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Hostages’ families find all the services they need in one Tel Aviv building

Volunteer therapists, diplomats, fundraisers and media experts have dedicated the last eight weeks to the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum – but their politics have repelled some whose relatives were kidnapped

TEL AVIV — The old Kibbutz Movement headquarters was bustling with activity this week. Like many other buildings in the center of the city that housed once-prominent organizations, this one was repurposed years ago into a high-tech office, with open-space work areas, lounges with beanbags and fancy coffee machines. And at first glance, the building looked like any other office in Tel Aviv’s tech sector – but cybersecurity firm Check Point and all of its tenants moved out weeks ago. 

Since then, all six stories of the building, as well as the basement, were repurposed as the headquarters of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, the largest and most prominent civil society organization supporting and advocating for the families of those abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7. The forum is providing free therapy and assistance to the families who need it and sending them around the world to make their relatives’ cases, filling a vacuum left by a mix of government inaction and slow action.

Yet, the politics of their public campaigns and the tactics and tone of the forum’s advocacy for the hostages’ release have pushed away a small group of hostages’ relatives, who established their own, more hawkish group and publicly criticized the forum.

A massive, impressive operation, the forum has tried to help the families in every possible way, as evidenced by the signs outside the elevators on each floor of the building. Finance, therapeutic and medical staff are on a floor that has individual offices and isn’t just open-plan. International relations and media are on another. There’s a large legal department. A graphics team puts together videos for social media, fliers and banners.

Former Labor MK Emilie Moatti was making herself coffee at the start of another day at the head of the Forum’s diplomatic team.

“October 7 was a Saturday. This forum was founded on Tuesday, and I was working for them by Thursday. [Former Deputy Attorney General] Raz Nizri was already heading the legal department – I asked who’s dealing with international affairs,” Moatti told Jewish Insider, while looking for a fresh croissant to snack on. 

Once a prominent political strategist who led, among other campaigns, Reuven Rivlin’s successful bid for the presidency, Moatti was chairwoman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on Foreign Policy in 2021-2022. 

Emilie Moatti, former member of the Knesset for the Israeli Labor Party seen during a demonstration against judicial reform in early 2023. (Photo by Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

She joined a team that was co-founded and led by one of the best-known political strategists in Israel, Ronen Tzur, who’s known for his no-holds-barred style, and in recent years has been a leading figure guiding protest groups against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and before that advised now-war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz. 

In a conference room with panoramic windows on one side and wallpapered with the iconic “Kidnapped by Hamas” posters on the other, Moatti described her team’s efforts.

“It took me five or 10 minutes to get started. When I was chairwoman of the subcommittee, I already had a committee of former diplomats advising me, who I would talk to about the war in Ukraine, and things like that,” she recounted. 

Then, overhearing someone on the phone outside, she interrupted herself: “Speak to him gently, he lost a son!” Moatti admonished another volunteer.

Moatti’s husband, Daniel Shek, Israel’s former ambassador to France and consul general in San Francisco who once ran for Knesset with Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnua, helped form Moatti’s “wow” team, as she put it, of retired ambassadors, with members who include Colette Avital and J Street Israel Director Nadav Tamir.

“Our goal is to keep the hostages on the international agenda,” Moatti said. “We met representatives of every country [with an embassy or office] in Israel, except for Egypt and Turkey. We met over 200 lawmakers around the world. We met 40 heads of state – some on Zoom, like Brazilian President Lula da Silva.” 

Shek, who was also in the forum headquarters that morning, pointed out that “some people are suspicious of government officials. This is coming from civil society, representing the people, so it brings a faster reaction, even more so if there’s a personal connection,” which many of the volunteering diplomats have with foreign government officials.

Moatti said she was “amazed” to see the ex-ambassadors “call a leader and say ‘this is an emergency, help us,’ and it works.” 

Another part of Moatti’s team works on the delegations of hostages’ relatives traveling abroad. Each team is accompanied by a therapist or social worker, as well as by a media adviser.

According to Orna Dotan, a medical management professional who heads the “Hosen” or Resilience Department, named for the Hebrew term for post-traumatic psychological care: “We prepare the families before joining delegations abroad, we are present during the trips and we talk to them at the end.” 

“In all the uncertainty, we are a kind of an anchor,” Dotan said.

“Our Resilience Department was established eight weeks ago, with therapists, psychologists, social workers,” Dotan said, sitting in a lounge area where two therapists were waiting to be interviewed so they could volunteer at the forum. Outside the window was a billboard calling to bring the hostages home. “At first, we proactively made daily contact with the families to find out their emotional and mental needs. We now accompany their changing needs week after week.”

