Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It’s not too late to support our Spring Fundraiser! Make your pledge of support today!

As they wait for a truce, Palestinians and Israeli hostage families voice their agony

Demonstrators near Beit Shemesh, Israel, carry stretchers representing each of the 134 Israelis still being held by Hamas on March 1. Amid fraught negotiations over conditions for a cease-fire, the families of the hostages held a four-day march from areas attacked on Oct. 7 in southern Israel to Jerusalem.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Demonstrators near Beit Shemesh, Israel, carry stretchers representing each of the 134 Israelis still being held by Hamas on March 1. Amid fraught negotiations over conditions for a cease-fire, the families of the hostages held a four-day march from areas attacked on Oct. 7 in southern Israel to Jerusalem.

TEL AVIV, Israel - As negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza continue to drag on in fits and starts, with Israel and Hamas each saying the other side is being unreasonable, families on both side of the conflict are suffering. And waiting.

Going by numbers provided by the Gaza Ministry of Health, had a deal been reached a month ago, nearly 4,000 Palestinian lives would have been spared, among them 23 children who died of malnutrition.

Salem Al-Najjar, 62, has been living in a tent in Rafah that he built from discarded flour bags and sheets of plastic. He has been living with 10 other members of his family since being displaced from his home in Khan Younis, and is fed up with the delays in negotiations.

"Indeed, we are the ones suffering," he said. "Not Hamas, they're relaxed. They are sitting outside, their children too. And we are the ones eating s***."

"The truce is necessary, it's essential," said Najjar. "Aren't you satisfied with those who have died? Isn't it enough, the destruction ... It's enough with people that can't find food or drink, they are begging."

Like Najjar, 35-year-old Asmaa Salha is also trying to survive with her family in Rafah. Originally from Gaza City, Salha said she is hoping for a permanent cease-fire, but even a temporary truce can't come soon enough.

"We want safety. We are tired. We are tired. We are tired mentally and physically tired," said Salha.

Palestinians walk by a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on March 9.
Hatem Ali / AP
/
AP
Palestinians walk by a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, on March 9.

"I, like many others, am waiting for the truce, not just for safety, but also for the entry of aid, a decrease in prices. This means a lot to us," she said, referring to the skyrocketing prices for staple foods in Gaza right now.

In Israel, the families of hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 keep waiting for news of a deal that could bring the release of dozens of the 134 hostages still in captivity.

Among those waiting to be released is Gadi Moses, who will turn 80 on Tuesday. He was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz on Oct. 7. His partner, Efrat Katz, 68, was killed in the attack.

His son, Yair Moses, 49, is waiting for his father's release. He hasn't heard any news of him at all, other than a video released in December by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — a militant group that also participated in the Oct. 7 attack, along with Hamas.

Moses said he's stopped expecting anything from the reports of cease-fire negotiations, adding that it takes a lot of effort to stay even remotely optimistic.

"It's getting harder every day. You get very, very tired, both physically and mentally."

He understands the need for military pressure on Hamas, but wishes the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would focus more on negotiations.

Einat Ofir embraces her cousins, Ronit Dvir and Karni Peleg, after a ceremony at the site of the former police station in Sderot, Israel on Feb. 28. The families of the Israeli hostages held a four-day march to keep attention focused on the plight of their loved ones still in captivity and to pressure the Israeli government to secure a deal that would release them.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Einat Ofir embraces her cousins, Ronit Dvir and Karni Peleg, after a ceremony at the site of the former police station in Sderot, Israel on Feb. 28. The families of the Israeli hostages held a four-day march to keep attention focused on the plight of their loved ones still in captivity and to pressure the Israeli government to secure a deal that would release them.

"We are living in hell," he said about hostage families like his own. "And we need this hell to finish ... they need to understand that bringing them home is the most important thing."

He said he knows the first thing he'll do when he sees his father again: "Hug him."

Itay Raviv, 27, also hopes he'll see his great uncle, 79-year-old Abraham Munder, again. But like the other hostage families, he has no idea when — or if — his loved one will be released.

"Honestly, we don't know what to do anymore. We're desperate. We're calling out to the world, to our government, to everybody, to everyone who thinks they're a leader of some sort for help," said Raviv, noting that in the more than five months since the attack, "nothing changes. Everything is stuck."

Hearing reports of negotiations is difficult, he said. "It's terrible to get your hopes up or down."

Raviv said he doesn't have a lot of faith in Netanyahu, but is looking to the prime minister to bring the hostages home. "A deal or something in the future will be on him," said Raviv.

"He was in charge when Abraham was taken, and it's his responsibility to bring him back home."

A deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza

As families wait for a breakthrough, the humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to spiral.

