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The long, lonely fight of an Israeli hostage's sister, who fears time is running out

Carmit Palty Katzir prepares to speak at a weekly rally in Tel Aviv, Israel, calling for the immediate release of the hostages being held in Gaza, Feb. 17.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Carmit Palty Katzir prepares to speak at a weekly rally in Tel Aviv, Israel, calling for the immediate release of the hostages being held in Gaza, Feb. 17.

TEL AVIV, Israel — On a Saturday night in February, in a rally at a plaza now known as Hostage Square, families line up, preparing to take the stage one by one, holding placards bearing pictures of their loved ones and wearing shirts with a message that's been plastered all over this city since October: "Bring them home now."

These are the families of the 134 people still being held hostage in Gaza. Some are now known to be dead. All were captured in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel, in which Israel says 1,200 people were killed.

Carmit Palty Katzir's family was shattered that day, when Hamas-led militants attacked her childhood home of Nir Oz, near the Gaza border. They killed her father Rami, 79, and took her mother Hana, 77, and her older brother Elad, 47, into Gaza as hostages. She and her sister Avital, 51, were spared, having chosen not to spend that holiday weekend with their parents in their childhood home.

Since then, like many other relatives of people currently held hostage by Hamas, Katzir has been fighting for her brother's life. She says she has had no opportunity to grieve the loss of her father, minimal support from the government, and she fears time is running out to bring her brother back alive.

Kibbutz Nir Oz was one of the hardest hit places in Israel on Oct. 7. The agricultural community of 400 saw nearly a quarter of its residents killed or kidnapped — 50 killed, 77 kidnapped, with 37 remaining in captivity today. Among them, 27 are believed to be alive, including Elad Katzir.

Carmit Palty Katzir in her home in Haifa, Israel, Feb. 18. During the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, Katzir's father, Rami, was killed at Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her mother and brother were taken hostage.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Carmit Palty Katzir in her home in Haifa, Israel, Feb. 18. During the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks, Katzir's father, Rami, was killed at Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her mother and brother were taken hostage.

Mourning the dead and the living

Survivors and families of victims and hostages say the mix of emotions they have felt since Oct. 7 is a blend of abandonment, anger, sadness, grief — and often, guilt. They particularly feel guilty over the inability to dedicate time and grief to each individual loss within what they describe as the purgatory of fighting to release the hostages and caring for those previously released.

"I feel guilty all the time, but one of the things I feel guilty about is that we almost didn't have time to grieve, to mourn my dad," says Katzir from her home in the seasonally green mountains near Haifa in northern Israel. The quiet is periodically disrupted by the sounds of war planes flying overhead.

Her father's funeral was held at the end of October. The decision to bury their father on the kibbutz, then a closed military zone, rather than in a safer temporary option, was one that Katzir, 44, and her sister had to make alone. "At that time, my mom was in Gaza and my brother also," she says, "so it was very obvious for us that my dad would want to be buried in the kibbutz."

The future of Nir Oz is still uncertain. Many of the homes stand charred, half destroyed, piles of rubble everywhere. Only a few residents have chosen to return. For now, the destruction remains as a sort of memorial, well trodden by the army, media, and even foreign tourists and social media influencers looking to bear witness to the aftermath of Oct. 7. The attention has come against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized international public discourse that often disputes even the basic facts of the events on that day.

But for Katzir, it is too painful now to walk the paths of her childhood home. On the day of her father's funeral, she could not bear to walk around the kibbutz. "Everything," she says, "felt like walking in a crime scene."

Carmit Palty Katzir holds a photo of her parents Rami and Hana Katzir with one of her children, at her home in Haifa, Israel, Feb. 18. Her father was killed on Oct. 7 and her mother was taken hostage and released in November.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Carmit Palty Katzir holds a photo of her parents Rami and Hana Katzir with one of her children, at her home in Haifa, Israel, Feb. 18. Her father was killed on Oct. 7 and her mother was taken hostage and released in November.

