Families of Israel’s Female Hostages Plead for Deeper Intervention by WHO and UN Officials in Geneva
Amit Levy, brother of 19 year-old Israeli hostage Naama Levy and Shay Dickman, cousin of Israeli hostage Carmel Gat, visit the experiential display of a “hostage tunnel”, in Geneva’s Place des Nations on Monday.

Shay Dickmann stood stoically as the recorded screams of a woman pierced the darkness of the sealed metal container, followed by shouting and screams, the sounds of gunshots and a baby crying. 

A narrow tunnel led to a tiny room with a single lightbulb and a dirty mattress on the floor. On the wall, a projector played through the before and after images of Israeli women kidnapped to Gaza during the Hamas-led incursion into Israeli communities near the enclave on 7 October. There were photos of the women smiling, at home and at ease before “Black Saturday,” and frames of the same women culled from Hamas video posts of their capture or captivity, their faces bloodied, fearful, and wane. 

“I think I heard the voices of the terrorists who took away my aunt and killed her, in the tape they were playing,” Dickmann said after emerging from the mock hostage “tunnel”  back into the bright winter sunlight of Geneva’s Place des Nations. 

Dickmann, along with the Israeli families of 10 other Israeli hostage women were in Geneva Monday and Tuesday for a series of meetings with World Health Organization and other UN agency officials, as well as a session at UN headquarters with representatives from some 35 countries interested in hearing their stories. 

A handful of diplomats, including US Permanent Representative to the Human Rights Council Michèle Taylor also visited the tunnel display,  which offers just a five-minute glimpse of what the 100 or more hostages still in captivity have been going through for 122 days.  

Shay holds up photos of her cousin and Israeli hostage Carmel Gat, 39, on the right, and her aunt, 67-year-old Kinneret Gat, being led away from her home by Hamas gunman – she was later shot to death on the sidewalk.

Dickmann’s 67-year-old aunt, Kinneret Gat, was killed by gunmen just outside of the family’s home on Kibbutz Be’eri on the morning of 7 October  as Hamas-led forces invaded nearly two dozen Israeli communities close to the Gaza border in a surprise attack early on a holiday morning.  

Shortly after killing Kinneret, the Hamas gunmen returned to the house and took her  39-year-old daughter, Carmel Gat, hostage. Some time later, Carmel’s brother, Alon, his wife Yarden, and their 3-year-old daughter Geffen were captured from a hiding place, after the family’s ‘safe room’ began filling up with smoke from grenades and nearby house fires; they were placed in a Hamas vehicle bound for Gaza.  

Alon managed to break away and escape with the toddler after an Israeli tank crossed the path of their kidnappers’ vehicle, creating a brief window of opportunity for the family to leap out of the car. 

Yarden Roman-Gat was chased down and recaptured, but then released on 29 November as part of an week-long cease-fire and hostage exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Qatar.  That deal saw the release of about 110 hostages, of the estimated 240 originally taken captive by Hamas on the 7 October incursion, in which some 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, also were killed.  

The fragile cease-fire and hostage exchange deal broke down just a day before Carmel Gat, an occupational therapist was supposed to have been released as well, Dickmann recalled.

Instead, Carmel continues to be held in Gaza. She remains there along with another 14 women presumed to be alive – although time is running out, the families warn. 

In Geneva pleading for the release of female hostages

Simona Steinbacher, mother of 30 year-old hostage Doron Steinbacher, in front of Geneva’s UN headquarters. Doron has a “serious medical problem” that requires daily medication, but she said she has no idea if Doron is receiving treatment.

“We heard the first sign of life from Carmel from two other hostages who were released in November,” Dickmann told a briefing of diplomats at the UN’s headquarters in Geneva on Monday at the start of their two-day mission.   

“For more than 50 days we didn’t know if she is dead or alive, as there was no footage of her released on social media,” she added. 

 “Then, after 50 days, two hostages that were released told us that Carmel was kidnapped with them and that she was the one to keep their spirits up throughout the difficult times. They said that Carmel managed to find her inner strengths and practiced yoga with them.

“Now, since then, for two months, we haven’t heard anything again.”

Speaking to diplomats from some 35 national missions during a meeting at Geneva’s UN Headquarters, Dickmann and other hostage family members described their fears for their cousins, daughters and sisters – some as young as 19, and including women who sustained injuries on 7 October and others who have chronic medical needs.  

