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In Israel, every parent’s worst nightmare is playing out in real life

Forty children are believed to be in captivity in Gaza, abducted by terrorists on Oct. 7

Four-year-old Uriah Brodutch loves to play with toy tractors in the mud. A soccer fan, he supports Paris Saint-Germain. Until Oct. 7 — when he was taken hostage by Hamas — he still slept in his parents’ bed.

Now Uriah’s face can be seen smiling on an installation of large colorful flowers outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, alongside his elder brother, Yuval, 8, and sister, Ofri, 10; on each flower hangs a picture of a missing child. Sweet and innocent faces from a happier time peer out beneath large white and red letters calling to “Bring him/her home now!” 

The Brodutch siblings were kidnapped from their home in Kfar Aza along with their mother Hagar; their father Avichai was separated from them during the attack when he went out to help, and he remained in Israel. Their three-year-old neighbor, Avigail Idan, is also believed to be held in Gaza. She ran to the Brodutchs’ house and hid with the family after her parents, Roye and Smadar, were murdered. Seventeen people are believed to have been taken hostage from the kibbutz, and between 52 and 60 were killed.

Tuesday marked one month since 239 people were abducted from Israel, 40 of them children, according to the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. Numbers of missing and dead have fluctuated as Israeli authorities continued to identify the remains of victims. The square outside the museum has been named “The Hostages and Missing Square” and is where the families of the missing gather — and some even camp — campaigning for the return of their loved ones.

Kfir Bibas is the youngest of the hostages. The red-headed baby, now a familiar face in many households across Israel, was nine months old when he was kidnapped from his home in Kibbutz Nir Oz, along with his four-year-old brother Ariel, and their parents Shiri and Yarden. Their grandparents, Yossi and Margit Silberman, were initially also categorized as missing, later found to have been killed. The terrorists also killed the family’s dog. The massacre left a quarter of the kibbutz’s 400 members either dead or taken hostage. 

Ariel and Kfir Bibas

Kfir only recently started eating solids, still heavily reliant on formula. Shiri’s cousin, Yifat Zailer, is concerned for his well-being. “I truly think that he probably is not receiving it there. So I hope he is being nourished enough. I don’t know,” Zailer tells Jewish Insider during an interview this week. She also wonders how his energetic four-year-old brother is holding up, and in what conditions.

Ariel loves tractors and nature. He is a “show stopper,” Zailer says. And he can’t sit still for five minutes. “Every tree, every chair, every table he can climb on, he will be the first one to do it. Which you know, makes you think, ‘Now what’s going on with him?’” 

Zailer has been tirelessly campaigning for the return of her family, who are dual Argentinian-Israeli citizens, since last she heard from her cousin at 7 a.m. on Oct. 7. Zailer texted Shiri immediately when rocket sirens awoke her family at 6:30 a.m. in their Tel Aviv home on that fateful Saturday. “Are you guys okay? Are you in the safe room? Lock your doors and come to Tel Aviv, we’ll do a slumber party,” Zailer wrote. Shiri sent back a heart emoji. In a video that has been publicized from that day, Shiri can be seen fearfully clutching her two children, a blanket wrapped around them, as they are taken away. “The look on her face is just something that doesn’t leave my mind,” Zailer told JI. “I haven’t slept in a month.” Shiri’s husband Yarden was seen in a different photo, being taken on a motorcycle with blood on his head and hands.

The last message Brodutch received from his wife was a text saying, “Somebody is coming in.” Other Kfar Aza residents told him they saw his wife and children being led away by terrorists. The family’s car is missing, and Brodutch believes the terrorists may have driven his family to Gaza in it. 

In the days following their kidnapping, Brodutch set up shop outside the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, sitting on a daily basis on a white plastic chair holding a sign reading “my family is in Gaza.” His father filled that seat for him on the day JI interviewed Brodutch. 

Brodutch also traveled to Washington two weeks ago, where he met with Red Cross officials, congressmen, senators and Qatari Ambassador to the U.S. Meshal bin Hamad al Thani. he describes a positive meeting with the ambassador, whom he said conveyed to him the message that “all nations don’t support this — taking children captive. And it gave me a lot of hope.”

“I’m really grateful that he accepted me, because, you know, some people from the Israeli government don’t talk to me. I tried talking to the minister of defense [Yoav Gallant] — and he’s the minister of defense so he’s responsible for my defense. And he failed miserably with that responsibility and he didn’t talk to me until now.” Brodutch said a senior aide from the ministry called him instead, and other ministers and military officials have also spoken to him, but he is determined to speak to the defense minister.

Ofri, Hagar, Uriyah and Yuval Brodutch

In a statement to the press last night, Gallant addressed the children held in Gaza. “I will repeat this again tonight – there will be no ceasefire without the return of hostages. We will take any action necessary for this,” he said. “Right now, there are [Israeli] children in the Gaza Strip. Some of them saw their own parents die in front of their eyes. Savages have kidnapped them and are holding them hostage. We will not stop fighting until we bring our children home. As a father, I wish to ask the whole world – what kind of father would stop searching for his children? I see these children as my own. I will not stop fighting and I will not stop searching for them, until I reach them.”

