Families of hostages held in Gaza despair as Ramadan cease-fire deadline passes

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JERUSALEM — A brother contemplated suicide. A sister stopped going to school. A father barely speaks. With each passing day, the relatives of hostages held in Gaza since Oct. 7 face a deepening despair.

Their hopes were raised that a cease-fire deal was near to bring some of their loved ones home by the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began Monday. But that informal deadline passed without any agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise of “total victory” in the war against Hamas now rings hollow for many hostages’ families after five emotionally draining months.

“We are reading the news every single minute. Egypt says something, the Qataris say something different, the Americans say a deal is close, Israel says it’s not,” said Sharon Kalderon, whose brother-in-law, Ofer, remains in captivity. “We try to read between the lines, but we haven’t heard anything about Ofer for months. Nothing that can help us breathe.”

When Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, they killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostages. Since then, Israel’s offensive has killed more than 31,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

About 120 hostages were freed during a November cease-fire that also led to the release of hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli prisons; three hostages were accidentally killed by Israeli forces during an attempted rescue mission. Now families are focused on bringing home the remaining hostages, at least 34 of whom are dead, according to the Israeli government.

Some families channel their desperation into unrelenting advocacy — traveling to the U.N. in New York, marching to Jerusalem from southern Israel, or wearing red shirts emblazoned with the words “Bring them Home” while running the Jerusalem marathon.

But for other families, a quieter suffering has taken hold.

“You see some of the families running around, going on the TV, making noise. These are the ones that are holding on,” said Ricardo Grichener, the uncle of Omer Wenkert, a 22-year-old hostage. “The ones that are not leaving the houses, they are in a really bad situation.”

Since their home in Kibbutz Nir Oz was destroyed Oct. 7, Sharon Kalderon and her husband, Nissan, have stayed on the 12th floor of an apartment building in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan. Ofer, Nissan’s only brother, remains in captivity.

Nissan said he’s recently thought about killing himself.

“This situation is hard. I don’t sleep, I don’t eat. Not working. Nothing. I lose my mind. That’s all. It’s too much,” said Nissan.

“Whenever he goes out to the balcony, I get scared,” Sharon said.

International mediators had been optimistic they could broker a pre-Ramadan deal by bundling a six-week cease-fire with the release of dozens of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, and the entry of a large amount of humanitarian aid into Gaza. But Hamas wanted assurances of a longer-term end to the fighting, which Israel refused.

“We don’t see a prospect for a deal unless (U.S. President Joe) Biden does a miracle. We don’t see any way out. We don’t see any reason why Hamas would be flexible. They gain nothing,” said Grichener. “We are pressing the (Israeli) government, but I think their mistakes have already been made.”

His nephew in captivity, Omer, needs medication to treat his digestive disease. His family doubts the medical aid for hostages that entered Gaza in January ever made it to him.

Meetings between the families and war cabinet officials are ongoing, but families feel powerless to change the sweep of negotiations. Many have received no official updates on the status of their loved ones, clinging instead to snippets conveyed by hostages released in November.

Shlomi Berger, the father of 19-year-old Agam Berger, said he last heard that she was alive in November. A hostage released during the cease-fire, Agam Goldstein-Almog, told him that his daughter — one of 19 women hostages, according to Israel — was alive and had wished him a happy birthday.

“You can imagine what it was like to get a sign of life from my daughter for the first time,” said Berger.

But months later that excitement is tempered by considerable anxiety and uncertainty — and by some former hostages’ accounts of harrowing conditions.

“Nobody knows her situation. If she has air, if she has water, if she has bandages for her period. It’s crazy. I don’t know if somebody has sexually abused her.” said Berger. “We don’t know if she’s alive or dead. We just don’t know.”

Israel’s National Insurance pays for mental health counseling for parents, spouses, and children of hostages. Still, the situation has paralyzed Berger’s family.

One of his three daughters, a senior in high school, has not gone to school since Oct. 7. One of his young daughters has stopped eating. His wife, an industrial engineer, does not go to work. He tries to avoid the news, to save himself the daily roller coaster.

“One minute you read the news and say, okay, it’s close, and another minute it’s not. Nobody really knows what’s happening,” he said.

Overnight, the parents of 33-year-old Or Levy became caretakers to Levy’s 2-year-old son, Almog. Hamas militants killed Almog’s mother, Eynav, and took Levy hostage on Oct. 7. The family had to explain to young Almog that his mother is dead and his father missing.

“Most days I don’t even recognize my parents. My dad barely talks. Before Oct. 7, the last thing you could say about him was that he was a fragile man and now everybody who sees him is afraid to hug him,” said Michael Levy, Or’s brother. Levy said he’s lost 9 kilos (20 pounds) and barely sleeps.

Going forward, relatives said their strategies won’t change. They will continue to meet with the war cabinet, continue hoping for an eventual release.

On Monday, Sharon and Nissan Kalderon watched the sun set on the first full day of Ramadan.

“We really thought, today is the day,” Sharon said. “But unfortunately, this is just another day.”

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Find more AP war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

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