There are 92 volunteer therapists with the forum, who built trust visiting hostages’ families over the past eight weeks, as they were “flooded with anxiety from waiting so long, and exhaustion,” Dotan said.

“In all the uncertainty, we are a kind of an anchor,” she said.

Asked whether her department also supports the returned hostages, Dotan said “our focus is on the families who are waiting for their loved ones to return.”

Yet mid-interview, Dotan answered a phone call, and told JI it was from the family of a freed hostage: “They’re saying the government isn’t giving them what was promised. We’ll make sure it happens.” 

“The hostages that return are getting care, so we said we would give them a week or two and after that we will map out all of the services they’re getting from the state to see if something is missing,” she added.

The department also provides hostages’ relatives with six different types of alternative medicine, and as JI visited, a Shiatsu appointment opened up that was being offered to the forum’s employees in lieu of the relative who was supposed to get the massage.

“The volunteers who work here are also exhausted,” Dotan said. “The stories of the hostages have become part of their lives, and they also need individual and group support.”

Bar Kozlovsky, who heads the forum’s international media operation, said she has required her staff to speak to the volunteer therapists regularly, because of the “emotional roller-coaster” they have been on since Oct. 7. 

Liat Bell Sommer, a producer and editor of Israeli TV news programs, heads the forum’s media operation and said she’s seen her partner and two children “maybe for 10 hours out of the last two months.” 

There are 40 volunteers in the international media department alone, 10 of whom have taken leave from their jobs to be at the forum full-time.

“We need a vacation so badly, but we can’t leave,” Kozlovsky said.

“We work with the facts,” Bell Sommer said. “It’s important. God forbid if we were caught in a lie…The situation is so delicate, sensitive and explosive. We check everything so many times before saying it to the world.”

Bell Sommer became involved in the effort in the week of Oct. 7, through Tzur, whom she knew because of her decades of work in journalism. “I sent him a message that I want to be part of this; that I would even make coffee for the families.”

“Our main customer is the families. We want to give them a platform to relay their messages,” she said.

Asked how they deal with the conspiracy theorists and atrocity deniers, Kozlovsky said they won’t answer them directly and they will not send out videos of the hostages filmed by Hamas.

“We work with the facts,” Bell Sommer said. “It’s important. God forbid if we were caught in a lie…The situation is so delicate, sensitive and explosive. We check everything so many times before saying it to the world.”

The forum works in cooperation with the families when releasing their details, and has produced videos featuring relatives and released hostages.

“We have a strategy,” Bell Sommer said. “Nothing is spontaneous.”

Bell Sommer got up to say hello to the sister and brother-in-law of hostages Eli and Yossi Sharabi who were walking by before continuing to describe the media training the forum provides: “These families didn’t know how to give an interview before this happened. Now there are families who know very well…We make sure they’re not alone and that everyone arrives prepared” for each interview, she explained.

During the week of the hostage releases, the forum was prepared. The moment they crossed the border into Israel, photos and short bios of each hostage were sent to local and international media. Team members were posted at every hospital to help the relatives, though the forum was not granted access to the hostages in their first hours in Israel, Kozlovsky said.

“We checked if the families wanted to talk or not; sometimes they said they have an important message to relay,” she recounted.

The forum’s many workers are all volunteers, but it still needs a lot of money to run, and that is where Yossi Moatti — Emilie Moatti’s brother and an expert on preparing companies for their IPOs — comes in. Moatti is the forum’s CEO and chief fundraiser.

He started his work by finding a registered nonprofit for the forum to work under – the Merit Spread Foundation – and then began asking Jewish communities around the world, friends and acquaintances for funding.

“There are tens of thousands of people around the world volunteering, and 79 chapters abroad,” Moatti said. 

The forum also funded the biggest ad campaign emanating from Israel in history, according to Moatti, a billion-shekel effort to put the hostages on billboards around the world, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, across Europe and beyond, as well as advertising on social media, posters, stickers, presentations, demonstrations, events and more.

Other funding is “dedicated to giving the families all the aid they need, from psychological care, to iPads and iPhones, to people who don’t have money to buy food, to flights from Eilat [where some evacuees from the Negev are staying] to here to meet with us and other families, to filing lawsuits at The Hague.” 

Asked how long the volunteer-based effort can continue, Moatti said, “on the one hand, we are working for the long term, but we’re also living like tomorrow is the last day before they come back.”

