Rut Hodaya Perez is in no shape to be held as a hostage in the Gaza Strip.
A 17-year-old Israeli girl who has myotonic dystrophy, Rut cannot walk and uses a wheelchair. But that didn’t stop Hamas gunmen from snatching her on Oct. 7 from a trance music festival near the Gaza border during their spree of kidnapping and slaughter.
Rut is now among the large and varied group of captives that Hamas is believed to have dragged back to its underground labyrinth of tunnels in Gaza.
“She is not built to live in a place like that,” said her sister, Yamit.
It has been two weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, massacring more than 1,400 people and kidnapping more than 200. While fears are growing for the safety of all of the hostages, held in conditions that would test even the strongest, the worries are especially intense for the most physically vulnerable like Rut.
On Friday morning, Israeli military officials said that “most” of the hostages were alive, and by Friday night, all those with loved ones held in Gaza received an added injection of hope when Israel and Hamas announced that two hostages, a mother and daughter who are dual American-Israeli citizens, had been freed.
American officials said that representatives from Qatar, an American ally that maintains good relations with Hamas, had helped persuade the group, which controls Gaza, to free Judith Raanan, 59, and Natalie Raanan, 17. It was not clear why the Raanans were released before others.
But for all those remaining, it’s almost inconceivable what any of them, especially the neediest, are living through.
They are being held at gunpoint by the same group that massacred their friends and loved ones. They are trapped in the densely packed Gaza enclave that Israeli warplanes are relentlessly bombing. All around them, food, water and medicine are running out, and fear, rage and hatred are escalating. Everyone inside Gaza, population two million, is facing a humanitarian crisis, and governments around the world have been urging the Israelis to allow in desperately needed aid, which finally began happening on Saturday morning.
Israeli officials said that Hamas had taken at least 20 children, including toddlers; more than a dozen people in their 60s, 70s and 80s; and people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease, heart problems, diabetes and cancer. On top of that, several hostages were gravely wounded by gunshots and grenades during the terrorist attack.
Family members and international organizations are beseeching Hamas to show mercy and release the old, the young, the sick and the wounded first.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the groups trying to help. Within two days of the attack, Red Cross officials said, they had approached Hamas leaders in Doha, Qatar.
“The starting point — and I have a hard time getting away from this — is that there are people who should never be there,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the organization’s regional director for the Near and Middle East, in an interview this past week.
In the past 10 days, he said, the Red Cross has met face to face and held numerous telephone calls with Hamas officials, but, “considering the level of violence in Gaza, I see it as extremely complicated for us to do our work.”
Red Cross officials said they were asking Hamas leaders to offer “proof of life,” such as a message, phone call or video that would prove each person believed to be held captive is alive. The Red Cross is also asking Hamas to allow in medicine and to immediately release the hostages with urgent health needs, like Rut.
“They should all be released, but the ones with specific medical conditions should be even more released than the others,” Mr. Carboni said. “There is no way easily to provide the medical help they need in Gaza today,” he added. “We asked for it. But today we are far from it, very far.”
For the hostages’ families, it’s been an anguishing, up-and-down week.
The catastrophic blast on Tuesday at a crowded hospital in Gaza inflamed passions — and anti-Israeli feelings — around the world. Israel blamed the explosion on an errant rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, while Hamas officials blamed an Israeli airstrike. Neither side’s account could be independently verified, but the bottom line was immense suffering in Gaza and increased risks to the hostages’ safety.
Over the next few days, Israel continued to build up its forces along Gaza’s border, gearing up to invade. Many families of the captives are praying that the Israelis delay the ground offensive until all the hostages are freed.
There are few good options. Tactical experts say a rescue attempt would be too dangerous. Hamas has miles of underground tunnels in Gaza, and experts believe the hostages have been split up, and are kept under heavy guard, throughout this maze.
Adding to the gloomy picture is the news that came at the end of this past week that Israeli soldiers had found bodies of Israelis along the border fence with Gaza. It’s not clear when they were killed — during captivity or in the initial moments of the Oct. 7 attack. Either way, hostages’ families are now under tremendous stress, answering each phone call with trembling fingers not knowing if they are about to learn whether the people they love most are dead or alive.
And for the hostages who are sick or hurt, time is not on their side.
Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, a California native who moved to Israel with his family 15 years ago, is a captive in Gaza whose arm was blown off by a grenade during the attack.
He was filmed in a video being loaded into a Hamas truck, blood dripping from a stump above his left elbow.
Rotem Revivi, a close friend, said it was “obvious” that if Mr. Goldberg-Polin’s arm weren’t properly treated, “it could be that he isn’t with us anymore.”
Hagai Levine, an official with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, an organization that sprang into existence in Tel Aviv to help the hostages’ families, believes the International Committee of the Red Cross needs to “do more,” like publishing a list of all missing people and hostages. Red Cross officials say they are trying to get this information and are drawing on their experiences from other Middle East conflicts.
The organization helped repatriate thousands of prisoners during Israel’s wars with its neighbors, going back decades. It maintains an office in Gaza, where, Mr. Carboni said, his people were staying in “awful conditions” to facilitate the release of hostages, like they did on Friday night when Hamas handed over the Raanans and they stepped into a purring Red Cross truck, according to a short video Hamas released.
Hamas initially threatened to execute a civilian hostage every time an Israeli airstrike hit Gazans “in their homes without warning,” but has made no further such announcements. While Hamas has said little about those being held, it’s clear the hostages have great value to them.
Israeli officials said that Palestinian Islamic Jihad is also holding some captives. Musab Al-Breim, a spokesman for that group, known to work closely with Hamas, said this week that “there is only one way that the prisoners will return, and that is if our prisoners are freed,” referring to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Hostage experts say this is one of the most complicated hostage standoffs ever. It’s an enormous group of captives, kept in a raging war zone, with hostages coming from many different countries, aged from under 1 to over 85, including civilians kidnapped from their homes or a party in the desert as well as active-duty Israeli soldiers captured from burning tanks.
Even the simplest communication, like a phone call to those in captivity, is difficult. “Nonstate armed groups, with whom we are in contact, are very, very careful on how they establish contact with us because they know that through technology they could be traced,” Mr. Carboni said.
But all that aside, Mr. Carboni said, “it’s unthinkable” that so many children have been kidnapped.
He added that “this indignation is not at the expense of our indignation for the kids of Gaza,” who, he said, have grown up facing “unbelievable brutality and violence.”
“We can’t add violence to violence,” he said. “We need to stop this.”