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Relatives of hostages in Gaza endure a nightmare, but dream their loved ones will be freed

KIBBUTZ BE’ERI, Israel (AP) — Gillian and Pete Brisley are picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. They are cleaning up the house where their daughter and granddaughters were killed by Hamas on Oct. 7 in hopes that their son-in-law — believed to be held captive in Gaza — may have something to come home to.

The broken glass from the militants’ break-in has been cleaned up. Their dead relatives’ clothes still need to be packed away.

“We really didn’t want him to come back and see the state it was in,” said Gillian Brisley, whose daughter Lianne, 48, was shot at her home in Kibbutz Be’eri during Hamas’ rampage, along with two daughters: Noiya, 16; and Yahel, 13. “All we can do is hope and pray that he is in Gaza. And at some time he will come back.”

Dozens of families whose relatives were taken to Gaza as hostages have endured a nightmare beyond their comprehension. Nearly five months into the Israel-Hamas war, they remain hopeful that the remaining hostages will be released, but are growing increasingly desperate for a resolution. After the fits and starts of multiple rounds of negotiations, they fret that both Israelis and the world are losing interest in their struggle.

“We are worried all the time,” said Ofri Bibas Levy, whose nephews Ariel, 4, and Kfir, 1 — the youngest hostage — were taken captive along with their parents. “We’ve been on this roller coaster for four months and never knowing what to expect.”

When Hamas-led militants stormed through southern Israel in October, they killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped roughly 250 people, including women, children and older adults, according to Israeli authorities.

The deadliest attack in Israel’s history set off the war in Gaza that has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, according to local health officials, and triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.

More than 100 hostages, mostly women, children and foreign nationals, were freed in a late November deal that also brought about a weeklong halt in the fighting and the release of 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Negotiations to bring about the release of the remaining hostages have stalled.

Israel believes that of the 134 remaining hostages, at least 30 were killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.

Since the war began, Israeli forces have freed three of them. Hostages are believed to be held deep inside Hamas’ extensive tunnel network in Gaza, or in other hideouts. Israeli forces killed three hostages in December, mistaking them for militants.

The plight of the hostages has deeply traumatized Israelis, who view them as an enduring symbol of the state’s failure to protect civilians during Hamas’ onslaught.

Their families have mounted a domestic and international campaign to raise awareness about their loved ones’ ordeals and keep the issue in the public consciousness. At weekly protests in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, the families’ calls for their release have grown increasingly anguished. Many liken their protracted captivity to a death sentence.

After contending with the initial trauma of the grisly deaths of their relatives and the destruction of their communities, these families were thrust into a public role as advocates for the hostages’ release. That advocacy has faced mounting challenges as time goes by.

Negotiations meant to secure their release have seen varying levels of momentum. Most recently, talks led by the United States, Qatar and Egypt have been hobbled by the vast chasm between Israel’s and Hamas’ terms for a deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until “total victory,” which he says means destroying Hamas’ governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages. He says both of those aims are best met with intense and prolonged military pressure. But criticism from within his Cabinet has emerged about that position, with one top official saying the hostages can only be freed through talks.

Critics also say Netanyahu is letting political considerations guide his negotiating tactics, saying he is beholden to the far-right flank of his government. They say he does not have the hostages’ best interests in mind because he sees them as a constant reminder of his failure to protect Israelis.

“Netanyahu is doing his best to defend himself. Oct. 7 is not convenient for him,” said Nahum Barnea, a veteran columnist with the Yediot Ahronot daily. “The hostages remain as something that burdens him in a way.”

Netanyahu says he is working at all times to free the hostages.

“Your loved ones are always in my mind. I look you in your eyes, I look at their photos, the heartbreaks and aches,” he said earlier this month.

Some of Netanyahu’s allies have increasingly communicated the message that their priority is not to free the hostages. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich sparked outrage after he told Israel’s public broadcaster Kan on Tuesday that the release of hostages is “not the most important thing,” saying destroying Hamas took precedence.

Politics has also creeped into the hostage families’ struggle, even though they have labored to keep it a consensus issue. Some Netanyahu supporters have taken to social media to portray the families as a threat to his rule.

Some relatives of hostages say they’ve been berated in the streets by Netanyahu supporters. A prominent political strategist who has steered the families’ struggle since it began stepped down this week over concerns that his past involvement in anti-government campaigns would taint their approach.

Hostage families say they are astounded by what they see as global apathy to an ongoing war crime. The families have traveled to major capitals around the world over the past five months, trying to galvanize support for their cause, only to be dwarfed by massive protests supporting Palestinians in Gaza — and even seeing posters bearing the photos of their loved ones torn down.

“Whatever people think about the political complexities and about the Middle East, it’s a baby,” said Eylon Keshet, a relative of baby Kfir Bibas. “How can people be so silent about it?”

Gillian and Pete Brisley, who live in South Wales, say they’ve tried to engage authorities in the United Kingdom to assist, but describe “all talk and no action.”

Bullet holes mark most of the walls at the home of their daughter and son-in-law, Eli Sharabi. The oven door is shattered, and the TV screens too. Nearby homes were torched by militants, and their roofs blasted off during fighting on Oct. 7. As the Brisleys spoke, smoke could be seen rising over the skies of Gaza as the booms from Israeli strikes echoed.

The Brisleys have collected their daughter’s childhood teddy bear and her shawls, but they still need to clean the deck and the sofa cushions in the top room.

“The hope is that Eli is alive,” said Gillian. Sharabi’s brother, Yossi, died in captivity.

“You have to have hope. If you haven’t got hope, you haven’t got anything,” she said.

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