Families of hostages in Gaza are desperate for news but dread a phone call

People hang out at a park with a graffiti in support of hostages kidnapped during the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: Reuters)
People hang out at a park with a graffiti in support of hostages kidnapped during the deadly October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

Some hostages are rescued, but more turn up dead. Desperation is growing as some estimate as few as 50 remain alive.

TEL AVIV—When Gili Roman got a phone call from the Israeli military in late November, it was with the happy news that his sister, Yarden Roman Gat, was going to be released from captivity in a hostage deal with Hamas.

Now, the prospect of calls from the Israeli military fills the families of many hostages with dread.

An Israeli military operation freed four hostages in early June. But many more have come home dead in recent months, deepening concerns that time is running out and that the safe return of the hostages may be at odds with Israel’s war goal of destroying Hamas.

“What is happening now is that the families have the opposite feeling," says Roman, who has another relative, Carmel Gat, among the remaining hostages. “It’s about who will get a phone call saying the body of your family member has been found or he has been declared dead."

Of the approximately 250 hostages taken in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack, 116 continue to be held captive, including many believed to be dead. Mediators in the hostage talks and a U.S. official familiar with the latest U.S. intelligence said the number of those hostages still alive could be as low as 50.

That assessment, based in part on Israeli intelligence, would mean 66 of those still held hostage could be dead, 25 more than Israel has publicly acknowledged.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and military declined to comment. Hamas didn’t respond to a request for comment but has told mediators in the cease-fire talks that it doesn’t know how many hostages are alive.

The bodies of 19 hostages have been returned to Israel, including eight in the past three months. Israel has determined that another 41 hostages are dead.

Eight Americans remain hostage in Gaza, including three who have been declared dead by Israel. The American families of the hostages meet regularly with White House officials.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that as many as 50 of the remaining hostages could be dead based on an Israeli assessment shared with U.S. and Egyptian officials.

The number of hostages alive or dead has been an issue in cease-fire talks brokered by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar. As part of a deal, hostages would likely be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Israel was initially unwilling to accept dead bodies to meet the number of hostages required to be released in the first phase of any deal, but its latest proposal presented to Hamas says it would accept dead bodies.

The talks have been hung up on the need to square Hamas’s demand for a path to end the war with Israel’s insistence on continuing the fight until the group is destroyed. Hamas hardened its stance by adding new demands after a June 8 hostage rescue operation, in which four hostages were freed but scores of Palestinians died.

Estimates of the number of dead hostages continue to rise due to the conditions of their detention, wounds they suffered during the Oct. 7 attack, and other causes. Israeli officials say that most of the hostages pronounced dead were killed on Oct. 7, but they have also confirmed that some hostages have been killed by Israel’s own military action.

The June commando rescue of the four hostages held in Gaza apartments was a rare moment of joy in Israel, where families of those taken have grown frustrated with months of fruitless talks for a hostage deal amid a war that appears to be grinding on without end.

But the military and the rescued hostages say Israeli missions can’t bring back everyone. A deal with Hamas would return at least some of the remaining hostages, but concern is deepening within Israel that an increasing number of the captives are dead.

“Along with the significant achievement, we must honestly say we will not be able to return everyone home in this way," Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Saturday. One of the rescued hostages, Andrey Kozlov, publicly called for a deal with Hamas to secure the release of those who remain in Gaza.

As the weeks without a hostage deal drag on, families and health professionals are growing more worried about some hostages’ chances of survival due to their old age, conditions of captivity and pre-existing conditions.

“I think we should be extremely worried," said Hagai Levine, the head of the medical team for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, an advocacy group. “It seems like every week more hostages are dying or getting in danger or very sick."

The condition of hostages held in Gaza varies depending on the behavior of their captors as well as whether they are held above ground or in tunnels. Former hostages interviewed by the Journal described limited food and hygiene, lack of medical care, and fear of Israeli airstrikes. Hostages held alone rather than in groups are more at risk of deterioration, according to Israeli health professionals who have treated returned hostages.

Izhar Lifshitz’s 84-year-old father, Oded Lifshitz, is a hostage in Gaza. Hostages who were released in November said they saw him wounded but alive early in the war, but Izhar Lifshitz hasn’t heard anything new from the military since then.

“We hang on to the hope that he might be alive," Lifshitz said. “But in our stomach we know that older people, wounded people, people taken more than eight months ago, people like that even in Israel would need to change their medication several times, a doctor’s treatment. And they are not getting that there."

Israel’s successful raid could paradoxically make the remaining hostages’ conditions worse as Hamas moves them to more secure locations.

“They probably tightened up security. They’re looking for collaborators and any leakage of information. They may have moved hostages from above ground to underground," said Gershon Baskin, a hostage negotiator who facilitated the 2011 deal with Hamas that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from captivity in Gaza. “I would think that the lives of the hostages were not better off after last Saturday," he said last week, referring to the June 8 raid.

Israel uses a strict set of forensic standards to determine hostage deaths and has tasked a small committee of medical experts with reviewing classified intelligence to make the determinations. When the committee began its work in October, it mostly relied on security-camera footage from Israel. Today, however, it relies more on Hamas videos that Israeli troops have recovered in Gaza.

“We were able to determine the death of people that we know were alive and we know how their life ended over there," says Ofer Merin, a member of the committee and director general at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. “We sit very quietly. We look at each frame. We listen to what happened. And we gather all this information."

The military has also been trying to learn the fate of Israeli hostages by tracing DNA found in tunnels inside Gaza, said Tamir Hayman, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Hamas traditionally is highly disciplined about keeping secret the whereabouts of its captives, who are often moved around the Gaza Strip, Baskin said. The four captors who guarded Shalit for more than five years never used electronic communication and had no connections or contacts in Gaza. But now that the militant group has dozens more hostages to guard, information could slip out more easily.

Throughout the war, Hamas has trickled out videos of hostages in Gaza, sometimes showing them alive to pressure Israel to reach a deal. The videos are a much awaited sign of life for the families, but are also gut-wrenching for relatives to watch.

Elan Tiv was in the car with her sister and mother, a released hostage, in late April when Hamas released a video of her 65-year-old father, Keith Siegel, who remains captive. Tiv pressed play but didn’t turn on the volume, fearing she would break down. She watched until her father began to cry.

“We stopped the car on the side of the road and cried a lot," she said.

Her mother, Aviva Siegel, who was held with Siegel in Gaza before being released, couldn’t bear to watch.

Write to Anat Peled at anat.peled@wsj.com, Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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