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Families of Americans held hostage by Hamas return to Washington

Families of Americans held hostage in Gaza met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Wednesday as they pushed for more action.
Posted at 10:10 PM, Nov 29, 2023

Families of Americans held hostage by Hamas are visiting Washington, D.C., for the third time, keeping their loved ones top of mind as they look for their immediate release.  

The IDF said 159 total hostages are still held at the end of the second day of a 48-hour extension to a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas to allow the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners. 

“We don’t have time,” said Ruby Chen, the father of Itay Chen.  

Itay’s family said the 19-year-old moved to Tel Aviv after school, working to protect agricultural villages. His family said they heard from him that the base was under attack, then lost contact, before being told days later he was abducted. Since then they haven’t received proof of life or information about his medical status. 

“It's been a living hell, we live in a different atmosphere, we live in a different universe than what you can understand. It’s a living hell, basically, that you need to wake up in the morning and live it all over again,” Ruby Chen said.

Edan Alexander’s family said he wanted to volunteer with the IDF after graduating. His mother, Yael, said she was in Tel Aviv to spend time with him.  

“He called me and he told me ‘Mom it's like a war here. We are getting a lot of bombs. But I'm protected.' I told him please be safe. I love you, be brave and we are gonna speak, like I'm here. I'm on your timezone. And since then, like I'm texting him nonstop, and I didn't get any response from him. Sixth day after the intelligence from the army came to us and told us that Eden is not missing, he’s hostage in Gaza,” Yael said. 

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Omer Neutra’s family said he grew up in the U.S., visiting Israel and learning more about the country.

“He felt he couldn’t just go back to school ... that it was his duty to help in protecting Israel because he had a deep understanding Israel needed the protection and need to be strong for all Jewish people,” said his mother, Orna Neutra.  

The Neutras said Omer was helping to protect villages when terrorists ambushed his tank. He had been under the presumption, his parents said, that it was going to be a quiet weekend.  

“We're so happy that kids and women are coming out. But it's also time for men to come out. And the wounded, people with medical conditions and hurt,” said his father, Ronen Neutra.  

Abigail Mor Edan’s family said the then 3-year-old’s parents were murdered. Abigail was in her father’s arms when he fell protecting her. Her siblings thought she was murdered, too, and hid. Abigail ran to a neighbor's home and was taken hostage by Hamas along with the neighbors. The young girl, who turned 4 while held hostage, was released Sunday.  

“Abigail is home — not in her home, but she is home in Israel. Because our home is destroyed. They can't return to where they lived. She has no parents to go home to. But I am here because there are still over 150 people there. People — they're not just hostages, but they're people that are somewhere in Gaza,” said her great-aunt, Liz Hirsh Naftali.

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Wednesday, an additional American was released, Liat Beinin.  

"Liat Beinin is safe in Egypt," President Biden said. "She's crossed the border. I talked with her mother and father. They're very appreciative and things are moving well. She'll soon be home with her three children.”

The administration noted that Beinin is a high school teacher and guide at Israel’s Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem.  

“The deal to pause the fighting in Gaza and facilitate the release of hostages—a deal the United States worked intensively to secure, sustain, and extend—is now in its sixth day. This deal has delivered meaningful results,” President Biden said in a statement, noting the release of hostages and surge in aid to Gaza. 

An Israeli military official said they “were preparing for both the resumption of fighting and for the renewal of the agreement (truce)” in a video from the Israeli government press office.  

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated the U.S. wants to see an extension in the pause because it would allow more hostages out, and that it would be a focus during his trip to Israel. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is also supporting the visit to the region.  

A U.S. official said the administration is pursuing the release of all hostages, beyond women and children.  

CIA director Bill Burns also was expected in Doha, Qatar this week for a meeting that a U.S. official previously said included discussions on hostages.

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The hostages' families shared their stories with lawmakers on Wednesday and planned to met with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday.  

“We're not going there to advise them, we're going there to consult with them and to try and understand and keep updated as to what they are doing. And to keep that pressure going,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali.  

“What we are trying to communicate to the Biden administration is time is of the essence,” said Ruby Chen, as the families also thanked the Biden administration for its work. “Benjamin Netanyahu, as a fact, has a unique ear to the United States public. So it is also important to us to be here for the U.S. public, to convey the message to the Israeli government, that they also view the hostage situation and the release of the hostages as the top priority of the U.S. people.” 

The families also met with representatives from the International Red Cross. The organization has served as an intermediary in transferring those released from Hamas to Israel. But Ruby Chen said some relatives expressed their disappointment that there have been no visitation rights or medical attention, looking for the organization to share its voice.  

“I believe they are doing a lot of work. The question is, why aren’t they actually talking about some of the work they're doing in a public manner? They are the ones that receive the hostages when they come out. They are the ones that take them from Gaza, and bring them to Israel. And what we would hope is that, considering that they are the conduit, and they are the witness to these people coming out, whether they're little kids or adults, they are seeing how they are coming out. They are not coming out with life and light — many of them are coming out with multiple issues, whether it's infested with bites, lice in their hair, incredible weight loss, hunger, silence. I mean, these people are coming out of a holocaust, as we have said, and I think it is appropriate for people who are the recipients of these folks and bringing them back to Israel to actually bring a voice to who they are bringing out of Gaza, not just numbers,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali.  

A spokesperson for the ICRC said, “We want families to know that the plight of loved ones being held hostage is a top priority, and that we are speaking with Hamas, Israeli officials, and others on these issues.” 

The spokesperson said the ICRC has continually asked for access to the hostages, and that the hostages' plight is a top priority, adding, "Our teams are ready to visit them in person to check on their health or deliver personal medicines. We are eager to help facilitate the exchange of simple messages between the hostages and their family members, and of course we are ready to facilitate releases."

"Should a visit by the ICRC to the hostages be agreed upon, the ICRC stands ready to visit," the spokesperson said. "We do not take part in the negotiations between the parties to the conflict. Please know that the ICRC cannot force its way in to where hostages are held. We can only visit them when agreements, including safe access, are in place. Our role, as neutral intermediary, is to facilitate the implementation of any humanitarian agreement they reach.”