Home World What 2 U.S. Families Did When Hamas Captured Their Sons

What 2 U.S. Families Did When Hamas Captured Their Sons

What 2 U.S. Families Did When Hamas Captured Their Sons


One hundred and three days after Omer Neutra was taken prisoner by Hamas, his parents, Ronen and Orna, found themselves in the basement of the United States Capitol, looking for an exit. Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News journalist, stood with them, eager for an interview. Beside Ms. Mitchell were two Senate staff members, with orders to deliver the Neutras to meetings with their bosses.

It would be the second media interview of the morning for the Neutras and for Yael and Adi Alexander, whose son Edan is also held captive by Hamas. The two families have worked together for months to build political pressure to free their sons, an effort that on this day would include meeting privately with Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from Iowa, and gathering with dozens of members of Congress for a candlelight vigil.

“I have walked more distance in these corridors than I have in my own house,” Ronen Neutra, 59, said of his experience the last four months. “I can’t believe this is our life.”

Hamas took more than 240 people captive when it attacked Israel on Oct. 7. About 100 hostages, most of them women and children, were released during a cease-fire in November, and at least 30 others are believed to have died in captivity, according to Israeli officials. That may leave around 100 alive, most of them men who are Israeli citizens.

Those who remain include a number of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, like Mr. Alexander and Mr. Neutra. The young men, dual American-Israeli citizens who both grew up a short train ride from Manhattan, were serving together on the same military outpost the morning of the attacks.

For the Neutras and the Alexanders, the capture and imprisonment of their sons has thrust their families into a new, public life. Almost every week, the families fly to Israel or to Washington. They spent two hours with President Biden in the White House, where he cried with them and gave them a tour of his private offices. Ronen Neutra flew to Qatar to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani; Ms. Alexander met with the sheikh privately in Washington.

The two families share one urgent goal: the immediate release of their sons. So they have upended their lives, enduring fatigue and forsaking privacy to keep their sons’ shared plight near the forefront of policymakers’ minds.

Their activism is choreographed in part by some of the world’s most skilled and influential lobbying groups and consultants. The families, new to politics but savvy to the politicization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understand they must avoid alienating any politician who may someday help bring their sons home, while constantly debating whether to be more aggressive.

As Israel’s war effort grows more unpopular in the United States — the war has killed more than 28,000 people in Gaza, according to health officials there — the families respond to growing criticism of Israel by not responding. They take no stand on Israel’s war tactics or a possible two-state solution. And they try to avoid criticizing Hamas, which their advisers warn might further endanger their sons.

“We get pressure mostly from the Israeli press,” Adi Alexander, 52, said. “They want us to be more political, to say which politicians need to resign. But that is not our place.”

Omer Neutra and Edan Alexander are two of six Americans held by Hamas.

Their families have received no information about their medical conditions, and no evidence that the young men are still alive. Their only insights come from the Israeli government, which has told the families it has no evidence that the soldiers are dead.

Mr. Neutra is 22, two years older than Mr. Alexander. Both are the sons of dual Israeli-American citizens. They met in the summer of 2023, as Israeli soldiers stationed near the Gaza border, on a military outpost the size of a suburban Walgreens back home.

As a boy on Long Island, Mr. Neutra’s lubberly horsing around concealed his seriousness, his parents said. He became captain of the volleyball and basketball teams at the Schechter School of Long Island, a private Jewish school, and president of the United Synagogue Youth group’s Metro New York chapter. He moved to Israel, joined the Israel Defense Forces, and opted to serve in a tank brigade, partly because he had heard it was among the army’s toughest jobs.

Mr. Alexander grew up in New Jersey, where his powerful backstroke made him a star on the Tenafly High School swim team. Boys liked his jokes; girls liked his suave smile and sensitive eyes. During his senior year in 2022 he joined Garin Tzabar, a program of the Israel Scouts that prepares young people from around the world to join the Israel Defense Forces. He was assigned to the infantry, arriving at the tiny base near Gaza in September.

