Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met families of captives freed from Gaza in an encounter described as tense by the Israeli media.
Tuesday’s meeting came amid intensified fighting in the besieged Gaza Strip following the end of a seven-day pause in hostilities that enabled the return of more than 100 captives, who had been taken by the Palestinian armed group Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel, in exchange for some 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Israel said on Tuesday that some 138 captives remained in the territory.
Several of the relatives who attended the meeting left bitterly critical of the government.
Dani Miran, whose son Omri was among those taken captive, said he was so disgusted he had walked out in the middle of the meeting.
“I won’t go into the details of what was discussed but this entire performance was ugly, insulting, messy,” he told Israel’s Channel 13, saying the government had made a “farce” out of the issue.
“They say, ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done that’. [Hamas’ Gaza leader Yahya] Sinwar is the one who returned our people, not them. It angers me that they say that they dictated things. They hadn’t dictated a single move.”
Israel says several women and children remain in Hamas’s hands, while families with adult male relatives in captivity have been calling for them not to be forgotten.
“It was a very turbulent meeting, many people yelling,” said Jennifer Master, whose partner Andrey is still being held by Hamas.
“We are all trying to make sure our loved ones get home. There are those who want the women who are left or the children who are left, and those who say we want the men,” Master told Israel’s Channel 12.
Family members called for immediate action to secure the release of the remaining captives.
“I asked Netanyahu if the primary objective of the war was to bring back the hostages,” Meirav Leshem Gonen, mother of 23-year-old hostage Romi Gonen, told Israeli television after the meeting.
“He answered me directly: ‘Yes’,” she said. “I am happy with his answer, but only reality counts.”
Leshem Gonen said she was concerned that captives were being “severely mistreated — women, young girls, and men too”.
Speaking at a news conference afterwards, Netanyahu said he had heard stories that “broke my heart” and included thirst and hunger, as well as physical and mental abuse.
“I heard and you also heard, about sexual assault and cases of brutal rape unlike anything,” he added.
Israel has said it is investigating several cases of alleged sexual assault and rape committed by Hamas fighters during their October 7 attack, in which 1,200 people were killed.
Witnesses and medical experts have said some fighters committed rape and other attacks before killing the victims, although the extent of the sexual violence remains unknown. Hamas has denied carrying out such assaults.
Israel began an intense bombardment of Gaza in the wake of Hamas’s attack, saying it wanted to destroy the group and free the captives. The attacks have killed more than 16,200 people in Gaza, according to Hamas, which has controlled the territory since 2006.
Some families, meanwhile, appeared to be losing patience with Netanyahu’s government.
“We have faith in our children, that they are strong and they will overcome this, and we want our government and the military to do what they do as fast as they can — as fast as possible — to start the negotiations,” said Idit Ohel, the mother of 21-year-old hostage Alon, during an online panel organised by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.
“Sixty days is too much,” she said, her voice rising. “I don’t want 61 days, I don’t want 65 days. I want them back now.”
Israel withdrew its negotiators from Qatar on December 2, blaming an “impasse” after failing to make progress in talks aimed at securing a renewed pause in hostilities.
Afterwards, Hamas said it would not release any more captives until the war in Gaza was ended.