Israeli mobilise own resources in a bid to get loved ones captured by Hamas militants home
Israeli mobilise own resources in a bid to get loved ones captured by Hamas militants home AFP News

A businessman offered his contact list, a communications expert his publicity skills and an ex-diplomat negotiating tact: Israelis anguished and angered by the absence of information about the fate of hostages abducted by Hamas gunmen are marshalling their own resources to get their loved ones home.

Israel's military said Sunday it had confirmed that 126 people have been held captive since Hamas militants from the blockaded Gaza Strip attacked southern Israel on October 7. They gunned down civilians and dragged dozens of others, Israelis and foreigners, back to Gaza.

Among them were children, including nine-month-old Kfir and four-year-old Arial Bibes, snatched along with their mother Shiri. Their aunt, Yrat Zailer, said help must come quickly.

"These are innocent civilians. They have rights. Pressure should be placed on Turkey, Egypt for the Red Cross to visit them," Zailer said at a press conference.

"We must bring them back home alive. They were kidnapped alive, they must stay alive," she said, tears streaking down her cheeks.

Helping to support relatives of the missing, like Zailer, is a businessman at the heart of the group called "Hostages and Missing Families Forum".

"When I understood what happened last Saturday, I immediately thought that for once, I will be fighting this war not in uniform but with my address book," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Hamas militants killed more than 1,300 people in Israel, which has responded with heavy bombardments of Hamas targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where more than 2,300 people have been killed.

The militants have said, without providing evidence, that 22 captives were killed in Israeli air strikes. Israel's military has not given a number but said its forces, during raids into Gaza, have found the bodies of some captives.

The Islamist group has threatened to kill its hostages one by one if civilian targets are bombed without advance warning.

It has ruled out negotiating a prisoner swap with Israel while the military operation continues.

In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, family members of the missing individually pleaded through TV, radio and social media, and phoned around to every possible contact, in a bid for information about their relatives' whereabouts.

Israel has named a contact for the families, Gal Hirsch, but National Security Council chief, Tzachi Hanegbi, said: "We are not negotiating with an enemy that we have promised to eradicate from the surface of the earth."

For communications specialist and former politician Ronen Tzur, "this purely and simply means that the Israeli government has chosen a strategy of abandoning the captives and missing."

Tzur is among 100 volunteers in the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. Besides family members of the captives, others include former soldiers, social media professionals and doctors.

True to the spirit of a country known as the "start-up nation" for its tech innovation, the group marshalled in 24 hours a lawyer's office in central Tel Aviv, setting up eight divisions dealing with "diplomatic negotiations", "family reception", social media and fundraising.

At the heart of the operation is the anonymous businessman whose stream of phone calls for the day included everything from a chat with a "counsellor of the Vatican", to a pizza order for the volunteer team.

Former diplomats have also thrown in their decades of expertise in negotiations, something valuable in the delicate situation with time also pressing as Israel gears up for a ground offensive in Gaza.

"We started this team of 20 former diplomats, but behind us, there are circles across the world," said Daniel Shek, a former Israel diplomat who served as ambassador to France.

"We are there to offer our experience, our ideas, our contacts to the service of this great project... aimed at supporting the families," he said, adding however that the parallel channel will not replace the government's work.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum is in contact with established aid organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, which it has asked to negotiate humanitarian access to the hostages.

At least 20 former diplomats are working as volunteers to help families of abductees
At least 20 former diplomats are working as volunteers to help families of abductees AFP News