Naama Levy, one young female hostage portrayed in a Telegram video with her hands tied and her pants bottom covered in blood as she was being taken prisoner; she suffered leg wounds, apparently from sharpnel. When she was last seen in a tunnel two months ago by another Israeli hostage, since released, the leg was still swollen and disfigured.  She walked with difficulty.

“We know [from released hostages testimony] that she wasn’t treated for the injuries, even two months later,” said her aunt, Orit Mansur Levy, who was in Geneva to represent her in the meetings.  

Simona Steinbacher, mother of 30-year-old Doron Steinbacher, told diplomats that her daughter has a “serious medical problem that requires medication daily – but no one gives her the medicine.” 

On 26 January a video depicting Doron and two others female hostages was released by Hamas. “You can  see how pale and thin she looks,” said her mother, displaying a frame from the video of her daughter in captivity.

Among the 136 hostages still held in Gaza, as many as 32 are now believed to have died. Those surviving include an estimated 14 women and 88 men. Along with the women, a number of the men are elderly, ill and in desperate need of life-saving healthcare. In mid-January, a Qatar-brokered deal was supposed to insure deliveries of medicine to the hostages in exchange for Israeli agreement to step up humanitarian aid to beleaguered Palestinian hospitals in northern Gaza. Weeks later, however, there is no confirmation from Hamas that the medications were ever received or administered.  

Families aim to raise the profile of vulnerable women still held as hostages  

Videos of Israel’s female hostages held in Gaza run in a loop inside the hostage tunnel. On the right is Karina Ariev as she was hauled away in a truck after being captured by Hamas-led forces on October 7.

The meetings in Geneva included sessions with Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies; and Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

It was the first large-scale visit by hostage families to the UN and WHO headquarters in Geneva since the collapse of the first November cease-fire.

Although WHO and UN officials have repeatedly issued calls for the release of the hostages in their official statements, Gaza’s expanding humanitarian crisis, in which more than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed, has been the overwhelming focus of UN statements and relief efforts. Horrific stories of Palestinian women and children trapped in by bombings, evacuation orders and Israeli-Hamas crossfire have surged through the global media as Israel faced allegations of genocide in the International Court of Justice. 

Against that wave, the Israeli families of hostages feel that their appeals for more forceful humanitarian intervention, including women who are particularly vulnerable in captivity, have been largely pushed aside. 

Ashley Waxman Bakshi, cousin of 19 year-old Agam Berger, an Israeli hostage in Gaza – the UN should address the humanitarian crises of the Israeli hostages as well as that of Gaza civilians.

 “It should be spoken about, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. But it should be done so alongside the humanitarian crisis of the hostages,” said Ashley Waxman Bakshi, cousin of 20-year-old hostage Agam Berger, whose capture by Hamas was documented in a Telegram video on 7 October, where she was seen being led away to a vehicle while still in her pajamas. 

“I think it’s important to say that as an Israeli, I find it tragic when I see innocent Palestinians suffering,” declared Waxman Bakshi.

“There’s no balance when you look at the numbers, but you have to look at the balance in humanity, and Israel didn’t start this war,” Waxman Bakshi asserted. “The war started with October 7 and the massacre and the taking of the hostages.  And so I just ask for balance – to see the humanity on both sides. ”  

That’s a contention that is hotly disputed by many Palestinians, who say that Israel blockaded Gaza for nearly 20 years before Hamas launched its war. Israelis, on the other hand, contend that Hamas managed to muster millions of dollars in resources to transform the enclave into a military fortress, rather than investing in human development. 

“My daughter  is a symbol of the innocent lives taken,” declared Amanda Damari, mother of Emily Damari, a 27-year-old British-Israeli kindergarten teacher from kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza border. “She’s being held in tunnels built with milions of dollars of aid donated for humanitarian causes, tunnels built under UNRWA schools and hospitals. Everyday that passes, her life is more in danger.”

 ‘The citizens of the kibbutzim are peaceable people’

WHO Health Emergencies executive director Mike Ryan meets in Geneva on Tuesday with family members of Israeli hostages still held in Gaza by Hamas.

Paradoxically, the Gaza-area Israeli communities that suffered the brunt of the Hamas attack on 7 October were known for their liberal and even left-wing views.

Some of the same kibbutz members who were murdered or taken hostage spent considerable spare time in peace movement activities, including ferrying sick Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for treatment that they couldn’t obtain in Gaza.  While the Israelis display solidarity abroad, at home, many of the hostage families have also been highly critical of Israel’s hard-right government for failing to push aggressively enough towards a  hostage exchange deal – even one involving major concessions.  

