In a Poignant Moment, Israelis Welcome Some Hostages Home

Israelis waited all day Friday in nervous anticipation for a piece of good news and ray of light after seven weeks of collective mourning and trauma.

By the time the first group of 13 Israeli hostages finally crossed the borders from Gaza into Egypt, and then into Israel, the sun had set and dusk had turned into darkness.

The starry night sky was like a metaphor for a nation torn between celebrating the release of at least some of its hostages and trepidation for the future, over the war and the more than 200 others, including child hostages, grandparents and soldiers, still in captivity in Gaza.

“We will welcome them in silence, with bowed heads, mutely,” Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli political columnist, wrote in Friday’s Yediot Ahronot newspaper, summing up the national mood. “Their seven weeks in captivity are a wound that needs healing,” he added.

Among the Israelis released were three mothers with their four children, aged between 2 and 9 years, as well as six women in their 70s and 80s — the first group of a total of 50 who are meant to be released in the coming days in a deal that includes a pause in fighting, the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners, and increased fuel and aid deliveries for Gaza.

People gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art plaza Friday to watch a television broadcast of the return of Israeli hostages held in Gaza. Some, like Irit Palgi, center, wiped away tears.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

It was a poignant moment for many. In the Hamas-led assault of Oct. 7 in southern Israel, armed assailants surged across the border from Gaza and killed about 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians, according to Israeli officials — making it the deadliest day in Israel’s 75-year-history. The assailants also took about 240 more as captives into the Palestinian coastal enclave.

“It is permitted to feel joy and also to shed a tear. That’s human,” said Yoni Asher, 37, in a video recording soon after he was reunited with his wife, Doron Katz Asher, 34, and their daughters, Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2. Ms. Katz Asher and the girls were kidnapped while visiting Ms. Katz Asher’s mother in Nir Oz, a pastoral kibbutz, or communal village, near the Gaza border.

“But I am not celebrating and I won’t celebrate until the last of the hostages are returned,” Mr. Asher said, adding, “From today, the families of the hostages are my new family.”

Many Israelis stayed glued to television screens all afternoon and evening, catching first glimpses of those being released through the windows of the Red Cross ambulances transporting them across the border from Gaza into Egypt, then watching their first steps as they emerged from captivity into freedom. The Israeli authorities only confirmed their identities once they had been liberated.

Astonished, the nation watched as Hanna Katzir, 76, a grandmother of six from Kibbutz Nir Oz who usually uses a walker, was helped on unsteady feet out of an ambulance.

Islamic Jihad, an armed Palestinian group that participated in the Oct. 7 assault, had recently claimed that Ms. Katzir died in captivity, and said it would provide evidence but never did.

Even Ms. Katzir’s relatives were surprised to hear that she was alive when the Israeli authorities informed them late Thursday that she was on the list to be freed on Friday, according to a niece, Dalit Katzenellenbogen.

Echoing the mixed feelings of many, Ms. Katzenellenbogen said soon after her aunt’s release that she felt “happiness for Hanna’s return from captivity but also concern about her physical and mental health.”

Like many of the hostages, Ms. Katzir, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is returning to a very different life. Her husband, Rami Katzir, was killed in the attack on Nir Oz. Her son, Elad, 47, was also kidnapped and remains in Gaza. And like all the residents of the ravaged communities along the border, Ms. Katzir will have no home to go back to for the foreseeable future.

Twelve of the 13 Israeli hostages freed on Friday had been seized from Nir Oz. The 13th was one of five taken from Nirim, another kibbutz along the Gaza border.

Nir Oz was one of the worst hit communities. About a quarter of its roughly 400 residents were killed or abducted.

At a hotel in Eilat where many of the residents of Nir Oz are staying, after their evacuation from the border area, elation was tempered by a wider feeling of loss.

“There are kids here without parents, parents without kids, and grandparents with grandchildren but no parents,” said Larry Butler, 73, a Nir Oz resident who survived the attack.

Founded by the pioneers of socialist labor Zionism in 1955, seven years after the establishment of the state of Israel, the wheat and potato fields of Nir Oz stretch up to the security fence that Israel constructed around the Palestinian coastal enclave, and that was breached in about 30 locations on Oct. 7. Beyond the fence rise the apartment buildings, water towers and minarets of the Palestinian village of Abasan.

Elad Katzir was born in Nir Oz. A farmer in charge of irrigation systems and a member of the kibbutz’s fire crew and emergency team, he had long felt unprotected. After a deadly Israeli three-week offensive against Hamas in Gaza in response to Palestinian rocket fire, which ended in January of 2009 with a shaky cease-fire, he had a nagging feeling of something missed or incomplete.

Driving through the lush fields that month with this reporter, he would only stop the car behind clumps of trees or bushes as cover in case of sniper fire.

“I do not feel any victory,” Mr. Katzir said at the time. “I still do not feel safe.”

Ms. Katzenellenbogen, his cousin, who lives in Tel Aviv, said on Friday night that she remained concerned for Mr. Katzir and the other captives still in Gaza, and noted that Israeli soldiers were on the ground there.

“I hope the war will end soon,” she added, “for the Israelis and for the Palestinians who do not support Hamas.”

“We will have to learn how to keep living next to each other,” she said. “No one is going to disappear.”

Adam Sella contributed reporting from Eilat, Israel.

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