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on the hill

‘Time is running out,’ families of hostages warn lawmakers

The relatives urged lawmakers to put pressure on the international community and on Israel to secure their loved ones' releases

Ruth Marks Eglash

Posters of the hostages in the lobby of the David Hotel, Ein Bokek

The parents of hostages believed to still be held captive in Gaza urged House Foreign Affairs Committee members at a roundtable yesterday to exert pressure on the Red Cross and the international community to secure their loved ones’ releases, warning that time is running out to secure the freedom of the remaining hostages.

Orna Neutra, the mother of hostage Omer Neutra, an American-Israeli citizen serving in the IDF, expressed outrage that the Red Cross had still not been allowed to visit her son, noting that hostages are injured and are receiving little food, according to those released.

“There has been some progress this week, but Omer is still not with us. And the clock continues to tick, and not in our favor,” she said. “We appreciate your support. But we urge you to press… 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.”

She urged lawmakers to “keep the pressure on Qatar, keep the pressure on Egypt, rally the international community to use any resources they have on this — get this done.”

Ruby Chen, the father of hostage Itay Chen, another IDF serviceman and dual citizen, delivered a similar message of urgency.

“The problem that we have: Time is running out,” Chen said, placing a large hourglass on the table. “We urge you and the U.S. government to do whatever it can.”

He asked lawmakers to “keep the pressure” on the Red Cross and others in the international community, highlighting frustrations with what critics have seen as a hands-off approach by the Red Cross to the hostage crisis. 

“We just came today from the International Red Cross explaining to them that the way that they operate, in a discreet manner, is not the way that we expect them to operate in this case,” Chen said. “They need to be vocal. They are the witnesses. They are the ones that see the hostages going out. They are the ones that need to be vocal and get the international community behind them.”

He said the Red Cross needs to make clear to Hamas that the terrorist group crossed a “red line” by not providing medical attention or allowing any Red Cross visitation. 

Chen said lawmakers should also “convey the message to the government of Israel that they believe  — U.S. people believe — that this is the No. 1 topic on the agenda for them as well, and to keep the Israeli government focused on this topic, the release of hostages, before anything else.”

Some of the families of hostages have expressed frustration with the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over their handling of the crisis.

Liz Hirsh Naftali, whose 4-year-old grandniece Abigail Mor Idan was recently released by Hamas, described her young relative first days since her release from Hamas’ custody. Abigail was orphaned in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack; her two siblings survived.

“When she arrived [in Israel] and she had no parents, she was dark. She had no light. Her aunt and her grandmother went to meet her. She was thin, she was hungry… she had been somewhere in the dark for 50 days,” Naftali recounted. “When Abigail saw her siblings and her cousins — these light people — coming to visit her in the hospital, she blossomed, the light came back.”

“Every day, we hope for Abigail to continue in this process,” Naftali continued. 

She also described the plight of Abigail’s siblings — “a 6- and 10-year-old who’ve spent 50 days thinking they abandoned their sister, that if they had thought that she was alive and brought her to the closet” where they hid during the Hamas attack, “that she would not have been there.”

Naftali is a Democratic donor whom Republicans have subpoenaed as part of their impeachment probe into President Joe Biden. Two top Republicans, the chairs of the House Oversight and Ways and Means committees, intimated baselessly in TV interviews on Wednesday that Abigail might have received earlier release than other American hostages because of Naftali’s connections.

Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) called the comments “simply disgusting.” 

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in opening remarks at the roundtable that he was “proud of this administration for standing with Israel.”

“We are Americans first and we need to bring more of our American hostages home,” McCaul continued. “We’ve only brought one home — I credit the administration, leaders in Congress, thank you to countries like Qatar — but we have to get our American citizens home.” Hours after McCaul’s remarks, another American hostage was freed.

“We will not rest until [Hamas] are eradicated — not just for the Jewish people, but for the Palestinians,” McCaul added.

Ranking Member Greg Meeks (D-NY) told the families that they “give me hope.”

“I really can’t imagine what you’re going through,” Meeks said to the families. “It is even more important that we don’t stop until your loved ones are returned. And when they are returned, the story still must be told, so that generations yet unborn understand what took place. They have to know the inhumanity and the insaneness of terrorists and terrorism. You can’t be human and take, as we’ve seen, babies.”

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