“Türk empathized with our stories,” reported Dickmann, after the meeting with the UN High Commissioner later Monday evening. “He declared Hamas actions on October 7 as war crimes, and condemned them saying they are unacceptable. 

“Knowing that the citizens of the kibbutzim were peaceful people, he shared his wish that we won’t lose the hope for living Israelis and Palestinians in peace on the day after,” she said, adding that he had also affirmed that any cease-fire in Gaza should be “conditioned” on the hostages’ release.  

Ryan also described the events of 7 October as “a war crime and every day they are held there a war crime is still going on,” related Dickmann, saying he promised to stress the need for the hostages’ access to medical care. 

“He said WHO is looking after the lives and the health of every human being who is vulnerable, both Palestinian and Israeli.” 

UN Special Envoy for Sexual Violence concludes visit to Israel

The visit of the hostage delegation to Geneva also coincides with rising concerns about sexual violence to which female Israeli hostages may have been subjected while in captivity. On Monday, the UN Envoy for Sexual Violence, Pramila Patten concluded a week-long mission to Israel and the occupied West Bank, “to gather information on sexual violence reportedly committed in the context of the attacks of 7 October 2023 and their aftermath,” according to a statement from her office.

She urged victims of sexual violence who are still alive to “break your silence”. At the end of her visit she was widely quoted by media saying “things happened here that I have never seen before.”

At a  public session of the British Parliament last week, Israeli first responders, police and forensics experts also provided detailed, first-hand testimony about the evidence they had gathered of the rape and genital mutilation of female victims of the October 7 massacre, testimony widely reported in the international media.  

Waxman Bakshi, who also testified at the parliamentary session, well recalls the grisly accounts she heard there:  “First responders described how they saw the bodies of women who had been shot in the back and also had semen on them, females stripped from the waist down….  I mean, clear, obvious signs of of rape.. and testimony from the Nova music festival by women and men who saw gang rapes and mutilation.”

Amongst the hostage families visiting Geneva, several familiy members also expressed fears that their daughters, nieces and cousins are similarly at risk. But so far, only “partial testimony” has been gathered, about the hostage victims, Waxman Bakshi said. 

“I had to translate [into English] for a released hostage her story,” she told Health Policy Watch. “she spoke of girls telling her in the tunnels that they had been raped at gunpoint, that they were touched, that they would be taken advantage of in moments like going to the bathroom or when they would cry. 

“But I also know that this is super, very, very sensitive. And so what released hostages have told the authorities is not necessarily what they’re saying in the media.  And I don’t blame these women. It’s hard enough for the victims of rape to come up and speak about it in general, let alone when an entire is waiting to hear if you were raped.

What we know is that these things happened on October 7. Whatever happened on October 7, can no longer be reversed,” Waxman Bakshi concluded. “But what we know is that we still have women there. These women are still at risk, they can still be saved.”

Despair and hope in the tunnels 

Shay Dickman with her yoga mats outside the experiential display of a Gaza “hostage tunnel” in Geneva, preparing for a yoga session in the name of 39 year-old Carmel Gat, her cousin being held hostage in Gaza.

Even as the delegation’s visit took place, hopeful reports last week that a new ceasefire and hostage exchange deal might be in the offing seemed to be fading against the backdrop of hardline statements by both Hamas and Israel’s government.

Dickmann refuses to give up hope. 

After emerging from the darkness of the mock hostage tunnel into the bright winter sunlight of Geneva’s Place des Nations, she unrolled a yoga mat that she carries with her on every mission on behalf of the hostages.     

Her next act of protest, she said, would be a yoga session on the plaza, in the name of Carmel, herself an avid practitioner who had just returned a few days before from a trip to India, before being taken hostage. 

Carmel Gat practicing yoga in India, just before returning to her family’s home in Kibbutz Be’eri, where she was taken hostage.

“Carmel, my cousin, apparently is doing yoga in captivity,” said Dickman. “For me, that’s not only a sign of life from her, to hear that she is doing that. It’s a sign that Carmel is choosing life. She has the power inside her to keep going, to keep her hopes up, to get others hopeful as well and take care of them. 

I hope that she keeps her spirits up.. I want to tell her ‘Carmel, we’re coming to get you.’ ”  

Image Credits: E. Fletcher/Health Policy Watch, E Fletcher/Health Policy Watch , Israeli Mission to the UN in Geneva , Family Roman-Gat.

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