An Israeli hostage released by Hamas has described her ordeal after she was kidnapped by gunmen and taken into a tunnel system in Gaza during the Palestinian militant group’s deadly assault in Israel on October 7, saying “I went through hell.”
Yocheved Lifshitz, a frail 85-year-old grandmother who was one of two hostages released by Hamas on Monday, recounted the moment that militants snatched her from her home in the kibbutz of Nir Oz and drove her away on a motorbike towards Gaza, a “painful act” during which she said she was beaten and sustained bruises.
Lifshitz said she was forced to walk on wet ground and descended into an underground tunnel system she likened to a spiderweb, where she was greeted by “people who told us we believe in the Quran” and promised “not to harm” her and her fellow hostages.
Lifshitz’s daughter Sharone, who helped convey her mother’s comments to reporters outside a hospital in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, called it a “huge network” of tunnels.
Lifshitz said she was initially grouped together with 25 other people before her captors separated her into a smaller group with four other individuals from her kibbutz. She said they slept on mattresses on the floor of the tunnels, ate the same food as Hamas fighters and received regular treatment from doctors during her incarceration.
“They really took care of the sanitary side of things so that we didn’t get sick,” Lifshitz added.
Each of the five hostages in her group received their own doctor and there was a paramedic present who supervised medication, she said.
“They were very generous to us, very kind. They kept us clean,” Lifshitz said. “They took care of every detail. There are a lot of women and they know about feminine hygiene and they took care of everything there.”
Lifshitz also accused the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet intelligence service of not taking threats from Hamas “seriously” and said the costly Gaza border fence erected by Israel had done nothing to protect her community from Hamas’ attack.
“The lack of awareness by Shin Bet and the IDF hurt us a lot,” she stressed. “They warned us three weeks beforehand, they burned fields, they sent fire balloons and the IDF did not treat it seriously,” she continued.
Lifshitz explained how this culminated in the attack on Nir Oz in southern Israel on October 7.
“All of a sudden on a Saturday morning, everything was very quiet. There was a hard pounding on the settlement,” Lifshitz said. Not long after, “hordes” of Hamas fighters broke through the kibbutz’s “expensive” fences and kept coming in their “droves,” she said.
“It was very, very difficult and unpleasant,” a visibly upset Lifshitz added.
As she concluded her remarks, Sharone said her mother’s feeling was that “the story’s not over until everybody comes back.”
Hostage release an ‘amazing thing’
Hamas released Lifshitz and her neighbor and friend Nurit Cooper, 79, on Monday, and later they were reunited with family members who rushed to their bedside at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv.
Lifshitz’s grandson Daniel, who heard of her release while staying at a hotel in Eilats with other evacuees from Nir Oz, said Monday that news of the women’s release sent a jolt of joy through the hotel and hope that others may be freed soon.
“For this community to see these two old women was just an amazing thing,” said Daniel Lifshitz, who took a helicopter from the hotel to see his grandmother in the early hours of Tuesday.
More than a quarter of the Nir Oz community are dead or remain missing after the Hamas terror attack on October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people in barbaric raids, triggering Israeli reprisals that threaten to tip into regional conflict.
The release of the two women takes the total number of captives freed to four, but more than 200 hostages are believed to be trapped in Gaza, some within the labyrinth of Hamas tunnels dug beneath the coastal strip.
The remaining hostages include Lifshitz and Cooper’s husbands, Oded Lifshitz, 83, and Amiram Cooper, 85.
“My father is there and so many other people we know are waiting for good news about everyone,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going on with them. Not even know if they’re alive or what their situation is.”
Abducted from home
For decades, Lifshitz and Cooper lived within the close community of Nir Oz, once home to 400 people near the Gaza border. Being so close to the barrier fence, it was one of the first communities targeted by Hamas militants – and one of the worst hit.
Rows of houses now stand devoid of life, their windows broken, bedrooms torched, and residents’ possessions strewn all around. Video footage shows dried blood smeared on beds and floors, the walls pocked with bullet holes.
Lifshitz is one of the community’s founders and worked as a photographer and a teacher at the regional high school, according to a Nir Oz community statement.
Cooper was also a long-term resident and worked in early childhood education and at the local paint factory, the statement said.
On Tuesday, Eti Uziel, head nurse at Ichilov hospital, said both women appeared to be in “OK medical condition.”
“They will stay with us tonight and tomorrow,” Uziel said in a video released by the hospital shortly after the women’s arrival.
“Right now, for them and family members, it is a very, very emotional situation, and we are happy that they are here with us.”
The latest hostage release comes amid growing international pressure on the Israeli government to secure the release of hundreds of others still held captive in Gaza.
They include nationals from countries including Mexico, Brazil, the United States, Germany and Thailand as well as Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas in response to the deadly October 7 attacks, and is cutting off Gaza from water, fuel and food as it pounds key targets with airstrikes.
So far, more than 5,000 people have been killed in Gaza during the relentless Israeli campaign, according to Palestinian health authorities.
The sustained bombardment of the enclave despite the presence of so many Palestinian civilians has angered Arab nations and drawn condemnation with public protests worldwide.
US President Joe Biden on Monday called on Hamas to release its hostages before talks could start on a ceasefire.
For the families of those held, there’s no time to waste.
Daniel Lifshitz said seeing his grandmother had shown him that other hostages need to be freed as soon as possible.
“I’m telling you we have to be fast, seeing my grandmother like that,” he said.
“The clock is ticking and… bringing all those hostages back is so evident now – it’s the top mission now for everybody.”
This is a developing story and will be updated.