Mothers weep for their sons who are ‘last in line’ for release by Hamas

Families of young Israeli men taken hostage visit The Telegraph to broadcast their call for the West not to forget their sons and brothers rcPehC4sd2s

They are the forgotten hostages. While women and children have been released over the past few days in Gaza, the men kidnapped on Oct 7 remain behind. 

To date, more than 100 of them have now spent 54 days trapped at gunpoint underground. With the current truce precarious, the window of opportunity to negotiate the release of the Israeli men is diminishing all the time.

On Wednesday, the families of young men held hostage travelled from Israel to London to visit The Telegraph offices, where they made a public plea to get them back.

Orit Meir knows her son Almog, still only 21 and barely an adult, is at the back of the queue in any negotiations to get him out of Gaza. So too is Evyatar David, 22, snatched from the same music festival in the Negev desert.

Their families only know they survived the massacre because both men appeared in the hours afterwards in a hostage video, filmed by Hamas and circulated on propaganda channels. 

The video first shows Almog, his hands up to protect his head, fearful of being beaten, the horror of what’s happening to him etched across his face. Next to him is Evyatar, whose hands appear bound behind his back and his shirt torn off his back. He is clearly terrified. 

The camera pans round to other young men all in the same darkened room, presumably one of Hamas’s secret tunnels. It is the last “proof of life” of Almog and Evyatar. Since then, over the course of almost two months, their families have heard nothing.

They are in despair and desperate. Rather than stay at home waiting for their loved ones’ names to be on the daily release list, they have come to London to plead with the West to not forget them.

Orit and Aviram Mei, the mother and uncle of Almog Meir-Jan, plead for his safe return on a visit to The Telegraph offices in London Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley/Heathcliff O'Malley

Tears in her eyes, Orit, 61, a nursery school teacher for the past 35 years, told The Telegraph: “This trip to London is about telling our story. It’s our life now. We want to keep awareness of the hostages. You know where your child is sleeping and what they’re doing during the day. I know nothing. I only know he’s kidnapped. We came to tell our story to keep the awareness.

“I’m happy for the families who have been reunited. But I want my baby back; 54 days is too much.”

The anguish is clear in her voice. Orit wears a T-shirt with her son’s face emblazoned upon it and the caption below that says simply: “Save Almog. And Bring Home Now!”

In an appeal made through The Telegraph - hopeful her son might somehow see it - Orit declares: “Almog, if you see me now, we love you. All the family, everyone. Your friends, everyone. We’ll do everything to bring you back home soon. Be strong, be strong. Love you.”

Cousin Matan Eshet, left, and Illay David are calling for the release of Evyatar David Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley/Heathcliff O'Malley

Ilay David, 26, has flown with Orit to the UK to highlight the plight of his brother. Evyatar had the chance to flee the Supernova music festival, held in the desert just three miles from the Gaza security fence. But he stayed behind to help the wounded and to try to help others escape. He too is now a hostage.

His brother is all too aware of the difficulty in getting him out. “He’s a young man, which probably means Hamas has written him [down] as a soldier, which he is not,” said Ilay, “And that’s so upsetting that he’s the last one in the food chain, although he has done nothing to harm anyone. The only crime he committed was to celebrate at a festival alongside so many others that were just living their lives.

“It’s crazy we’re bargaining on men right now. Hamas is choosing who to let go, they’re doing it very smartly. They know that as time passes the international community will lose interest. We are actually so afraid and more than 100 other men will be forgotten. All the time it feels urgent.”

Almog Meir-Jan was living with his mother in their home in Or Yehuda, close to Tel Aviv. He went to the music festival with his closest friend from his three years on national service. 

His friend Tomer was murdered and his body so badly burnt that it took forensics two weeks to confirm his identity through dental records. Two sisters who tried to flee with them were also burnt beyond recognition.

It seems odd that the hostage video should give Orit a small crumb to cling to: that her son remains alive. “He’s a happy guy, all the time singing; you know his vibe is like energy and full of happiness. Now when I’m thinking, where he is now, it’s hard for me because it’s a small place, a dark place; the opposite of my son and his attitude to life,” she says.

