She doesn’t know exactly what happened, but at some point on Saturday 7 October, when armed militants stormed the small Israeli community of Nir Oz, home to fewer than 400 people, it seems that Sharone Lifschitz’s parents were taken by Hamas.
Her mother and father, aged 85 and 83, have lived in the kibbutz since the 1950s. Their house is less than a mile from Gaza, possibly the nearest house in the kibbutz to the border. Lifschitz still doesn’t have an official confirmation of where they are.
Five days have passed since Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel, which at the latest count had left 1,300 people dead. Alongside grief and fear, anger is building over the government’s apparent dereliction of duty. Despite months of rumblings that a war with Hamas was on the horizon, despite an alleged recent warning from Egypt that “something big” was about to happen, early in the morning on 7 October around 1,000 armed militants were able to enter Israel. They stormed army outposts, towns and small communities.
In Kfar Azza, formerly home to 750 people, bodies of residents and militants were found inside homes and scattered in the streets. One Israeli commander described the scene as “not a war or a battlefield; it’s a massacre”. In Kibbutz Be’eri, 10 per cent of the population was found dead. There is evidence people were burned alive, dismembered, beheaded. The victims include children, babies and the elderly. And in Gaza an estimated 150 to 200 hostages, among them Israelis and foreign nationals, civilians and soldiers, young and old, are being held by the militants who murdered their relatives, friends, and neighbours.
Lifschitz, 52, an artist living in Walthamstow, north-east London, believes her mother and father were taken hostage from their home. When we spoke this week Lifschitz had heard nothing of her parents since the attack. She said she hadn’t heard from the Israeli authorities, nor had she seen her parents in footage of the attack or of hostages now in Gaza, filmed by Hamas, which is everywhere on social media.
She says dozens of Nir Oz’s residents were killed. Her parent’s 12-year-old neighbour was taken hostage, as was the neurodiverse daughter of a childhood friend, along with her 80-year-old grandmother. The kibbutz, she told me, initially made its own list of 50 residents who are missing. “Somebody said on Facebook this morning that my father is on a list of the Red Cross,” she said. What does that mean, I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, desperate for answers. “Do you?”
On Thursday 12 October the army reported it had notified families of 97 hostages held by Hamas. “We are aware of the uncertainty but there is a tension between reliability and speed and understanding what is happening on the ground. It must be accurate,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, told the press.
Lifschitz’s parents, both peace activists, were founding members of the kibbutz. They are ill and on medication: her mother needs oxygen at night, her father has a lung condition. Her father has spent his retirement driving Palestinians to hospitals inside Israel from the Gaza Strip, which has been under blockade since 2007, “because he believed [they] were people”. “My father is not the enemy,” Lifschitz said.
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Lifschitz grew up in Israel but has lived in the London for 30 years. As the attack began early on Saturday morning, her uncle and brother in Israel spoke with her father on the phone. Her mother was still asleep. Though her father had heard gunshots, he thought they were safe. They weren’t. And Israeli security forces were too slow to respond to all the areas under attack. “Nobody came for seven hours,” Lifschitz said. “Nobody came to save those people.” Now “the kibbutz is gone”, she said, “razed to the ground”.
It has become clear since Saturday that much of the Israeli army’s Gaza division had been redeployed to the West Bank in recent weeks to protect settlers amid a worsening security situation.
Now, on the sixth day of the war Israel has declared on Hamas, families and friends of the missing are still begging for information and help. As Israel continues to strike the Gaza Strip and a ground assault looks increasingly likely, there is a growing fear Israel won’t protect the hostages. Many Israelis already feel abandoned by the government over the slow response of security forces to Hamas’s attack, when they had long assumed that the army would always protect them. The prospect of hostages being allowed to die would inflict even more damage on the already traumatised national psyche. The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, an extreme right-wing member of Israel’s government, reportedly said in a cabinet meeting that it was “time to be cruel”, even if that meant hostages would die.
Hamas has reported that four hostages have been killed in Israeli air strikes, though that claim has not been verified. The militant group warned on 10 October that if the Israeli army continued with air strikes without warning, one hostage would be executed for every strike and that the killing would be broadcast for the world to see.
Hamas and Israel’s rhetoric is only growing more vengeful. The death toll in Gaza now stands at more than 1,400. Amid the fear over the fate of the hostages, and as the violence escalates, a growing chorus of voices is calling for the hostages’ release to be secured. “This is not about who is right and who is wrong,” Lifschitz told reporters at a press conference in London on 12 October, alongside Noam Sagi, whose 75-year-old mother is also thought to have been kidnapped. “I am not here for politics. I don’t have the luxury of politics,” she said. “We have a job to do, we have these people to bring back. Let’s bring these children home.”
For Hamas, Israeli hostages are leverage to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. In 2011 Israel agreed to exchange 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for one IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been held by the group for five years. In interviews to Arabic-language media the Israeli politician Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Ta’al party, has been calling for an exchange of women, children and the elderly, and medical care for those wounded. Qatar is reportedly trying to mediate an exchange of female prisoners. Ahead of a meeting between Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar in Berlin this week, an online petition calling on Scholz to push for a full prisoner and hostage exchange has received more than 23,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, a group of Israeli academics and activists, with members in countries including Italy, the Netherlands and Israel, is also campaigning for an exchange on humanitarian grounds. International law demands the release of hostages but, they argue, Hamas is unlikely to release the Israeli and foreign nationals taken in the attack without an exchange. Various groups are planning protests in Israel, Paris, Berlin and possibly London in the coming days to call for a hostage and prisoner exchange.
For Lifschitz, waiting anxiously for news of her parents in London, the priority is not to apportion blame, but to ensure the safety of the hostages. “My father is not just a number, my mother is not just a number,” she said. “They need to come home. Then we can talk about who is to blame. Then we will rebuild the kibbutz from the ashes. Then we will bury our dead.”
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