WASHINGTON — The families of American citizens kidnapped by Hamas militants in Israel nearly 40 days ago said Tuesday they want to focus international attention on the plight of their loved ones in captivity — including a 3-year-old American girl who the White House confirmed was taken into Gaza during the Oct. 7 terror attack.
In an exclusive interview in Washington with NBC News’ Lester Holt, the girl’s great-aunt was joined by seven other families whose relatives were taken hostage during the brazen Hamas assault on kibbutzim, a musical festival and homes across Israel’s south. They spoke as thousands of people from across the U.S. descended on the National Mall for a pro-Israel march.
For more on this story, watch “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.
Liz Hirsch-Naftali, the great-aunt of 3-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, revealed that the little girl’s parents were killed in their home at the Kfar Aza kibbutz. Abigail was in her father’s arms when a Hamas gunman shot him. He fell on top of her. Abigail then “crawled out from under her father’s body … full of his blood,” Hirsch-Naftali said.
The girl ran over to a neighbor’s house and sheltered with that family in a bomb shelter. “The last thing we learned was that somebody saw [a] terrorist, her three kids and Abigail out of the kibbutz,” Hirsch-Naftali said. “That’s all we know.”
Abigail’s older brothers survived the terror attack. “They saw their mother murdered. They saw their father murdered. These kids know their parents are gone,” Hirsch-Naftali said. “What do you say to these kids? You give them love. You give them everything.”
The hostage crisis in the Middle East has left families in agony over the fates of their loved ones.
“It’s been 39 days. We know nothing. We know they were taken. We know they were whole when they were taken. We have no idea where they’re being held, whether they’ve been tortured, whether they’re being fed,” said Orna Neutra, whose 21-year-old son Omer was taken. “Can you imagine that? It’s unimaginable.”
Jon Polin, whose 23-year-old son Hirsch was captured on video being loaded onto a pickup truck with one of his arms blown off, said simply: “We will not stand still until we bring them back.”
Israel’s government has said Hamas militants are believed to hold 239 captives. In television interviews over the weekend, the White House’s national security adviser said the U.S. does not know the exact number of hostages, though he confirmed nine Americans are still missing after terrorists stormed into Israel on Oct. 7 and killed more than 1,000 people.
Israel and Hamas have been at war since that day; Israel’s retaliatory aerial bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza has devastated the enclave and killed more than 11,000 people, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Hamas claims that it does not have custody of all the hostages and that some were taken by a militant group also based in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
“We currently have nine Americans who are missing, one green card holder who is missing,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN on Sunday. “We don’t know the status — whether they are alive or whether they have passed away — but we are looking to get the safe recovery of all of those individuals.”
The families who spoke to NBC News met with Sullivan at the White House on Monday night. The families did not provide specifics about their meeting, but they all agreed that President Joe Biden and his administration seem deeply committed to bringing about the release of their loved ones.
“From the best of my understanding, the administration is pursuing every available channel in order to obtain the release of the hostages,” said Yehuda Beinin, whose daughter and her husband were taken captive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that there “could be” a potential deal with Hamas leaders to release the hostages, but he declined to provide specifics. “I think the less I say about it,” Netanyahu told Kristen Welker, “the more I’ve increased the chances that it materializes.”
Netanyahu, who has drawn intense scrutiny in Israel for appearing to be caught off-guard by the brazen Oct. 7 assault, insists that Israel’s military offensive in Gaza represents the country’s best strategy for freeing the hostages because it applies “pressure” on Hamas.
When asked whether he took hope from the possibility of a deal taking shape, Ronen Neutra — Orna’s husband and Omer’s father — replied: “We have to have hope. We believe that we want our kids back. We want our families back, and whatever deal that is going to be in the works is welcomed.”
Biden’s top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, plans to travel to Israel and other countries in the region this week for discussions focused on securing the release of hostages, an administration official said. The official said McGurk’s trip is expected to include a visit to Qatar, which has played a key role in negotiations.
Hamas has so far released four hostages: Judith and Natalie Raanan, an American woman and her teenage daughter; and Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz, two elderly Israeli women whose husbands are still believed to be in captivity.
In addition, Israel said military forces rescued an abducted soldier, Pvt. Ori Megidish.
Hamas has claimed it released the four hostages for “humanitarian” reasons, an assertion that has been met with skepticism from the West. The act of taking hostages is considered a war crime under international humanitarian law and a violation of the Geneva Conventions governing war and military occupations.
The group of American hostages are not the only captives to have foreign nationality. Israel’s government said last month that 138 of the hostages had foreign passports from 25 countries, including 54 Thais, 15 Argentinians, 12 Germans, six French and six Russians.
Ruby Chen, whose 19-year-old son Itay was kidnapped, told NBC News on Tuesday that the painful ordeal of the last 39 days has come with one bittersweet silver lining.
“All of us have our own families,” he said, referring to the 11 people who surrounded him, “but now we have a new family. This is my new family.”