Kozovsky, normally a marketing professional, said she is in it for the long haul.

“Once you do something with such a feeling of commitment and deep meaning, it’s hard to go to regular work,” she said.

Moatti said she once thought that being a teacher would be the most meaningful work she ever did, but “this is the most important thing any of us has done in our lives. Nothing will ever match it. We are privileged to be here.” 

Danny Miran, father of hostage Omri Miran, a 46-year-old father of two from Nahal Oz, visits the forum almost daily, along with a visit to “Hostages Square,” around the corner in Tel Aviv, where there are art installations and banners calling to bring them all home.

On Oct. 7 at 6:40 a.m., Miran, who lives in the Upper Galilee, saw the news that there were rockets in the south and he called his son, who told him not to worry. Then, Miran saw the news that there are terrorists in the kibbutzim, and he called Omri again. 

“He told me the whole kibbutz is full of terrorists and he doesn’t have a gun, so he is taking two knives and going into the safe room with the family,” Miran recalled. “We were writing to each other. I asked him what’s happening and he said they’re sitting quietly. At 10:40 I asked if he’s still there, and he said yes. After that, I called – no answer. I wrote that I’m worried, answer me – there was no answer. In that moment, I was sure they were all killed.”

At 6:30 p.m., Miran received a call from his daughter-in-law Yishai’s mother that she was trapped in her home in Sderot, but that the army rescued Yishai and her 6-month-old and 2-year-old daughters Omri had been kidnapped.

“It was the happiest moment of my life to find out that they were alive,” Miran said. 

Danny Miran, the father of Omri Miran who is held hostage by Hamas militants in Gaza stands near a Shabbat table with more than 200 empty seats for the hostages, at the “Hostages Square”, outside the Art Museum of Tel Aviv, October 20, 2023. (Photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

He drove to Kramim, the kibbutz in southern Israel where Yishai and the girls were staying, and he learned that not long after he got his last message from Omri, a child named Tomer knocked on their door and said “Omri, open up or they’ll kill me.” Omri opened the door, and the terrorists took the whole family to a neighbor’s house, where they had killed the oldest daughter, who lay dead on the floor. The family sat quietly on the kitchen floor for several hours, and were allowed to feed the children. Then, in the afternoon, the terrorists told the men to come with them, or the women and children would be killed. Omri was taken to Gaza barefoot, in his underwear and a T-shirt, with his daughter screaming “Abba! Abba!” — the Hebrew word for father — after him. The terrorists told the women and children to stay in the house quietly and no one would kill them. IDF soldiers rescued them in the early evening.

Miran took part in a vigil to free the hostages on the first Saturday night after the war began, and heard about the forum. Now, he comes to its headquarters and to Hostages Square daily and takes the time to help others in his situation. He recounted visiting the divorced husband of a woman who was kidnapped along with their grandchildren; without any official recognition since he was no longer married to the hostage, no one knew about him until Miran encouraged him to come to the forum.

“The only place where anyone is working for the families is here, nowhere else,” Miran said.

Miran said he told the government’s coordinator for hostages and the missing, Gal Hirsch, “not to talk to us anymore unless they have information. To gather 600, 800 people who want to hear something and then have nothing is not helpful. Get to work.”

Sitting in a conference room with Emilie Moatti and Shek, he said they connected him with the Hungarian Embassy; while Miran’s family hails from Iraq, his deceased wife was Hungarian and Omri holds a passport from the EU state.

Last week, one of the released hostages told him that Omri is still alive.

“Now that we know that he is alive and healthy, we asked the Hungarian Foreign Minister [Péter Szijjártó] to write a letter to Hamas to demand his return. Hungary is a friend of Israel,” Miran said.

The Resilience Department provides what relatives of hostages need the most, Miran said, “someone to listen to us. They really hear us. When they can help, they do as much as they can. And when they can’t, they tell us. We don’t have that anywhere else.

“Look how many floors there are, how many people there are at work. If the government was like this, the country would look different,” Miran said. “The smiles I get here, the empathy, the love, is unmatched.” 

Shek said he admires Miran for “his courage and his way of looking at things. It’s hard for him like everyone else, but he has the ability to help others, take an interest in others, and to remember that sometimes we need to have a sense of humor. He is someone I will never forget.”

“There’s something very destabilizing about the randomness” of the hostage-taking and massacre, Moatti said. “If it were my girls in Gaza, I know Danny would be one of the first people I would meet here.” 

