family matters

Families of American hostages in Gaza plead for U.S. assistance

'Please do not think about us only as a headline,' father pleads

Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo

Relatives of U.S. citizens that are missing since Saturday's surprise attack by Hamas militants near the Gaza border, in Tel Aviv, Israel attend a news conference on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Seated from left: Jonathan Dekel-Chen, father of Sagui Dekel-Chen (35) from Nahal Oz; Ruby Chen, father of Itay Chen, 19, a soldier in the armored corps; Ayala Neta, daughter, and Nahal Neta, son of Adrienne Neta, 66, a nurse living in Kibbitz Be'eri; Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who was attending the music festival, and Jonathan Polin, Hersh's father.

A nurse and midwife who has delivered more than 1,000 babies. A soldier who swapped weekend shifts so that he could attend his brother’s bar mitzvah. A young man attending an outdoor rave with friends. A father awaiting the birth of his third child.

The families of four American citizens who believe their loved ones are being held by Hamas in Gaza gathered in Tel Aviv on Tuesday afternoon to deliver a public, emotion-laden plea to both the Israeli and American governments, neither of which, relatives say, have provided adequate support or information about their family members.

On Tuesday afternoon, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that 20 or more Americans remain unaccounted for. A National Security Council spokesperson confirmed on Monday that at least 11 American citizens have been killed in the attacks.

On Tuesday afternoon, following a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden said he had “directed my team to share intelligence and deploy experts from across the United States Government to consult with and advise Israeli counterparts and hostage recovery efforts. Because as president, I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans being held hostage around the world.”

Rachel Polin-Goldberg, who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Jerusalem, last heard from her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, on Saturday morning. Goldberg had turned her phone off on Friday evening as the sunset ushered in Shabbat and Simchat Torah. After a siren alerted her to a rocket attack near Jerusalem on Saturday morning, she turned on her phone, concerned about Hersh, who was attending the Tribe of Nova music festival near Kibbutz Re’im. 

“I turned my phone on, I believe, at 8:23 in the morning,” Polin-Goldberg said. “And when I turned it on, there were two texts in a row from Hirsch at 8:11. The first one said, ‘I love you’ and immediately at 8:11 also it said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And so I knew immediately wherever he was, it was a terrible situation.”

Polin-Goldberg identified her son, whom she has not heard from since, in a photo taken inside a bomb shelter. In collecting eyewitness accounts, she said, she learned that Hersh had been injured in a firefight. 

“They were fish in a barrel sitting in this bomb shelter,” Polin-Goldberg explained. “Terrorists came to the door, they were throwing grenades in, shooting machine guns, and we know that Hirsch’s arm from the elbow down was severed, was blown off, and that he tied a tourniquet around with his shirt.” She has not received any further information about her son’s whereabouts.

Polin-Goldberg was joined by the families of Itay Chen, Sagui Dekel-Chen (who is not related to Itay) and Adrienne Neta, whose son, Nahar Neta, issued a plea to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken. The administration, Neta said, is “responsible to bring the U.S. citizens back home safe and sound. We expect nothing less from the U.S. administration and from President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken.”

Adrienne Neta is a California-born nurse and midwife who moved to Israel in 1981. She lived for decades on Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the deadliest sites of Saturday’s attack. When Hamas terrorists invaded the kibbutz, her children said, she was sitting on her patio on the phone. It was roughly 9:30 a.m. “Both my brother and my sister were on the call with her as the terrorist barged into her home, and we heard a little bit of screaming and that was our last contact with her,” her son Nahar Neta said. “There was no shooting on the call.” 

His mother, Neta added, tried to use the limited Arabic she had picked up as a longtime nurse at Soroka Hospital to communicate with her captors.

A half-hour’s drive from Neta’s Kibbutz Be’eri sits Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which is where 35-year-old Sagui Dekel-Chen was taken hostage as he and other men on the kibbutz attempted to overpower the terrorists who had infiltrated the property. Dekel-Chen’s wife is pregnant with the couple’s third daughter.

Of the roughly 400 residents of the kibbutz, Sagui’s father, Jonathan Dekel-Chen, said, more than half have been killed or taken hostage. The roughly 160 survivors, the elder Dekel-Chen said, “call this a pogrom.”

“What happened to us, it’s not a war,” he said. “It’s not a fair fight. It is a pogrom. Hundreds of heavily armed, well-organized terrorists walked, rode, ran over the border with one object in mind: and that was to kill, maim, to destroy civilian life along the border.”

“As such,” he continued, “it seems to me that the United States, my original home, and still a very beloved place for me, always wants to be and must be on the side of good.” He called on the “United States government, to the Congress, to do what they can on the side of good here. We’re waiting for Sagui to come home.”

Rubi Chen, whose son Itay was captured while on duty, said he has connected with about 10 other families who are missing a relative with American citizenship following Saturday’s ambush.

Itay Chen had not been scheduled to be on duty the weekend of the attack. His younger brother’s bar mitzvah was the following weekend, when he had been originally scheduled to report for duty. Itay had traded weekend shifts so that he could be a part of his family’s celebrations. 

Rubi Chen said the IDF had informed the family that Itay was listed as missing in action. 

“You would think it would be a good assumption to say that after 70 hours, if he’s not in the State of Israel, he might be some other place. If that is the case, then he is by definition a POW.” Chen called for his son to be treated as a POW according to international law.

Chen said he had been in contact with the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, but that he has received few answers as to his son’s whereabouts and any plans to rescue the hostages. There has “been no formal or concentrated attempt to talk to us as a group and update us about what they are doing in this matter,” Chen said on Tuesday.

“Please do not think of us only as a headline,” Rubi Chen pleaded. “We are more than that.”

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