Families of US hostages held in Gaza for 6 months stuck in ongoing trauma due to stalled talks

JERUSALEM — The families of U.S. citizens being held hostage by Hamas since its brutal terror attack in southern Israel six months ago expressed frustration this week that mediation talks keep stalling and have failed to bring their loved ones home. Some also said they are disappointed that political interests seem to be a higher priority than saving lives. “We live in a different galaxy, all of us families and every day is a decision to get up and pretend to be a human,” Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, who was kidnapped by Hamas from a music festival taking place near the border with Gaza on Oct. 7, told Digital in an interview. The Chicago-born mother of three, who moved to Israel with her husband, Jon, and their children in 2008, said, “We run to the ends of the Earth, and we work as hard as we can, and we talk to everyone possible to try to flip the stone that’s going to bring our loved ones home.””We’re in a constant state of trauma, terror, agony, angst, misery, its constant. There’s never one second of not feeling trauma,” said Goldberg-Polin, who last heard from her son minutes before his arm was blown off by terrorists. Grisly footage shows him grasping his bloody arm while being loaded into a truck along with several other hostages before being driven into captivity in Gaza. Since then, there have been no signs he is still alive nor any that he is among the dead.Goldberg-Polin said it was impossible to describe the feeling of being stuck in such “ambiguous trauma.” She also expressed hope that those negotiating for her son’s release “would do what is right for the people, even if it isn’t always right for them.” “I want to pray and be optimistic and hopeful that our leaders will be leaders,” she said. “Being a leader means doing what’s right for the people, even if it isn’t always right for the leaders. It requires a lot of courage and selflessness and tenacity and bravery, and that’s what I wish for the leaders of all these different entities that are trying to lean in.”Representatives from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar, as well as some other countries, have been locked in negotiations, mediating between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hamas organization since the war in Gaza started last October. Sparked by a mass attack in which thousands of Palestinian terrorists infiltrated Israel’s southern border, the killing spree left more than 1,200 people dead with some 250 others, mostly civilians, taken hostage.A weeklong cease-fire last November saw Hamas release more than 100 hostages, and in recent weeks those survivors have spoken out about what they endured, including beatings, sexual assault and, in some cases, being held in underground cages. The hostages were denied food, water and adequate medical attention, according to some of those who are now home.Around 135 hostages remain in captivity, including eight U.S. citizens, with Hamas refusing to allow international relief agencies to visit or attend to them. While three of the eight U.S. hostages have been confirmed dead based on intelligence gathered by the Israeli army, the families of those who may still be alive fear time is rapidly running out to save their loved ones. Jonathan Dekel-Chen, whose son, Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35, was kidnapped from his home on Kibbutz Nir Oz, shared with Digital the despair of not knowing his son’s fate. “There have been ups and downs, mostly downs, in these days, weeks and months, but I try not to get into the emotional roller coaster because then it would simply be impossible to function,” he said. “We just have to get up every day and try to find every means possible to bring closer that day when our loved ones will return.” The Connecticut-born Dekel-Chen said he had been in close contact with the U.S. administration “on every level” since the early days of the war and described the support as “extraordinary.””We’ve had steady meetings with the national security adviser, the chief negotiator and with senior people at the CIA,” he said. “They’ve been as transparent as they possibly can be with us about the U.S. position in the negotiations and what it is that they’re trying to do.”Dekel-Chen said he recently spent two hours at the White House meeting with Joe Biden. He also said that he has experienced “wall-to-wall solidarity” in Congress, including from those who have been critical of Israel’s actions during the war.However, Dekel-Chen said that “the only way we’ll know if enough is being done is when the 134 people are back in Israel.”In addition to Hersh Goldberg-Polin and Sagui Dekel-Chen, the other U.S. citizens being held captive in Gaza include 64-year-old Keith Siegel, who was taken hostage with his wife, Aviva, from their home on Kibbutz Kfar Aza – Aviva was released during the November cease-fire; Edan Alexander, 19, an Israeli soldier originally from Tenafly, New Jersey; and Omer Neutra, another soldier, from Long Island, New York; Three other U.S. citizens – Judy Weinstein and her husband, Gad Haggai, and 19-year-old Itay Chen – are believed to have been murdered by Hamas, who are still holding onto their bodies.Ruby Chen, Itay’s father, said that he believed “being a U.S. citizen would provide Itay with additional protection” and that immediately following the Oct. 7 attacks he organized a demonstration and a press conference to raise awareness of their plight. Not long after that, the families of U.S. citizens were contacted by representatives from the office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, he said. Since then, they have been in constant contact with members of the administration, which has spared no efforts to talk and meet with them.”On the Friday [after the attack], we had a call with the president that was scheduled to last 15 minutes, but he stayed on the call for more than an hour, listening to everyone,” Chen said. “It was clear that it was a higher priority for him to do everything possible to get all the hostages out.”But Chen – who was informed on March 12 that Itay was murdered on Oct. 7 and that his body was taken to Gaza – said he is no longer convinced that the U.S. approach to freeing those being held is effective.”We are now six months after and the U.S.’s working assumption has not gotten us to the point where the eight U.S. citizens being held have been released,” the New York native said, explaining that the U.S. believes Israel would be able to reach a deal to release the U.S. citizens along with the Israeli citizens. “The U.S. administration should be asking itself what the best course of action is – are they still confident that Israel [is] doing everything possible to get U.S. citizens out of harm’s way?” said Chen, who also received a condolence call from the president. “I think the U.S. administration has an obligation both legally and morally to do whatever it can to get U.S. citizens out of danger and back with their families.” “As the hostage families, we want them to come out yesterday,” Orna Neutra, the mother of soldier Omer Neutra, told Digital.”She said that following the initial cease-fire agreement “we have been hearing that there needs to be pressure on Hamas for things to happen, but we are now at day 177 and with all the pressure that’s been on Hamas, there have been no more releases.” “We are very frustrated, and it’s very concerning that there seems to be no end to this war, and we’re also not sure what the incentive is for Hamas to release them if the war continues,” Neutra said, adding also that because her son is among the IDF soldiers being held, he is unlikely to be released even if a humanitarian cease-fire deal is reached in the near future. According to reports, the remaining children, women, the elderly and the injured are being prioritized by negotiating teams, who are continuing to meet this week in Egypt and Qatar. “We feel we are stuck in a situation where politics is playing too much of a role,” said Ronen Neutra, Omer’s father. “There is obviously an election year in the United States and there are all kinds of considerations for the administration.”In addition, he said, “[Benjamin Netanyahu] is fighting to stay in power in a tough situation and needs to make tough decisions on what’s more important.”The Neutras, along with the parents of other IDF soldiers being held hostage, met last Thursday with the Israeli leader and impressed upon him that getting all the hostages released should be a priority, more than winning the war or political survival.The Israeli-born parents, who immigrated to the U.S. more than 25 years ago, said their son was born in Manhattan days after al Qaeda’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.”We thought we were living in one of the safest places in the world terroristic-wise,” Ronen Neutra said. “Like the rest of the country, 9/11 hit us by surprise, and little did we know that our son would be born into a world of terror.”