Like Zailer, Brodutch talks a lot to the media — defeating his previous fear of public speaking — and fields multiple calls during his interview with JI at the Shefayim Hotel, where many evacuees from Kfar Aza are staying.  

Every time his phone rings, a childish voice can be heard saying “Ofri, you’re stupid.” It’s a recording of his youngest son teasing his older sister. “He’s funny, mischievous,” Brodutch says, laughing when asked about his ringtone. “His sister Ofri really loves him. So he can do anything he wants. She still loves him.” Uriah is the boss of the house and tends to get what he wants. 

Yuval is the middle child, a sensitive soul who looks out for his brother and sister. He likes to play Minecraft, and spends hours building with Minecraft Lego — constructions that Uriah often knocks down. He also plays soccer, center-back position. Ofri, the eldest, frequently tries out new hobbies, the latest being a guitar that she got for her birthday — Avichai had been teaching her to play. 

“So now I’m teaching myself,” he says. Ofri loves music and has posters of the likes of Queen, Elton John, The Beatles and David Bowie plastering her walls.

Zailer, herself a mother to a baby and a toddler, is aware of the milestones that Kfir should be hitting now. “Babies between nine months and 10 months are supposed to learn how to clap and recognize faces and see when there’s light and when there’s dark and such…” Zailer notes, her voice trailing off before she takes a pause to collect herself, her head buried in her hands.

“It’s a lot, and every day that goes by, I feel like I’m not doing enough,” she says, apologizing. Zailer has been active on social media, trying to get the family’s message out to the world.

“But then I see people ripping out the signs of the kidnapped children, saying it’s fake news,” she says. “This is my family. This is my blood. Those are real children that I haven’t seen in a month and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. It took five years to bring back Gilad [Shalit]. Kfir is going to have his first birthday in captivity in two months.” 

“As a family member of someone who is being kept captive, it’s breaking my heart to hear all the voices saying it was justified,” Zailer says. 

The Bibas family

Zailer also expresses deep disappointment in international aid organizations for their lack of intervention — the Red Cross, for instance, has not gained access to the hostages, even just to check on their conditions, a demand made by the Israeli government.

“For me, it’s a feeling like being an Israeli citizen, it doesn’t really matter. My life doesn’t have a value anymore,” she said. 

It’s not only external forces letting down Zailer and her family. She feels her family has been neglected by the Israeli government too. 

“I feel like there’s a lot of internal interests that are conflicting with our interests to get my family back here now,” Zailer says. “They should have been here four days after everything started. We had the leverage to put pressure on the world who saw the atrocities that happened. 

“And now with the ground invasion, we’re the bad guys again,” Zailer continues. “Because you see the horrors. You see how much the IDF is trying, but Hamas is hiding among the population there and it’s really hard. And we are all human, and we don’t want to see anyone suffer and I’m in my darkest times and I can say that with confidence. So I feel like Hamas is still controlling the situation. For them, it was the best way to clear their name and say, OK, we did what we did, but look what’s happening now.’” 

“I can’t really imagine how a ground invasion can save the lives of 240 people that are probably spread around and not kept together,” she adds. “I believe that a deal and negotiation, someone who can mediate this, Qatar, the United States, they could have put the pressure on Hamas to release those people, those innocent civilians that were not armed are not part of this. Their only fault is being Jewish and being raised in Israel. A 10-months-old baby is not an occupier. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.”

The Brodutch family

Brodutch expresses a similar sentiment.

The Israeli government, he says, must “do everything they can to release the hostages, keep my family safe… which obviously, they failed miserably, keeping my family safe. And now they have to do everything they can to correct this miserable thing that they haven’t done.”

“It’s been over 30 days, I think it’s 34 days today. I lost count. And it doesn’t make any sense that the Jewish government in Israel made us suffer a second Holocaust inside Israel. And it seems like they’re not doing anything to correct it. Thirty-four days, kids are being held hostage away from their families. It seems like the Israeli government has got its priorities wrong,” he continues.

Like Zailer, Brodutch is skeptical that the ground invasion will achieve its goals. “For years and years they went into Gaza and came out again and told us it was safe, that now Israel is safe because they did such a good job….I’d like them to do something different. Because obviously the same thing that they’ve done up to now got us to where we are.” 

Asked how he envisions his reunion with his family, Brodutch thinks more of the practical than emotional details. “Because I try not to get emotional,” he explains, an effort made clear throughout the interview, during which he maintains a strong and even cheerful front.

“I don’t want anyone to touch them. You know, I just want them to come over here and just be with me. No media, no nothing… Just cross the border by themselves, come over to me and that’s it. And I want to be locked inside a room with them and no one around. Just see what they want, not what I want. And then see how it goes.”

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