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“Our hearts are captive in Gaza”: families of Israeli hostages plead for the return of their loved ones

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On October 7 at 6:30 a.m., the piercing sound of sirens woke Naama Weinberg in her Tel Aviv apartment. As she always did when sirens warned of an imminent missile attack, she immediately checked her family’s WhatsApp group chat to find messages from relatives living on a kibbutz near the Gaza border.

“Please pray for us,” his aunt wrote, describing the screams and gunfire.

Then a red heart emoji.

Then silence.

Itay Raviv, left, and his sisters Naama and Ofir Weinberg attend a dinner in Beverly Hills to share stories of loved ones held hostage by Hamas.

(Ringo Chiu / For Time)

Weinberg, 27, would later learn from Israeli government officials that his aunt, Orit Svirsky, was murdered that day — shot while hiding under blankets — during the attack by Hamas militants. His uncle, Rafi Svirsky, was found dead in a nearby house with his three golden retrievers, all shot. Her 97-year-old grandmother, Aviva Sela, survived, but the body of Gracie Cabrera, her longtime caretaker from the Philippines, was found mutilated near the home.

His cousin, Itay Svirsky, 38, was no longer there. Israeli government officials informed the family that Svirsky had been kidnapped and was being held by Hamas somewhere in Gaza.

And he remains in captivity – failing to secure his release in the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners that began during last week’s ceasefire. So far, Hamas has freed around 110 hostages – mostly Israeli women and children – and continues to hold around 130 others. Israel has released around 240 prisoners, most of whom have not been convicted of any crime.

Weinberg and her sister Ofir, 24, came to Los Angeles last week to share their story about the Oct. 7 attack, which killed at least 1,200 Israelis — the deadliest attack in its 75-year history from the country. More than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in Israeli reprisals, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

The Weinbergs came to urge the world not to forget their cousin and the other hostages who remain in Hamas hands. They were joined by Itay Raviv, whose great-uncle, Avraham Munder, 78, remains hostage; all three spoke Saturday at a dinner in Beverly Hills with representatives of the American Jewish Committee and other supporters of Israel.

Raviv, 27, and the Weinbergs asked the guests to do one thing to help the hostages: appeal to elected officials, share a post on social media, contact nonprofit and charitable organizations. They shared photos of their loved ones and the necklaces they carry with them that read in Hebrew: “Our hearts are captive in Gaza” and, in English: “Bring them home now!” »

The family believes Svirsky is still alive, based on accounts from hostages who saw him before their release. They said he was not physically injured but was under extreme mental duress because the Hamas captors were telling the hostages that Israel had been destroyed, that they had no home where return and no one was fighting for them. His loved ones also live in daily fear that he could be executed during his captivity.

Family members of Israeli hostages Itay Raviv and sisters Naama and Ofir Weinberg show their dog tags.

Itay Raviv, left, and his siblings Naama and Ofir Weinberg display necklaces inscribed with the phrase in Hebrew: “Our hearts are captive in Gaza” and, in English: “Bring them home now!” »

(Ringo Chiu / For Time)

“We are very concerned that the damage could be irreversible,” said Ofir Weinberg. “That’s why time is running out.”

Three members of Raviv’s family – his great-aunt Ruthi Munder, his daughter Keren Munder and his 9-year-old grandson Ohad Munder-Zichri – were released as part of the hostage deal. But their house in Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, less than a kilometer from the Gaza Strip, was partly burned, Raviv said.

Raviv said his relatives were not beaten and managed to survive on meager portions of rice and bread. They told him they were moved from place to place – sometimes into underground tunnels – and slept on the ground without being able to wash. He considers his family lucky to be able to reunite with three of his loved ones – but he constantly worries about his great-uncle, who walks with a cane and suffered bruises falling from a motorbike when he was kidnapped, according to reports from freed hostages who saw him. during captivity.

“He doesn’t have a lot of time,” Raviv said. “He won’t be able to survive. Even though some hostages have been released, we must do everything in our power to speak out. I am not a politician. I don’t know what the best solution is. I just know they need to get out.

Raviv and the Weinbergs said their relatives had sought to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors – collecting monthly donations for those who worked on the kibbutz but could no longer do so after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The Weinbergs’ aunt, Orit Svirsky, had attended an international women’s peace conference three days before her assassination. Raviv said his great-uncle, as a youth, volunteered to drive Palestinians north to Israel to receive medical treatment.

Itay, the sisters said, had started working as a “life coach” focusing on mental health after studying philosophy, psychology and economics. He loved the guitar and yoga and grew up on Kibbutz Be’eri, co-founded by his grandparents 77 years ago in southern Israel, near the Gaza Strip. Her grandparents, whose family had escaped pogroms in Russia in the early 20th century, founded the kibbutz with the mission of creating a safe, communal place for the Jewish people in Israel, she said.

Despite decades of bloodshed and bitterness, young Israelis say they refuse to give up on their dream of peace.

“It’s really hard to imagine right now, but I continue to believe that the conflict can be resolved with words and without violence,” said Ofir Weinberg, referring to agreements with the broader Palestinian people and not with Hamas.

“I understand that the Palestinian people should stay. I recognize that this is their home,” she said. “I just want us to coexist peacefully.”

Family members of Israeli hostages tell their stories over dinner in Beverly Hills.

Naama Weinberg, left, holds a photo of her cousin Itay Svirsky, held hostage in Gaza, while her sister Ofir tells her story over dinner in Beverly Hills.

(Ringo Chiu / For Time)

For now, though, Weinberg said her world has narrowed down to one overriding goal: seeing her cousin return. She quit her studies and took time off from a part-time job at a major Israeli technology company. She postponed her vacation to the Philippines with her partner. She returned home to stay with her parents, who are building a small unit in their backyard for Weinberg’s grandmother to live in.

Her only dream now is to see her cousin alive, sitting with their grandmother and sharing their favorite treat: a cup of cold coffee with a scoop of ice cream.

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Cnn

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