Freed Israeli hostages told top Israeli officials on Tuesday that they feared being killed by Israeli airstrikes while they were held by Hamas militants in Gaza. They also recounted brutality in Hamas’ captivity, including being beaten, humiliated, malnourished and kept under poor medical conditions.
Details from the meeting were reported in Israeli news outlets, including The Times of Israel, Haaretz, Ynet and public broadcaster Kan, the latter two of which cited leaked audio recordings of the meeting. An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson declined HuffPost’s request for comment on the reports. CNN reported on the meeting Wednesday and noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the leaked recordings.
One family representative told Haaretz that the meeting was “turbulent and highly tense,” and several reports indicated that the former hostages berated the Israeli officials for not prioritizing the safe release of the remaining hostages. Kan reported that some former hostages left in the middle of the discussion, and The Times of Israel, citing a recording published by other media outlets, said that “in recordings, some attendees could be heard screaming at the prime minister to resign.”
“Every day in captivity was extremely challenging. We were in tunnels, terrified that it would not be Hamas, but Israel, that would kill us, and then they would say Hamas killed you,” said one unnamed freed hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz, according to Ynet. “So, I strongly urge that the prisoner exchange begins as soon as possible and everyone needs to return home. There should be no hierarchy. Everyone is equally important.”
Another former hostage quoted in the Ynet report ― who was freed with her children but whose husband remains in captivity ― referred to reports that Israel was considering flooding tunnels in Gaza with seawater, which she argued could harm her husband.
“We felt as though no one was doing anything for us. The reality is that I was in a hideout that was bombed and we became wounded refugees. This doesn’t even include the helicopter that fired at us on our way to Gaza. You claim there is intelligence, but the reality is that we were being bombed,” said the former hostage, who was also unnamed in the report. “My husband was separated from us three days before we returned to Israel and was taken to the tunnels. And you’re talking about flooding the tunnels with seawater? You are bombing tunnel routes exactly where they are located. My daughters ask me where their father is, and I have to tell them that the bad guys still don’t want to release him.”
Aviva Siegel, another former hostage, said in the meeting that “airstrikes exploded above us and the Hamas operatives just kept sleeping. Your airstrikes don’t bother them,” The Times of Israel reported. The Times, citing Israel’s Channel 12 news station, reported Siegel told Netanyahu that her husband, still captive in Gaza, “is not well, they broke his ribs and he can barely sit or eat. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat there because I couldn’t. We kept moving from place to place. I thought I would be blown up every second.”
Netanyahu reportedly told the former hostages and their family members that Israel’s aim was to bring back all hostages and that the Israeli military’s ground invasion of Gaza had put pressure on Hamas which led to last month’s hostage exchange deal.
“If there’s an opportunity to bring everyone out at once, do you think anyone here would disagree?” he said, according to Ynet. Netanyahu reportedly said the former hostages’ accounts of “the ordeals you endured with our bombings and military operations” would influence “operational considerations.”
More than 1,200 people were killed in Israel on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants launched a surprise attack, and more than 240 others were taken captive that day and held in Gaza, according to Israeli officials. In retaliation, the Israeli military has carried out airstrikes and a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip that have so far killed more than 16,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Prominent Israelis and Americans, including President Joe Biden, have cast doubt over the Palestinian death toll figures, even though Gazan health officials’ claims have generally been considered accurate. On Monday, an unnamed Israeli army official told The Associated Press that at least 15,000 Palestinians had in fact been killed in Gaza and that the IDF believed more than 5,000 of those were Hamas militants. A spokesperson for the Gaza Health Ministry told the AP that, of 15,899 people killed in Gaza from Oct. 7 to the date of the report, 70% were women and children.
During a brief cease-fire last month, more than 100 Israeli hostages were released ― including 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino ― as were more than 200 Palestinians who’d been held as Israeli prisoners, the majority of whom had not been convicted of a crime; thousands of Palestinians are held without charges in Israeli detention, and many of those released reported being abused in Israeli custody. Israeli authorities believe about 15 people taken hostage are dead, The Times of Israel noted.
One former hostage who attended the meeting recalled the harsh conditions for captives in Gaza, Haaretz reported.
“They touch girls, and everyone knows it. I won’t recount details, but we had a procedure that no one moves without someone guarding them,” the woman said. “Medications ran out, and they gave us the wrong drugs.”
Another former hostage, a nurse named Nili Margalit, recalled severe conditions. “We were in tunnels under impossible conditions: underground, lacking oxygen, in darkness, with basic food like rice or pita bread twice a day,” Margalit wrote in a letter that was read at the meeting Tuesday, Haaretz reported.
Referring to elderly captives with whom she was kept, Margalit added: “These people live on borrowed time. There’s a shortage of medicines. I did my best to provide the medications they needed. It was very partial. The medications ran out. They can barely function. They lie on mattresses all day long. I don’t know how they manage since I left.”
Another former hostage said their captors “told us ‘There is no Israel.’ We believed them. They made us believe there is no Israel anymore.”
“I left the meeting hoping the cabinet means what it says,” Bashir Alziadana, whose family members include both recently released hostages and those still held captive in Gaza, told Haaretz. “We asked if returning the captives is the primary goal now, and I didn’t leave with a clear answer.”
“It’s very ironic that my family in the Gaza Strip is afraid they’ll die from IDF missiles, and my family in the unrecognized Bedouin village is afraid they’ll die from Hamas missiles because they have no protection,” Alziadana added, referring to Israel’s Bedouin population.
“It was very difficult to hear from the hostages’ descriptions of what they were, and are, enduring,” one unnamed representative of a family affected by the hostage crisis told Haaretz.
“It’s not only the abuse, suffering, and torment they undergo, but also that the IDF airstrikes jeopardize their lives. Together with Netanyahu’s statement that there’s no proposal on the table to return everyone, it’s impossible. Hamas is the one orchestrating this event.”