Irregular meals, benches as beds. As hostages return to Israel, details of captivity begin to emerge

By Julia Frankel in Jerusalem – The Associated Press

Plastic chairs as beds. Meals of bread and rice. Hours spent waiting for the bathroom. As hostages return to Israel after seven weeks of Hamas captivity, information about the conditions of their confinement has begun to trickle out.

The 58 hostages freed under a cease-fire deal over the past three days have largely stayed out of the public eye, with most still in hospitals around the country.

Nearly two months after Hamas militants dragged them into Gaza during a bloody cross-border attack on Israel that also killed 1,200 people, most freed hostages appear to be in stable physical condition.

Information about the conditions of their captivity has been tightly controlled, but family members of the released hostages have begun to share details about their loved ones’ experiences.

Merav Raviv, whose three relatives were released by Hamas on Friday, said they had been fed irregularly and had eaten mainly rice and bread. She said her cousin and aunt, Keren and Ruth Munder, had each lost around seven kilos (15 pounds) in just 50 days.

Raviv said she’d heard from her freed family members that they had slept on rows of chairs pushed together in a room that looked like a reception area. They said they sometimes had to wait hours before going to the bathroom.

Adva Adar, the grandchild of 85-year-old released hostage Yaffa Adar, said her grandmother had also lost weight.

“She counted the days of her captivity,” Adar said. “She came back and she said, ’I know that I’ve been there for 50 days.’”

Adar said that her grandmother was taken captive convinced that her family members were dead, only to emerge to the news that they had survived. Still, her release was bittersweet: she also found out that her house had been ravaged by militants.

“For an 85-year-old woman, usually you have your house where you raised your kids, you have your memories, your photo albums, your clothes,” said Adar. “She has nothing, and in her old age she needs to start over. She mentioned that it is tough for her.”

In the 50 days since the hostages were taken captive, Israel has devastated the Gaza Strip with a ground and air offensive that has killed at least 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. Under the current four-day cease-fire, Hamas has agreed to release a total of 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for Israel releasing 150 Palestinian security prisoners and ramping up aid to the pummeled enclave.

Eighteen foreign nationals, mostly Thais, have also been released.

Eleven more hostages are set to be released Monday on the last day of the cease-fire, leaving close to 180 hostages in the Gaza Strip. Israeli authorities have said that they are willing to extend the truce one day for every 10 hostages released by Hamas.

The fullest image yet of life under Hamas captivity was conjured by 85-year-old Yocheved Lipschitz, a hostage who was freed before the current cease-fire. Upon her release, Lipschitz said she had been held in tunnels which stretched under Gaza “like a spider web.” She said her captors “told us they are people who believe in the Quran and wouldn’t hurt us.”

Lifshitz said captives were treated well and received medical care, including medication. The guards kept conditions clean, she said. Hostages were given one meal a day of cheese, cucumber and pita, she said, adding that her captors ate the same.

There were initial indications that the recently freed hostages had also been held underground. Eyal Nouri, the nephew of Adina Moshe, 72, who was freed on Friday, said his aunt “had to adjust to the sunlight” because she had been in darkness for weeks.

“She was in complete darkness,” said Nouri. “She was walking with her eyes down because she was in a tunnel. She was not used to the daylight. And during her captivity, she was disconnected … from all the outside world.”

Nouri said that Moshe didn’t know that she was going to be released until the very last moment.

“Until she saw the Red Cross,” he said. “This is the moment when she realized, okay, these horrifying seven weeks are over.”

She emerged to the news that her husband had been killed by the militants and her son’s family had miraculously survived.

Doctors have warned of the steep psychological toll of captivity. Israel has made counseling and other support available to those who have been released.

But most of the freed hostages have appeared to be in good physical condition, able to walk and speak normally.

But at least two needed more serious medical care. One hostage released Sunday, 84-year-old Alma Abraham, was rushed to Israel’s Soroka Medical Center in the southern city of Beersheba in life-threatening condition.

The hospital’s director said she had a pre-existing condition that had not been treated properly in captivity. Another young female hostage was on crutches in a video Hamas released Saturday. The girl grimaced at her captors as she entered a Red Cross vehicle bringing her out of the besieged enclave.

Yair Rotem, whose 12-year-old niece, Hila Rotem-Shoshani, was released Sunday, said he had to keep reminding her she didn’t need to whisper.

“They always told them to whisper and stay quiet, so I keep telling her now she can raise her voice,” said Rotem. He added that Hila, who will celebrate her 13th birthday on Monday, slept well during her first night back in Israel and has an appetite.

Ohad Munder, Raviv’s 9-year-old nephew, was surrounded by friends soon after his release, as they celebrated his ninth birthday a month late with ice cream and pizza in a hospital ward.

Ohad’s friend, Eitan Vilchik, told Israel’s Channel 13 that his friend was “emotionally strong” and already able to answer their questions about what he ate and what happened to him while he was in captivity. But Ohad’s friends refused to share details, saying they wanted to respect his privacy.

Vilchik said teachers have canceled Munder’s homework requirements but his friends will help him make up the subjects he missed in school.

He said Ohad was still able to solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute.

Banner image: This handout photo provided by Haim Zach/GPO shows Sharon Hertzman, right, hugging a relative as they reunite at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, Saturday Nov. 25, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO/Handout via AP)

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Associated Press writer Melanie Lidman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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