By: Susan Crabtree
Families of several Americans held hostage by Hamas celebrated the release of a 4-year-old Israeli American while pleading with the international community to make securing the freedom of the eight remaining U.S. citizens and all those still detained a top priority during the dwindling hours of a fragile Israel-Hamas ceasefire.
The humanitarian pause in the fighting, which began Friday, was already extended by two days, with international mediators seeking another extension.
“The clock continues to tick, and it’s not in our favor,” Orna Neutra, the mother of 22-year-old Omer Neutra, a dual Israeli-American citizen held by Hamas, told U.S. lawmakers Wednesday as her husband, Ronen Neutra, set a giant hourglass on the table. “We spend every waking hour fighting in his name, speaking on his behalf … There has been some progress this week, but Omer is still not with us.”
Omer Neutra grew up on Long Island, New York, with his parents instilling a deep connection to both of his homelands. As the descendent of Holocaust survivors on both his mother’s and his father’s sides, Neutra decided to spend a gap year before college serving with the Israel Defense Forces. On Oct. 7, he was serving as a tank commander stationed on a post on the border with Gaza.
When his mother last spoke to him the night before the Hamas attacks, Omer told her he was looking forward to a quiet peaceful weekend after a really stressful month protecting the border. Only a few hours later, he was taken by Hamas, and his and his family’s lives were “turned upside down,” his mother testified.
“There are still 150 hostages in Gaza deep under the ground in the dark, some badly injured with no medicine, with little food,” Orna Neutra said. “So, we appreciate your support, but we urge you to press to bring the international community to demand proof of life and other basic humanitarian requirements and to bring them home as soon as possible. We must do everything to bring them back.”
The families provided their emotional testimony Wednesday at a roundtable held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The pleadings for the release of more Americans came after Israel and Hamas exchanged a fifth round of detainees Tuesday, with 12 Israeli hostages and 30 Palestinians released. Hamas released one additional American hostage, Liat Beinin Atzli, from Gaza Wednesday night after the roundtable. She is only the second U.S. citizen released since the ceasefire began.
Rep. Mike McCaul, who chairs the panel, expressed deep sympathy for all the victims of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and pledged not to rest until all the hostages are freed.
McCaul praised the release of Abigail Eden, who turned four while being held hostage, and told five families of American hostages detained by Hamas that he and other members of the panel would not rest until all of the hostages returned home. The Texas Republican also offered some solace for Jewish and Israeli families distressed by pro-Hamas rallies in the United States, noting that the House had just overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution condemning Hamas and calling for the hostages’ freedom.
McCaul recalled his visit to Israel a week ago and a conversation he had with another mother of a hostage held by Hamas.
“She said, you know, chairman, lightness will defeat darkness,” he recalled. “Our lightness will defeat this darkness in Gaza – this darkness of captivity will ultimately be defeated by the light, and that is really what this message is all about.”
Rep. Kathy Manning, a North Carolina Democrat who is Jewish, also implored the international community to do more to help free the hostages.
“Just like the stories of the Holocaust survivors, each of your stories is unique,” said Rep. Manning. “Each story is heartbreaking, and each of the hostages have loving family members whose lives have been torn apart, who are living with the agony of not knowing what has become of their loved ones.”
“I have heard stories that have brought me to tears, stories that haunt my dreams,” she continued. “That should make us redouble our efforts to bring these hostages home.”
President Biden has continued to press Hamas for the release of additional Americans and both sides for an extension of the ceasefire to try to win the freedom of additional hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel Wednesday, his third trip there since the war began, amid news that the Qatari government was voicing optimism that an extension to the truce will be announced in the coming hours. The hostage release agreements, brokered by the U.S., Egypt, and Qatar, have so far exchanged roughly one hostage abducted by Hamas for three prisoners held by Israel.
CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Qatar this week to push for a broader hostage deal that would ensure more Americans are released, including men as well as male and female Israeli soldiers.
The Red Cross has not yet been allowed to visit hostages that Hamas is holding in Gaza, a violation of the truce.
During the congressional roundtable, two other pairs of parents of dual Israeli-American citizens abducted while serving in the IDF on Oct. 7 described their desperate attempts over the last 54 days to gather any information about their sons.
“We had initial contact with him, but as the hours went by, we understand this wasn’t a typical Saturday with some missiles flowing from one side to the other,” Ruby Chen, the father of 19-year-old Itay Chen, told the lawmakers.
After 36 hours of not hearing from their son, the Chens visited a police headquarters in Israel and weren’t able to gather much information. Originally, he was listed as missing in action, and “nobody was able to identify him in the field,” his father said. Then at 6 a.m. on Oct. 12, two Israeli soldiers knocked on their door.
“In that situation where you understand you do not want to open that door. But you also understand that there’s no other choice but to open that door. Where your heart is going on 300 miles an hour,” he continued. “We here today are sitting as the lucky ones – the idea is that he was abducted, kidnapped by the Hamas terrorist organization. Ever since we have no proof of life and no indication of his medical status.”
“This is not just a U.S. issue. It’s an international community humanitarian issue that all of the international community needs to get behind to solve this problem,” he said with his wife, Hagit Chen, sitting grim-faced beside him.
Edan Alexander grew up in Maryland but, as a dual Israeli-American citizen, left to serve in the IDF at age 19. Alexander’s base was bombarded on Oct. 7, and he soon found himself surrounded by 20 Hamas terrorists who took him hostage.
Yael Alexander, his mother, was in Tel Aviv at the time and had just spoken to Alexander on FaceTime with the entire extended family the night before.
A few minutes before 7 a.m., she said Edan called to tell her he was seeing “terrible stuff – we are getting a lot of bombs and it’s like a war here.”
“I’m thankful that I spoke with him before they took him and that, just, that he will come home to us,” she told the lawmakers.
Liz Hirsh Naftali, great aunt of Abigail Eden, who turned four while being held hostage by Hamas and was released on Sunday, testified that when the young girl arrived home “she had no light” in her eyes but “blossomed” when reunited with her siblings.
Both of her parents were brutally killed by Hamas in their homes Oct. 7. Abigail survived after crawling out from underneath her father’s body with his blood covering her, Naftali testified. Abigail’s two brothers, who are 6 and 10 years old, hid in a closet for more than 14 hours, thinking that their sister had been murdered along with their parents.
“[The brothers] spent 50 days thinking they abandoned their sister,” Naftali testified. “What I’m saying is this pain effects the entire family. We think about Abigail, but I also think about [her brothers], a 6- and a 10-year-old carrying this in their hearts.”