A family's grief

Burying her father was a small shard of certainty among a much larger mosaic of harrowing misinformation. Aside from the video by Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group in Gaza, of her mother's violent abduction posted on the group's Telegram account, there was no information about Hana's condition or location, or Elad's. On Nov. 9, Islamic Jihad released a new video on Telegram of Hana and another hostage from Gaza, with the message that they would both be released for humanitarian reasons. They weren't.

As Israel and Hamas negotiated a hostage and prisoner release deal last fall, Katzir says she was assured by Israeli intelligence that her mother would be among the first to be released. Forty-eight hours before the first phase of the deal was executed in November, Katzir received a phone call from the Israeli army saying it received unverified information that her mother had been killed in captivity and was investigating its legitimacy.

This turned out to be misinformation from Islamic Jihad, intended for psychological torture, Katzir says the Israeli military later told her. Hana was released, alive, on Nov. 24, the first day the deal went into effect. She has been hospitalized since her return with a severe heart condition, something she did not suffer from before her abduction, and remains in critical condition.

Her mother came back "skinny, terrified," Katzir says. "She didn't know anything about my dad. She didn't know anything about my brother. And she was so shocked and so sad. She didn't know anything and she cried for them. She was shouting ... and she didn't understand what's going on. She didn't understand why no one [was] coming to help her. She didn't have a sense of time. She thought that she was held for six months, when she was [in captivity] actually less than two months." Her mother, she says, "held like one piece of the puzzle of, I don't know, 5 million pieces."

A picture of Hana and Rami Katzir's wedding at Kibbutz Nir Oz is included in a photo book at Carmit Palty Katzir's home in Haifa, Israel. During the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, Katzir's father, Rami, was killed at Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her mother Hana and brother Elad were taken hostage. Hana was released in November. She came back "skinny, terrified," Katzir recalls. Elad remains in captivity.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A picture of Hana and Rami Katzir's wedding at Kibbutz Nir Oz is included in a photo book at Carmit Palty Katzir's home in Haifa, Israel. During the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, Katzir's father, Rami, was killed at Kibbutz Nir Oz. Her mother Hana and brother Elad were taken hostage. Hana was released in November. She came back "skinny, terrified," Katzir recalls. Elad remains in captivity.

A sign of life

Around the same time as her mother's release, Katzir received word from an Israeli army intelligence officer that a "sign of life" had been received from Elad in Gaza. It was not clear what that sign was, but Katzir rejoiced.

"It's crazy to be happy that your brother is held hostage in Gaza," she says. "But we were so happy that day when they told us."

A poster with a photo of Carmit Palty Katzir's brother Elad, which she brings to rallies, is stored at her home in Haifa.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A poster with a photo of Carmit Palty Katzir's brother Elad, which she brings to rallies, is stored at her home in Haifa.

And yet, she says, "We couldn't trust anyone."

For her mother, she says, "I wish I could promise her that nothing bad will happen from now on. But as I said, our story is not done yet."

In Israel, critics of the government say it has prioritized eliminating Hamas over returning the hostages. For the families of hostages, the struggle to free their loved ones has become more urgent. Families and released hostages are the loudest voices supporting efforts to expedite another hostage deal and cease-fire with Hamas. As talks led by mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. with Hamas and Israel have continued, the families of hostages have taken to the streets, lobbying around the world, trying to keep the hostages front of mind and putting pressure on their own government to make a deal.

Katzir took it upon herself to collect testimonies from 11 released hostages, confident that their stories would convince Israeli lawmakers to expedite another release deal.

As a clinical social worker specializing in mental health, Katzir knew the price of such an ask to the survivors, but she believed it was the only way to communicate the urgency of their plight. "They had to go through those experiences and memories again, which are super traumatic," she says. "And they did it."

Katzir presented these testimonies on Jan. 1 to a nearly empty hall of Knesset, the parliament. Only 10 of Israel's 120 representatives attended, she says.

"I feel like a victim of psychological terror by both sides," she says, "not only by the side of Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad, but I'm also a victim of psychological terror of my country, of my government, who is saying just be quiet and don't show the hostages and don't hear what they have to say."

