Vast hostage crisis grips Israel after Hamas attack
A hostage crisis — punctuated by graphic and bloody videos appearing to show militants abducting Israelis — continued to unfold Sunday as Hamas’ attack on Israel entered a second day.
Israel has not yet said exactly how many people had been taken hostage in the unprecedented attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Embassy to the U.S. said early Sunday that dozens had been kidnapped.
Israel resident Yoni Asher said he watched on social media as a disturbing video emerged appearing to show his wife, two young daughters and mother-in-law being taken by Hamas and crammed onto the back of a vehicle.
He had last spoken with his wife earlier Saturday when she called to say terrorists had descended on a home where she and her relatives were hiding, Asher told NBC News.
The last thing he remembers her saying is that the militants were armed and that she feared talking too loudly on the phone.
“It was a very terrifying moment,” Asher said, adding that he believed his father-in-law had also been abducted. “The worst has happened — they discovered them and took them.”
Asher said he had not received new information from officials since Saturday. His wife and mother-in-law both have German citizenship, and he has been in touch with the embassy, but he remains frustrated by the lack of updates.
“I just want my little baby girls back home with my wife,” he said.
Reuters reported that hundreds of people descended on a police station in central Israel on Sunday in hope of getting some word about missing loved ones.
The Jerusalem Post reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed a former military commander to lead coordination efforts around hostages and missing people.
Women, children, the elderly and military service members are believed to be among those taken, with some lists of missing people circulating online. NBC News has not verified those lists.
“Sometimes these are mothers with their children; sometimes these are people over 70 years old. They are taken into the Gaza Strip and are basically held now underground by terrorists,” Israeli author and senior newspaper columnist Nadav Eyal said by phone.
Yifat Zailer, who spoke to NBC News from a home in Herzliya late Sunday, said she feels she cannot rest until her relatives are returned home.
Six members of Zailer’s family were kidnapped from their kibbutz in southern Israel: 30-year-old cousin, Shiri Bibas; Shiri’s 37-year-old husband, Yarden Bibas; their 9-month-old and 3-year-old boys; and Shiri’s parents, Yosi and Margit Silverman, who are in their late 60s.
Zailer learned the news after a friend messaged her a video showing Hamas militants capturing Shiri Bibas as she clutched her two small children in her arms. Zailer assumes the other family members were also taken because their bodies were not among the hundreds found in the area.
“I miss my family. I need them close,” Zailer said, breaking down in sobs. “I need to know they’re OK.”
A few Israelis luckily escaped kidnapping from their homes by hiding in basements. Israeli journalist Amir Tibon posted that his children had to keep silent while his family hunkered down for hours in the dark underground.
In one widely circulated video, a young woman named Noa Argamani screams as she is being driven away on the back of a motorcycle while her boyfriend is overtaken by another group of men.
In another video that appeared to have be recorded in Gaza, a man wields a handgun as he holds a woman by her hair and shoves her into a vehicle. Both videos have been analyzed by NBC News and appear to be authentic.
Argamani’s father, Yaacov, could barely breathe when he was asked what he would tell his only child’s captors.
“Please, please I beg you, don’t hurt her,” he told NBC News’ Raf Sanchez.
Israeli media reported that a number of young women were kidnapped from a music festival on the Gaza border, with a list of photos and names circulating on social media as the attacks unfolded.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that he was working to verify reports that Americans are among the hostages.
“We have reports that several Americans may be among the dead. We are very actively working to verify those reports,” he said. “Similarly, we’ve seen reports about hostages, and there, again, we’re very actively trying to verify them and nail that down.”
The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said by phone Sunday that he and his team are checking the numbers and that they include “a few” Americans.
In an emailed statement, the German foreign ministry said officials are working closely with their Israeli counterparts to determine whether German citizens were taken or killed.
“At this point in time, we must assume that German nationals are among those kidnapped by Hamas yesterday,” the statement read in part. “We ask for your understanding that, in order to protect the people affected, we do not comment publicly on the number or individual cases.”
The hostages immediately become a particularly sensitive part of what could be a drawn-out conflict. Any Israeli military strikes on Gaza will be much more complicated if hostages are being held there.
“The fact that there have been, certainly, Israelis and maybe others brought from Israel proper back into Gaza is going to make things more complicated from an operational perspective,” Jon Finer, a deputy national security adviser for the Biden administration, told NBC News. “We will be closely coordinating and working with our Israeli partners on making every effort to bring those people back safely.”
Hostages have been a long-running part of the tensions between Israel and Hamas. In 2011, Israel freed more than 1,000 Palestinians in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who spent more than five years in captivity in the Gaza Strip.