She recalls the last time she spoke to Almog. He called her at 7.45am on that Saturday morning. “He said to me: ‘Mum, they closed the festival. There are rockets and shooting all over. I’m hiding. I’ll call you every half an hour. Mum, I love you.’ This was the last call from him.”

A few hours later came the video.

‘Children must come first’

Orit knows her son is not a priority for release, well aware that women and children will be freed first..

She says “children must come first”, but says it provides no solace to any mother with a child who remains.

“It doesn’t matter if your child is 10, 21 or 40. It’s still your child and you yearn for them like they were a baby. I just want him back.,” she says.

Tireless in the cause, she has attended numerous press conferences, vigils and marches about the situation in Gaza.

Last week she met Thomas Hand, an Irishman who was finally reunited with his nine-year-old daughter Emily in the first days of the truce.

“And in this conference we told Thomas in front of the cameras that we would prefer that his daughter will be released before our son,” says Orit.

Since Emily’s release, the two parents have texted each other with messages of continued support. “He just sent me a message that said ‘stay strong’.” In return, Orit replied: “I will continue the struggle to bring Almog and all the other hostages home.”

She is keeping herself busy, campaigning for his release. She now takes a sleeping pill to help get her through the night and is seeing a counsellor, provided by the Israeli state, to help her talk through the situation.

She’s given up work and can’t concentrate well enough to even risk driving. Once a week, at least a dozen of Almog’s friends visit her at their home where they watch videos of him, pass around photos and share stories.

Those images from before the Oct 7 massacre show a lively, fun-loving young man. “Almog always smiles, a smile on his face all the time. He’s full of energy. He’s always doing stuff. I can’t imagine how he’s coping in a tunnel or wherever he is,” says Orit.

But it’s his softer side, the hidden more nuanced side of so many boys his age, that brings tears to the eyes of his mother.

“He was so sensitive at home”, says Orit. “Our father had an operation on his back two months ago and our son, he washed him; washed him and helped him wash himself because he couldn’t. He lifted us all up. He helped me a lot.”

T-shirt banned

Last week, Orit met peers and MPs in Westminster to keep the cause alive. She was wearing the same black T-shirt she wore on her visit to The Telegraph newsroom. Security guards in the Palace of Westminster had made her remove it – telling her the message was “political”.

“It was embarrassing,” says Orit, “They said the T-shirt was a political act.” 

This is the T-shirt with her son’s happy, smiling face on it. The photograph was taken at Almog’s sister’s wedding a couple of years ago.

Orit’s brother Aviram, 58, has accompanied her on the trip to London. He is critical of Israel’s government. 

Its priority, he says, should have been getting the hostages out first. And then dealing with the problem of Hamas. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has not separated the two.

“If we don’t get them back; all of them back, then Israel won’t recover,” says Aviram. “It’s a test of the institutions of the state. The first duty in the contract between a country and its citizens is security.”

Aviram, whose home on a kibbutz has been temporarily turned into a military base, has urged the West to do more. 

“We share the same values with the West, liberal values. When you see a massacre like on October 7… they [Israelis] were murdered joyfully. This behaviour we can’t accept. I don’t understand why the West isn’t stopping this behaviour.

“In this there is nothing political, this is humanitarian. They took children in their pyjamas without shoes. If the West doesn’t share those values, say it. Because we don’t understand it. The last time this happened was the Holocaust.”

The families have been brought to London by the Miryam Institute, an NGO based in New York that is trying to help them gain leverage in Westminster and elsewhere.

Benjamin Anthony and Rozita Pnini, Its co-founders, told the Telegraph in a joint statement: “The families of hostages have found themselves in a completely unique and awful position where the loved ones are deprived of any connection to the Red Cross, held in tunnels underground in the Gaza strip by a terrorist organisation that has murdered 1,300 innocent people on Oct 7.

