova music festival as he celebrated his 27th birthday, make videos which they share on social media.

In the clips, the group are playing backgammon or football, until it is Tzarfati's turn to roll the dice or play a pass but he is not there. 

On Friday, they arranged a sports tournament on a beach to find "positive ways" to keep the spotlight burning rather than "repeat the stories over and over again", his friend Ron Safran said.

"You want to maintain the energy, but it's been too long," he said.

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