When Hamas attacked, Mr. Neutra drove two miles to the border, where Hamas militants ambushed his tank with rocket-propelled grenades. More militants surrounded the outpost, where Mr. Alexander stood with his rifle, alone.

Both were taken prisoner.

Their parents used videos of the attack posted to the internet by Hamas militants, plus conversations with Israeli military officials and members of their sons’ units, to piece together how the men were captured.

Unlike civilian hostages, soldiers taken captive are considered prisoners of war, a class that is protected but also accepted under international law, including the Geneva Accords. (Israeli and Hamas leaders accuse each other of employing torture and other practices that violate those accords.)

To their parents, Mr. Alexander and Mr. Neutra are not so different from their civilian counterparts who were taken hostage.

“They were taken by force during a peaceful situation,” Ms. Neutra said. “Israel was at peace. They all need to come home.”

Four months after the attack, at her home in Tenafly, Yael Alexander picked up a pack of Marlboro Ultra Light 100s and a can of Diet Coke, walked into her garage and opened the garage door. She lit a cigarette and watched a cold rain slap the driveway.

“I was a smoker, in the army,” said Ms. Alexander, 44, who served in the Israel Defense Forces in her 20s. “I stopped, obviously, because of the kids. But now, I start smoking again. This is the only time I can actually breathe.”

Later that morning, she stood outside in the rainstorm and addressed a crowd of 500 supporters in downtown Tenafly.

“We miss your laugh, and your beautiful smile, so, so much, Edani,” she said, reading the words from her iPhone as her husband held an umbrella above her head.

Her message — free of politics, delivered as if she were speaking directly to her son — followed advice from consultants at SKDK, a well-connected public relations firm in Washington. SKDK is paid by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which was founded after the Hamas attacks and has raised millions of dollars in donations.

The American families realized within days of Oct. 7 that they needed advice from people who understood power in Washington, Mr. and Ms. Neutra said. Their aim was to use their stature as Americans to keep Congress and the White House focused on the hostages’ safe return.

The families interviewed three consulting firms for the job. They chose SKDK partly for its experience with previous hostage negotiations, and partly because the firm’s roster includes Kendra Barkoff Lamy, who served more than four years as press secretary to Mr. Biden when he was vice president.

“They take us by the hand, chauffeur us around,” Mr. Neutra said. “It’s very helpful. Without it, we’d be lost.”

Ms. Lamy and a spokesperson for SKDK declined to discuss the company’s role with the families.

The Neutras own a company that makes scientific equipment. Mr. Alexander works as a diamond dealer in Manhattan. Both families live comfortably, but neither could afford SKDK’s fees on their own.

In addition to their regular trips to Israel and Washington, the Neutras flew recently to Utah, where they met celebrities attending the Sundance Film Festival, they said. Whenever they need to travel, Mr. Neutra said, he texts volunteers at the forum, who plan each trip, book hotel rooms and pay for flights.

The organizational effort also includes the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group that is helping to schedule meetings with political leaders, and Gilbert LLP, a law firm that offers use of its offices, a few blocks from the Capitol, when the families visit Washington.

The goal is to “keep this issue as a top global humanitarian priority until every single hostage is brought home,” Ted Deutch, the committee’s chief executive, said in a written statement.

As a recent gray Friday turned blue with dusk, Orna Neutra opened the refrigerator in her home in Plainview on Long Island. She pulled out trays of couscous, chicken in wine and a chocolate cake.

The food had been prepared by friends, who organized themselves to cook most of the couple’s meals after the Neutras’ new lives left no time to buy groceries. In a few minutes, the Neutras would bring the food to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner.

Dusk on Friday is also when the Neutras used to enjoy video chats with Omer, who called from his army outpost in Israel. They played backgammon together. Omer always won.

“This is when we miss him the most,” Ms. Neutra, 54, said.

And so the parents wait, and fear, and prepare for a reunion they insist will come. To accommodate all the guests they plan to invite, both families bought new, larger dining room tables. The Neutras recently flew to Israel to rent an apartment. When Omer is released, they hope, he will have a place to go.

“We wanted to create the reality that he is coming home very soon,” Mr. Neutra said.


Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here