“We have brought these families to the UK and also to the US to move public opinion because their loved ones have fallen into a category of hostage that is unlikely to be released in the current deals.” YUa3A7t3c4U

Ilay David also wears a T-shirt, this one with his brother’s face on it. “Bring Evyatar Home Now!” it reads. Ilay had never been to London before. He wants to return but only if his brother is with him.

“I can take him to all the places I visited with only his picture,” says Ilay. “We know that Britain has a lot of influence on the Middle East, so it was very important for us to come.”

Qatar and Egypt have been influential in securing the release of the hostages let out so far in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails (at a ratio of three Palestinians for every Israeli).

Ilay says: “I think we should give them [Hamas] a lot of credit for how they operate because they are very smart and they also know that as time passes, the world community will lose interest and they know that it will be good for them, for their reputation to release the children first and the women first.”

“So we are actually so afraid that my brother and all of the other men … that they will be forgotten. And each day that passes, it’s a real life danger. So it feels urgent all the time. I mean, for 54 days it feels urgent. And any time that passes, it keeps being urgent.”

‘He had the chance to escape’

Evyatar is a “very gentle person; a very calm person”. Instead of fleeing, of thinking of himself and making a run for it on Oct 7, he stayed on at the music festival, where at least two of his friends were murdered, to help others.

“He maybe has the chance to escape,” says Ilay, who has spoken to a witness who survived the event and escaped Hamas.

“But he [Evyatar] stayed behind to help injured people. And he stayed behind to help others escape. He didn’t run away. It was more important for him that the others will be okay. And maybe the fact that he didn’t go into panic mode, it signals the terrorists not to kill him.”

Evyatar has been seen by his brother in two separate Hamas videos. One showed him “tied up with hands behind his back, being led inside Gaza and terrorists holding him in one hand in a headlock, holding a gun in the other hand with their full combat gear …  just dragging him … dragging him”.

That the families seek out any kind of solace is clear. “We saw him walking in that video, so it was kind of comfort for us to see that he’s not wounded,” says Ilay. 

The other video is, of course, the one with Almog. “They were so confused that they didn’t know what’s going on. They were abducted from a party and that’s the image that comes to my mind when I think about him - that frightened face of him. It was really devastating at first to see him like that.

“But we quickly understood that the fact that he’s alive and that we had a sign of life from him, that’s very powerful. It’s something that most of the families don’t have. I mean we got lucky to have these photos. It actually gives us hope to know that he is alive.”

‘He was so excited about the festival’

The last time Ilay saw his brother in person had been at the traditional Friday night dinner at his parents’ home in Kfar Saba, the night before the massacre. Evyatar was bursting with excitement because he and four friends had tickets to the Supernova music festival that night.

“He was so excited about the music festival, he barely ate from the Shabbat dinner,” recalls llay. “I told him to have fun. He just took my mom’s car and picked up his friends and went south. And we were not worried at all because even though it was close to the border, we knew that usually things are okay.”

Evyatar travelled to the festival with four friends but only one, a paramedic who helped fleeing people, was to escape captivity or death. Evyatar’s best friend from his childhood, Guy Gibbon Dalal, 22, also appeared alongside him in the Hamas video.

“We saw both of them in the propaganda video and two others were murdered in the events and it took three days to identify the bodies,” Ilay says.

Evyatar was working as a shift manager at a restaurant while saving up for a round-the-world trip. 

He had bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and was due to have flown out earlier this week. That departure date has been and gone.

The two brothers loved to play music together. “When he will come back, we will play again,” says Ilay.

For the past 54 days, ever since those videos on day one of the kidnapping, the family have heard nothing. The Red Cross has been unable to gain access to the hostages.

Ilay sends his brother a message via the Telegraph: “I love you so much, and also my sister loves you, and our parents, they love you so much. And we know you are brave and strong and you can manage. Just hold on because you will come back home. I promise you.”

He implores the rest of the world not to forget his brother or the other men held hostage.

“Don’t forget my brother’s face and name. Don’t forget all the other hostages being held there. They all have families. They all have loved ones.”