According to the World Heath Organization, roughly 8,000 patients need to be medically evacuated from Gaza. That includes more than 6,000 trauma-related patients who are currently trapped in the enclave.

Calls for a cease-fire have been growing louder from humanitarian groups.

The International Committee of the Red Cross released astatement on Saturday calling for a "cessation of hostilities to allow for meaningful assistance to reach the people in need," the release of the hostages held by Hamas and humane treatment of Palestinian detainees in Israeli custody.

Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing approximately 1,200 people and kidnapping 240, according to Israeli officials. Israel's military response has killed at least 31,112 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

Palestinians search for their belongings amid the rubble of houses destroyed by an Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 11.
Said Khatib / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians search for their belongings amid the rubble of houses destroyed by an Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 11.

After returning from a visit to Rafah, in southern Gaza, last week, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told Sky News that people there are "the most trapped civilian population under the worst bombardment in modern history, against any civilian population."

"We cannot stop this bombardment. Only Israel and its allies can stop it," he said.

"The most serious situation is in the north, which has been completely isolated for a very long time. We've not gotten food in there since the end of January," said Jonathan Fowler, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the main United Nations aid agency for Palestinians in Gaza.

It takes time to ramp up aid distribution — the last cease-fire, which lasted about a week, didn't see the maximum number of aid trucks enter Gaza until the fifth day — that's when 300 truckloads of aid went in. That's still dramatically less than the 500 needed per day to sustain the people of Gaza.

"Every day that this continues and every day that this stranglehold on aid continues, it's going to be more and more children affected," said Fowler.

Current efforts to get aid into Gaza by land have been hampered by safety issues as well as border restrictions enforced by the Israeli military. Airdrops coordinated by several countries — including the U.S., Egypt, France and Jordan — have helped bring some aid into northern Gaza, but not enough to meet the dramatic need.

The airdrops are also an imperfect means for delivering aid. Some pallets have blown into Israel or the Mediterranean Sea. And in one instance, a pallet is believed to have killed five Palestinians when a chute failed to deploy. In a statement posted to X (formerly Twitter), U.S. Central Command said the deaths were "not the result of U.S. airdrops."

Humanitarian aid falls from planes over northern Gaza as seen from Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip on March 7, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
/
Maya Levin for NPR
Humanitarian aid falls from planes over northern Gaza as seen from Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip on March 7, 2024.

President Biden last week announced the construction of a temporary port in Gaza to enable aid delivery by sea, but that project could take weeks to complete.

Fowler emphasized that even if people — especially children — start receiving adequate nutrition right now, that the knock-on impacts of what they've already suffered, both physically and mentally, will last for some time.

"It's now about limiting the damage," he said.

The status of talks

Egyptian sources close to the cease-fire talks being led by mediators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar told NPR there remain several major sticking points. Israel has agreed to a six-week humanitarian cease-fire, the sources said, while Hamas wants a comprehensive cease-fire with U.S. and international guarantees it leads to an end to Israeli attacks and drone surveillance.

Israel's government wants a short-term cease-fire to secure the release of at least 40 hostages taken in the Oct. 7 attack. But Netanyahu, who's facing domestic pressure to secure the release of hostages, also continues to threaten an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah and insists on the eradication of Hamas.

Hamas wants a lasting cease-fire that ends the war and allows all displaced Palestinians to return to the north, where Israel controls access, and for Israel to permit the flow of more aid into Gaza, including the north, where the head of the World Health Organization says children are dying of starvation.

Israel did not send a delegation to Cairo last week for talks, but mediators were in contact with Mossad officials regarding the negotiations, according to Egyptian officials.

The last truce saw the release of more than 100 hostages taken from Israel by Hamas and the release of nearly 250 Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel, as well as an increase in the amount of aid allowed into Gaza.

A displaced Palestinian girl sits next to sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3.
/ AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
A displaced Palestinian girl sits next to sacks of humanitarian aid at the distribution center of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 3.

Palestinians in Gaza are watching to see if a new truce can help accelerate the delivery of aid, but some, like Abdallah Jarghoun, 25, are losing hope.

"Everyone is playing everyone," he said from Rafah, noting that he's been hopeful for some kind of cease-fire several times before.

"This is either the fifth or the sixth time. Every two weeks it's the same story, when the Israeli delegation is supposed to go to Cairo it takes three weeks, a week, every three weeks they tell us another three," said Jarghoun.

"And three weeks turns into three or four months of war while we are thinking about the truce."

NPR Producer Anas Baba contributed to this story from Gaza.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 18, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier version of this story, the name of one of the hostages taken captive during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel was misspelled. He is Abraham Munder, not Munter.
Tags
D. Parvaz
D. Parvaz is an editor at Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, she worked at several news organizations covering wildfires, riots, earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, elections, political upheaval and refugee crises in several countries.