Yoni Asher last spoke to his wife on Saturday morning, when she called from her mother’s home in southern Israel near the Gaza border. “She told me terrorists had infiltrated the home,” he said. “The phone got disconnected.”
He last saw her later in the day — in a video circulating online. She and their daughters, 3 and 5 years old, were huddled with others on a flatbed in the back of a vehicle. Men with guns ushered them off.
Asher’s wife, Doron Asher Katz, 34, is one of an unknown number of Israelis who have been captured and presumed to be held as hostages after an unprecedented invasion by Hamas militants of southern Israel, taking control for a time of multiple communities and at least two military camps, and killing hundreds. Videos posted online show armed men marching or dragging men and women through the streets, some elderly, some bloodied.
Israeli authorities have responded with force in Gaza, bombing buildings and killing at least 413 people, including 78 children and 41 women, according to Gaza’s health ministry. On Sunday morning, Israel was still trying to regain control of seven communities and an army camp, IDF spokesman Richard Hecht said.
It’s unclear how many hostages have been taken. Hamas has said it was holding dozens of commanders and soldiers. Israeli media reported that the number was at least 100, including elderly people and children. The militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, separate from Hamas, said it was holding 30 hostages and wouldn’t return them until Palestinian prisoners were freed. The Israeli military confirmed that hostages had been taken but wouldn’t give a figure.
The hostage taking has struck a particularly emotional nerve in Israel and makes the country’s response more complicated — and, potentially, more deadly. “This will shape the future of this war,” reserve military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told the BBC, and later reiterated to Bloomberg.
Instagram and other channels were flooded with faces of missing people and pleas for information. Many of those identified were young attendees of an outdoor desert rave. One of those was Almog Meir Jan, who at age 21 had recently finished his army service.
“He called my mother at 7:45 a.m. and told her there were rockets, that they have started running and that he loves her,” his sister, Geut Harari, said in a phone interview. “Since then, we have not been able to reach him.”
His family identified him, alive, in a clip sent around on the Telegram messaging app. The footage showed young men illuminated by a bright light, cowering on the floor, some with their hands behind their back and others attempting to shield their faces from the light.
Several wars have been set off by abductions and killings of just a handful of Israeli soldiers or civilians. In 2006, the capture of three soldiers — one in Gaza, two in Lebanon — ignited the deadly Second Lebanon War with the Iran-backed Hezbollah. Eight years later, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in West Bank by Hamas gunmen led to a 50-day war in Gaza. In 2011, to free soldier Gilad Shalit from Gaza, Israel freed more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, several of whom went on to carry out deadly attacks against Israelis.
This time, many of those taken aren’t soldiers but civilians.
At about 8 a.m. on Saturday, Adva Adar lost contact with her grandmother, Yaffa Adar, 85, of Nir Oz. She learned late in the day that the Israeli military found her grandmother’s house burned down and vacant. The first time she learned her grandmother had been taken was when she saw videos on Facebook posted online by Hamas and widely shared. There was her grandmother, sitting on a golf cart, clutching a pink blanket.
“I cannot even start to imagine how scared and uncomfortable she was,” Adva Adar said. “She doesn’t have a lot of time without her medicine.”
Several family members say Israeli authorities haven’t responded to calls for help.
“No one spoke to me,” Asher said at around 11 p.m., after 12 hours of frantic calls, and after tracking his wife’s phone to Khan Yunis, a city in Gaza. “No one contacted me. I called the police, I called the Home Front Command, the local councils.” He also contacted German authorities, because his wife has German citizenship. So, like many others, Asher turned to social media and local television stations.
In one situation, hostages were being held for more than 24 hours in Be’eri, an Israeli kibbutz with a population of about 1,000 located in the northwest Negev desert near the eastern border with the Gaza Strip. Tens of them at least were held hostage by armed militants at the settlement’s common dining hall and later released.
After he woke up and realized what was going on, Goni Godard, 22, pulled a bandana over his face and headed through Be’eri toward his parents’ home. A man pointed a gun at him but didn’t shoot; Godard thinks it’s because with the bandana, they couldn’t tell which side he was on. Walking through the kibbutz, he saw bullet-laden bodies in the streets before coming to the place that used to be the home of his parents, Many Godard, 70, and Ayelet Godard, 60.
“Everything was burned and destroyed,” he said through sobs. They weren’t there.
He hid in the home until 4 p.m. when the Israeli military arrived. He’s still looking for his parents.
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