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Hamas scrambles to find hostages amid fears dozens of captives are lost in Gaza

Hamas is scrambling to find more hostages to extend its truce with Israel amid growing concerns the militant group does not know the whereabouts of dozens of captives.

On the first evening of the extended temporary truce, 10 more Israelis and two Thai citizens held by Hamas were released. Teenager Mia Leimberg, 17, was the youngest of those freed. She was released alongside her mother, Gabriela Leimberg, 59, and her aunt Clara Marman, 63. Two of her uncles, one of whom is Clara’s husband, remain in Gaza.

Ditza Hayman, 84, who is a retired social worker, was the eldest hostage to be released. Her family raised concerns after she was taken as she requires anticoagulant medication.

A Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said 30 Palestinians had also been released from Israeli prisoners on Tuesday evening in response, half of which were women and the other half were children.

The Israel Defence Forces believe Hamas has access to 80 more hostages while Palestinian Islamic Jihad has between 30-40, a source close to negotiations told The Independent.

But that leaves around 100 civilian and military hostages of an estimated 240 kidnapped on 7 October unaccounted for, according to the diplomatic source.

So far, 61 Israelis and 20 foreigners have been released by Hamas since the ceasefire began. Up to 180 Palestinians have been freed by Israel.

Qatari officials said the success of the two-day extension to the initial truce would be vital in locating missing Israeli hostages.

“Some of them are not even with the other armed factions, they are with lay people,” Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Dr Majed Al-Ansari told The Independent.

“There is an issue with information right now. Obviously, under constant bombardment, you can’t collect intelligence, you can’t collect information on the ground.

“We want to use this ceasefire to get information about where they are and if any have been killed in the process.”

The Qatari foreign ministry said another 20 hostages are set to be released in the next 48 hours. Those comments were made prior to the release of 10 Israeli hostages on Tuesday evening.

Noam Sagi, whose mother Ada, 75, was part of Tuesday’s swap, said her release was “a moment we have dreamt of and worked for every minute of every day since October 7”.

But, he added: “It will be hard to believe it is true until we are able to embrace in person. Our first priority is my mum’s mental and physical health and we ask for time and space while we prioritise her wellbeing.

“Seeing my mum will be a moment of unparalleled relief and joy for us personally but comes against a backdrop of unparalleled grief and sorrow for our community.”

Others have warned Hamas might exploit the difficulty in locating captives by using the extra time to regroup for its assault against Israel.

Moty Cristal, a retired Israeli military official who has worked on previous hostage negotiations, said Hamas could ask for more time to do this.

Israelis pass by a wall in Jerusalem with photos of the approximately 240 hostages who were abducted by Hamas on 7 October (AP)
Israelis pass by a wall in Jerusalem with photos of the approximately 240 hostages who were abducted by Hamas on 7 October (AP)

“Operationally it will be challenging for Hamas to locate and collect the additional hostages. They could say they need an additional day of ceasefire to find the captives.

“This is what we call in crisis negotiations ‘the curse of the goodwill clause’. But Israel will know to what extent Hamas is playing for time,” Mr Cristal told The Independent.

Meanwhile, families of hostages have called for an open-ended extension to the ceasefire to allow for the release of all those held in Gaza.

Shahor Mor, 52, whose uncle Avraham Munder, 78, remains in Gaza, said he supported “short, middle and long term peace” during a press briefing in London, so long as it got the hostages out of the enclave. Avraham’s wife, Ruti, 78, and their daughter, Keren, 53, and her son Ohad, 9, were freed over the weekend.

But some were also distrustful. “I believe the idea that Hamas doesn’t have access to all the hostages is tactics,” said Ruby Chen, whose 19-year-old son Itay, an Israeli soldier, was taken to Gaza on 7 October.

“Hamas have been able to enforce a ceasefire, they do control the areas under their control, the ability to provide hostages is something they have done.”

Hamas hands over 12 hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Hamas hands over 12 hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday (Anadolu via Getty Images)

The family of a missing 10-month-old boy also called for his “immediate release” as they feared the truce extension’s cut-off would leave him trapped without proper care.

Ofri Bibas, who is the auntie of Kfir, said: “He can’t stay there anymore. He is a 10-month-old baby. We don’t know if he is getting formula. There isn’t much food.

“Every day there is a risk for their mental and physical condition. They must be released. They are children. They are not supposed to be hostages.”

Kfir was kidnapped along with his four-year-old brother Ariel and his parents Yarden, 34, and Shiri, 32, from Kibbutz Nir Oz after Hamas massacred up to 1,200 Israelis on 7 October.

Aylon Keshet, who is the cousin of Mr Bibas, added that the family was living through a “nightmare” and didn’t know “anything” about their condition.

Ofri Bibas called for her family’s ‘immediate release’ amid fears they are missing as the ceasefire is set to expire (Getty Images)
Ofri Bibas called for her family’s ‘immediate release’ amid fears they are missing as the ceasefire is set to expire (Getty Images)

He said: “These are real people with real lives. Please do not let them stay for another day. Do not let Hamas keep using them as bargaining chips.

“We really don’t know anything. We are in the dark here. We don’t know anything about their well-being or condition. This is a nightmare scenario for us. The uncertainty is really hard. We are worried sick about them.”