Family in tears as first proof of hostage alive released by Hamas in seven months

Rachel Goldberg-Polin was at home when she got a call from her husband Jon last week. He had just been told by the FBI and Israeli intelligence that Hamas was about to publish a video of their son Hersh, from captivity in Gaza.

It was the first proof he was alive since he was taken hostage at the Nova music festival on 7 October.

She said: "I'm running home so that we could be together. I was quickly calling the grandparents, my daughters and our team, the people who surround us every day and help us to warn them, because we didn't know what was going to be in the video. So we were scared.

"We watched it together with everybody else and truthfully, the first time we saw it, we were just crying and not really listening, just hearing his voice, not listening to the content."

In the video, Hersh is sat against a plain white wall, wearing a red and blue t-shirt.

The handsome 23-year-old, whose smiling photo is on most street corners in West Jerusalem alongside the phrase "Free Hersh" is now pale, with bags under his eyes and cropped hair.

His left hand is missing, blown off by a grenade as Hamas stormed into Israel that October morning. The toll of seven months as a Hamas hostage is obvious.

"There wasn't anger. It was relief, and heartbreak that he looked obviously medically compromised and fragile, seeing his arm for the first time since seeing his arm blown off from the original abduction video was something.

"As a parent, you would never want to see that."

Rachel has only watched the full video properly three times but has viewed it on mute to see her son moving and listened to the audio close to her ear just so that she could hear his voice.

"I'll take it as a mother when he says that the most important thing is family and he talks to us saying: 'I love you and I hope you know that. I'll see you soon'. And again, that was probably all scripted, but I'll take it.

"When you're starving and someone gives you a dry piece of bread, you'll take it, and I was glad to take it."

Rachel's father, Hersh's grandfather, broke down in floods of tears when he heard about the video. He had been privately convinced his grandson was dead but had stayed strong for his daughter's sake.

A potential ceasefire?

Negotiations for a new ceasefire are ongoing.

Hamas is studying a new proposal from Israel that reportedly demands the release of 20 hostages in an initial phase in return for a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces and the freedom for Gazans in the south to return home to the north.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday described it as a "generous" offer and Hamas is expected to deliver its answer in the coming days.

Get the latest updates on the Israel-Hamas war

For the families of the 133 hostages still in Gaza, it has been traumatic to have hopes raised so many times, only for a possible deal to fall apart.

'Don't count your hostages until they're home'

For seven months Rachel has not worn make-up or jewellery, listened to music or watched the news.

The only accessory on her clothing is a ripped piece of tape with the number 207 written on: the number of days her son has been hostage.

With her husband, she has travelled to Washington and Davos to address world leaders and campaigned to keep the story of every hostage alive.

Like every hostage family member I have met over the past seven months, their focus is not just on bringing their loved one home, but every single hostage home.

"You know honestly, we've learned the expression 'don't count your chickens before they hatch' and so we say, 'don't count your hostages until they're home'.

"I just think we have to protect ourselves emotionally and psychologically, so we're certainly optimistic and hopeful and always praying for a positive outcome, but I'm very cautious.

"I think all of the families are very careful not to be counting on something before we really have a reason to count on it."

Read more:
Hamas releases video of hostages
Aid charity to resume operations following killing of aid workers

'Not just' about the hostages

Rachel's message to leaders, as the negotiations again enter a difficult and crucial phase, is to compromise for the sake of everyone, Israelis, Palestinians and other nationalities caught up:

"It's not just about the 133 hostages who represent 25 different countries who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, and who range in age from 15 months old to 85, 86 years old. This is not just about the 133 hostages.

"This is about hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who are suffering in this region, in Gaza.

"And there can be an end to it. I think that it will require tremendous courage and compromise. Compromise is always difficult. Prices are always steep. It's always painful. That's the point of compromise, is that you're willing to give up on something you hold dear for something that's even more precious, but you pay for it.

"And I would say to the people who are in those rooms to make the bold choice to do the thing that will give your people relief, your own people relief."