Carmit Palty Katzir speaks at a weekly rally in Tel Aviv, calling for the immediate release of the hostages being held in Gaza, Feb. 17.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
/
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Carmit Palty Katzir speaks at a weekly rally in Tel Aviv, calling for the immediate release of the hostages being held in Gaza, Feb. 17.

Netanyahu and his government have avoided public interactions with the hostage families, sometimes holding private meetings with groups of them. Some in Israel accuse him of stalling the negotiations, and Israeli negotiators were instructed to leave the talks last month in Cairo. Although there are weekly protests by the families and their advocates outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, the government offers few details to the families about the talks.

The Israeli government has insisted that military pressure is the only way to create conditions for returning the hostages. So far the Israeli military has recovered three hostages from Gaza, and 105 were released in the last deal.

From hostage freedom advocate to hostage

As a lifelong resident of Nir Oz, Katzir's brother Elad was no stranger to the reality on the other side of the fence in the Gaza Strip, where he has been held now for more than 150 days. Elad was a passionate advocate for the freedom of two hostages held in Gaza before Oct. 7. The bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul were taken in Israel's 2014 Gaza war.

Elad protested weekly with their families to keep their story in the public eye. Katzir says her family never understood Elad's advocacy for the bodies of soldiers, but when they asked him about it, his response was always, "We can't give up on them."

Now Katzir stands alongside the Goldin and Shaul families, and they offer her strength in her own struggle. "They all told me, speak up, don't be afraid," she says.

Islamic Jihad released a video of Elad on Dec. 19, in which he and another hostage seized from Nir Oz, Gadi Moses, are shown speaking directly to the camera, asking to intensify efforts to release them.

In another video from Jan. 5, Elad is alone in the frame, Hebrew music playing in the background, mourning the death of his friend and fellow Nir Oz hostage Tamir Adar, and begging viewers to help.

Katzir watched her brother begging for help in the videos. She was determined that lawmakers should see and hear his message too. "I sent it to all Knesset members," she says. "I personally said, OK, you don't want the public to watch it on TV, that's fine, but you should see that you don't have the privilege to look away."

The fight for the future of Israeli society

As Israel and Hamas have conducted negotiations with mediators in Egypt and Qatar, what is at stake is not just the lives of the hostages, say their families and supporters, but the future of Israel and what it stands for.

In a country with mandatory military service, prioritizing the return of hostages at nearly any price has historically been an Israeli mandate, a guarantee of solidarity necessary to sustain a people's army. "I feel like one of the most basic values in Israel is being challenged these days," says Katzir. "I don't know what's going to be left here."

Without a return of the hostages, she says, there is no future, no healing — no safety.

Her four-year-old son has internalized the trauma of the family's losses, she says, through a new game where he pretends to be a baby animal needing protection from predators. "In the game, I am always able to protect him from the bad eagle," she says. "But I also know that on some level he knows that not all kids are protected, that not all kids were protected on Oct. 7."

The hostage families remain some of the strongest advocates for a cease-fire with Hamas, and beyond this, a negotiated solution with the Palestinians and Israel's other neighbors. Since the war began, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed and more than 72,000 injured in Gaza, most of them women and children, according to the Gaza health ministry.

"We want to be able to suggest hope instead of revenge, and not just remain in this vicious cycle of killing and retaliating," Katzir says. "There's too much blood being spilled all over this war."

At a recent conference organized by the families of hostages in Tel Aviv, army experts and academics framed a hostage deal as a potential key to securing more longstanding peace agreements and a sustainable future in the region.

Back at the Saturday night rally at Hostage Square, Katzir, flanked by her family and the relatives of other hostages, stays focused, despite her nerves. When it is her turn to take the stage, she marches to the podium, hands shaking slightly, and delivers a measured speech calling on the government to prioritize saving lives over politics.

At the end, her voice less steady and practiced, she concludes: "Don't make me scream alone."

She and the crowd bellow out in unison her brother's cry from the video from Gaza: "Help us!" She walks off the stage, head held high, back down into the tent of families, the only ones she feels can truly understand and support her, each waiting for their turn to speak out.

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

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Eve Guterman