Congress marks grim milestone for Gaza hostages
Senate and House leaders hosted family members of the hostages for a press conference and candlelight vigil following their 100th day in Hamas captivity
Congressional leaders on Wednesday held a Senate press conference and a candlelight House vigil alongside relatives of hostages held in Gaza, days after Israel commemorated the 100 days that the hostages, abducted on Oct. 7, have been in captivity.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) urged the families not to give up hope.
“There are always new initiatives, as there are right now,” Schumer said. “We are making slow, slow, slow but important progress.”
Schumer did not elaborate on what those initiatives entailed, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who led the press conference, said he was not familiar with the initiative Schumer mentioned.
Sens. Jim Risch (R-ID), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Pete Ricketts (R-NE) also spoke at the press conference, where they emphasized their ongoing work to help free the hostages. Several lawmakers also highlighted the responsibility of Qatar and others in the region to help facilitate the hostages’ release.
“Congress is united in its opposition to Jewish hatred, and in support for our friend and ally Israel,” House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said from the House steps, flanked by dozens of bipartisan lawmakers during the vigil. “This attack, the worst of its kind since the Holocaust, came about because of anti-Jewish hatred, and it is our duty to call out this evil.”
Johnson gave special acknowledgement to Kfir Bibas, who turned one year old on Thursday, and described some of the brutal crimes committed by Hamas and others on Oct. 7.
While praising “many of my Democratic colleagues” who have worked with him to support Israel, Johnson said, “sadly, there are some who continue to empathize with Hamas. Their actions and their rhetoric remind us exactly why we need a vigil like this.”
He further lambasted the United Nations and International Criminal Court for “platforming antisemites who want to blame Israel for what happened on Oct. 7.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA) and Reps. David Kusoff (R-TN), Max Miller (R-OH) and Kathy Manning (D-NC) also delivered remarks at the vigil. Aguilar promised continued bipartisan cooperation to support Israel and defeat Hamas.
During the Senate press conference, Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great aunt of four-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, who was released during the previous round of negotiations with Hamas, delivered some of the starkest criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that’s been offered by hostages’ relatives on the Hill.
“This holdup is really not with the U.S. or with the Qataris. This holdup is with the Netanyahu government,” Naftali said, alleging that she and other families had been briefed that several deals to secure the release of hostages had been offered but were rejected by the Israeli government.
“He has been unwilling to agree to the terms needed to release our loved ones, to make these deals final,” Naftali continued. “We are not diplomats, we are not politicians. But what we see is that these interests are political.”
She also blamed Netanyahu and his government for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 attack. She urged the U.S. government to “deliver hard messages” and ensure that Israel feels “pressure to make a deal to stop this war and bring home these hostages.”
Pressed on whether he agreed with this view, Cardin said he would “refrain from giving my evaluations” on specific countries, noting that the lawmakers have emphasized that the hostages’ release should be the top priority in meetings with Israel, Qatar and other leaders in the region.
Several of the hostages’ family members recounted the stories of their kidnappings, and pleaded with the lawmakers, with Arab states and with international aid organizations to do everything in their power to save the remaining hostages.
They highlighted the hostages’ injuries and medical conditions, as well as the reports of sexual violence and other forms of torture to which hostages have been subjected.
“You have the power, the mandate, and the leverage to prevent any more harm, to stop this barbaric cruelty of the Hamas terror organization, to help with the release of all these innocent people that got trapped into this horror,” Yarden Gonen, sister of Romi Gonen, who was kidnapped from the Nova music festival, said. “103 days. They are running out of time. We are running out of time. But we are not running out of hope.”