Miran was forceful in his criticism of the government who he said is not communicating with the hostages’ families enough. Shek, on the other hand, tried to focus on other things.

“It’s not just about criticism of the government,” he said. “The power of this place is how fast it can react; when there’s a problem you can get answers within hours. When you have institutions, you have to print out a form, start a committee – it can take two weeks.” 

This week, however, politics moved to center stage.

Much of the chatter around the offices of the forum when JI spent the day there at the beginning of the week was about the families’ push for a meeting with the war cabinet. That meeting ended up taking place on Tuesday.

Netanyahu told the families that there is no deal that Hamas would accept in exchange for all of the hostages, other than Israel guaranteeing its survival “while it promises to do what it did on Oct. 7 again and again. We won’t agree to that and you wouldn’t either.”

“The fact is that the powerful ground operation led to freeing the hostages that were returned, and the operation is the key to bringing back the rest,” he said, according to Israel Hayom.

Quotes and recordings of hostages’ relatives shouting at the cabinet members, leaked to the media: “How do you sleep at night? Do you know the mitzvah of redeeming hostages?” one father said. “Don’t turn us into bereaved parents,” a mother said.

“You said you would get all of the women and children out,” a relative of a young woman hostage said. “We were quiet, we were respectful…Where are the young women? Why aren’t they out? They’re being tortured and raped and drugged.”

“I was right-wing my whole life; don’t disappoint me,” one said.

Yet, at least some of the hostages’ relatives did not like the others’ behavior in the meeting, and a fight among them over the right way to bring back their loved ones has been brewing for weeks.

Tal Gilboa, a pro-Netanyahu activist known for appearing on the Israeli reality TV series “Big Brother,” whose nephew Guy is a hostage in Gaza, accused the families shouting at the prime minister of arriving with scripts and having been trained by the forum’s Tzur.

“They didn’t let the prime minister talk. It was totally political,” she said. “My sister and her husband are apolitical and just want Guy home…A mother stands there and says ‘I trust you,’ and she’s shouted at by the other families. It’s just unbelievable. Is one person’s pain worth more?”

When Eliyahu Libman, mayor of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, and father of hostage Elyakim Libman, thanked the government for the work it has done, other hostages shouted him down and called him a “plant” from the government.

Zvika Mor, another Kiryat Arba resident whose son Eitan is a hostage in Gaza, has received similar treatment in hostages’ meetings. Mor believes that “the cabinet has to make cold calculations and not follow emotions,” he told Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster.

Families of hostages react during a rally to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secures the release of Israeli hostages following a march to Jerusalem by thousands of demonstrators, outside The Museum of Modern Art known as the ‘The Hostages and Missing Square’ on November 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

He said he felt the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum silenced his view, so he established a platform of his own, the Tikvah Forum, whose page on X (formerly Twitter) said it “gathers families of hostages, acting to help bring about the release of every last hostage along with national responsibility and trust in the resilience of the State of Israel and the IDF.” The forum held a mass prayer rally at the Western Wall and put up billboards with photos of the hostages and the message that “the IDF is on the way to you!” and “Be strong, we are coming!”

The Tikvah Forum even spoke out against the deal in which 110 Israeli hostages were released, saying on the one hand that it proves “that the offensive pressure works and is pushing Hamas into a corner,” but that Israel must continue military pressure on Hamas so that every hostage is released.

While the Tikvah Forum’s spokesman would not provide numbers, its photos and videos seem to indicate that only a small fraction of the hostages’ families have joined Mor, perhaps because he and Libman are settlers, while less than 10% of the residents of kibbutzim near the Gaza border, from which many of the hostages hail, voted for the right. Tthat leading figures in the forum are affiliated with the Labor party, Gantz and the mass protests against Netanyahu has not gone unnoticed by the prime minister’s supporters.

Speaking on the morning after the war cabinet meeting with hostages’ families, Mor told Kan that the meeting should not have happened at all, and the people who shouted at the ministers are “in a difficult mental state” and “lost control because of their sorrow.” 

The message coming out of the forum, Mor argued, is “to free the hostages at all costs.

“Would we accept precision missiles targeting our power stations? What does at all costs mean?” he asked.

“Why are we being displayed like we’re in the zoo? How are we different from families who sent their children to war? If my son wasn’t kidnapped, he’d be fighting in the war. I would tell him to fight with all of his might for the people of Israel. I have two other sons fighting,” Mor said. “That’s how you act in a war. The individuals have to be able to sacrifice for the collective, or there will be no collective.”

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