Family members of the six Americans still held hostage by the Palestinian militant group Hamas are calling on Congress and the Biden administration to apply greater pressure on allies in the Middle East, including Israel, to secure the release of their loved ones.
Speaking Wednesday on Capitol Hill, the group implored lawmakers to imagine their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters held captive for over 100 days. The group also included Americans whose family members have been released and Israelis working to free their family members.
“They are injured, starving, raped, tortured. And they are still in the dark tunnels below ground in Gaza,” said Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great aunt of Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old American girl whose parents were killed on Oct. 7. Abigail was released as part of a cease-fire deal in November. Naftali has continued to advocate for the “safe and swift return” of all hostages.
Jon Polin, the father of American hostage Hersch Polin, held up a photo of his son taken from video footage of him being loaded onto a pickup truck at the Supernova music festival, an event targeted in the attack. “That bone sticking out is where his left arm used to be,” Polin said, explaining that his son’s arm was blown off.
“As Americans, we expect the United States, the greatest superpower in the history of the world, to use its full power to secure the hostages’ release. This includes making sure that all partners in the region make this a top priority,” Polin said.
The six Americans, all men, are among roughly 140 remaining hostages of the more than 200 kidnapped by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. That attack killed about 1,200 Israelis and led to an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip that Hamas, which controls the territory, says has killed about 24,000 Palestinians.
President Joe Biden said last month that two more Americans who were believed to have been taken by the Palestinian militant group were killed.
The Biden administration says it is working hard to secure the release of the remaining hostages.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the administration is engaged in “serious and intensive discussions in Qatar about the possibility for another deal.” Qatar’s government is mediating talks between the U.S. and Hamas leaders.
But Polin and others called for a tougher approach in talks with the Qataris and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This holdup is with the Netanyahu government,” said Naftali.
She accused Netanyahu of being unwilling to agree to the terms of proposed deals with Hamas for additional hostage releases and of pushing for a prolonged war.
“President Biden has been very clear that he and the U.S. government are friends of Israel and the Israeli people. But sometimes friends have to deliver hard messages,” she added.
Another American, Orna Neutra, pleaded for her 22-year-old son, Omer, a dual American-Israeli citizen who joined the Israeli Defense Force in 2020 and was taken hostage while serving as a tank commander near Gaza.
“Any deal put forward must include them all. These boys could be your boys. They must be brought home. They cannot be treated as the last priority,” Neutra said.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said Congress “can and must do more.” He told reporters that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be on the Hill on Thursday to brief committee members behind closed doors.
Cardin hosted the group in a private sit-down with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. The family members and Cardin then addressed the press.
Cardin said there are “multiple factors” at play and declined to say whether he agreed that Netanyahu was standing in the way of another deal to free hostages.
“You’ve got to realize you’re dealing with the mindset of individuals that don’t have a value on innocent life,” Cardin said, referring to Hamas.
“We’re going to continue to use every method we have, and that at times will mean we’ll be offering some strong suggestions to our own government, to the Israelis and to third-country leaders,” he added.
But the families left Congress with a haunting reminder that time is running out.
“Every minute that goes by is one minute closer to death for our loved ones,” Polin said.