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Leaked audio recordings of a meeting between freed Israeli hostages and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have revealed considerable anger at the government’s conduct, as well as the enduring terror of captivity by Hamas in Gaza.
Audio of the meeting between the former hostages, relatives of some still being held, and Israel’s war cabinet on Tuesday was leaked, with parts of it published on Israeli news site ynet.
It comes amid building pressure on Netanyahu to secure the release of the remaining captives, and scrutiny of Israel’s intensifying military campaign in Gaza.
Ynet also reported that Netanyahu’s efforts to respond to the hostages and relatives were met with tense and angry remarks.
A female abductee freed with her children – but without her husband, who remains in captivity – is heard on one recording saying: “The feeling we had there was that no one was doing anything for us. The fact is that I was in a hiding place that was shelled and we had to be smuggled out and we were wounded. That’s besides the helicopter that shot at us on the way to Gaza.”
She adds: “You have no information. You have no information. The fact that we were shelled, the fact that no one knew anything about where we were… You claim that there is intelligence. But the fact is that we are being shelled. My husband was separated from us three days before we returned to Israel and taken to the [Hamas] tunnels” under Gaza.
Israel has launched intense air bombardments on Gaza since Hamas’ October 7 attacks on the country, which resulted in the capture of more than 240 people. The conflict has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and led to the deaths of more than 15,000 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah, which cites sources from the Hamas-controlled enclave.
The former abductee continues: “Do you think the men are strong? My husband would beat himself every day, punch his face until it bled because it was too much for him, and now he is alone, and God knows under what conditions.”
“And you want to topple the Hamas government, to show that you have bigger balls? There is no life here that is more important than others,” she adds. “None of us there deserve any less treatment than any resident of Israel. Return them all and not in a month, two months or a year.”
Referring to reports that the Israeli military is considering flooding Hamas tunnels in Gaza, she continues: “And you are talking about washing the tunnels with sea water? You are shelling the route of tunnels in the exact area where they are. The girls ask me where is their father? And I have to tell them that the bad guys don’t want to yet release him.”
The woman adds: “You put politics above the return of the kidnapped.”
‘We felt abandoned’
Netanyahu has been under intense pressure for weeks over the status of the Israelis still being held hostage by Hamas.
A deal with Hamas has since seen dozens of captives – mostly women and children – freed, but the government remains under pressure to secure the release of the remaining captives, and has faced questions over the time taken to strike a deal. The IDF said Friday that there are 136 hostages still being held in Gaza, including 17 women and children.
According to the ynet account of the meeting, one man related what family members had told him after being freed. “They were under constant threat from the IDF shelling. You sat in front of us and assured us that it does not threaten their lives. They also roam the street and [are] not only in the tunnels. They are mounted on donkeys and carts. You will not be able to recognize them on the street and you are endangering their lives. It is our duty to return them now.”
And according to ynet, a parent whose son was kidnapped told the meeting it was his son’s birthday, and asked, “What do you have to say to him? He saved people there. You abandoned him.”
Referring to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the war cabinet, the parent adds: “You are arguing, Gallant, at a press conference. Enough. Bring them home.”
Testimonies from released captives have shed some light on the conditions in which captives were held. Many referred to limited supplies and food; some said they were unaware of the fate of their loved ones during captivity, and a number of hostages required hospital care for days after their release.
One woman who had been a hostage said in the meeting that those remaining in captivity were living “on borrowed time. All day, they lie on a mattresses, most of them need glasses and hearing aids that were taken from them when they were kidnapped, they have difficulty seeing and hearing, which affects their functioning even more. While I was there, I helped them slowly get up off the mattresses and be a little active. I don’t know what they manage to do since I have left,” the woman said, according to the audio released.
“In addition to their physical condition, I feel that I left them in a very poor mental state. I and those who were released before me – I was young and active, I took care of them, I helped them to maintain optimism. They know they must survive, but they are on the verge of losing hope.”
In addition to scrutiny over the release of hostages, Netanyahu and his government have been criticized for failing to prevent Hamas’ October 7 attack.
The attack was widely seen as a major Israeli intelligence failure, with a number of top defense and security officials coming forward in October to take responsibility to some extent for missteps that led to the attacks.
The woman heard in the recording added during the meeting: “Throughout the time we were there we felt abandoned twice, once on Saturday (October 7), when you did not protect us. And a second time every day that passes that we are not released. We didn’t believe we would be there for so long.”
She issued an appeal to the war cabinet. “Every day that pass is a game of roulette in their lives, why don’t you release (Palestinian) prisoners? Release them all and bring them (hostages) back. They live on borrowed time. Their lives are in your hands, and I ask you, in the light of my testimony and what we hear from other released people and what we hear in the media, that there were all kinds of possibilities. If you can commit, each and every one of you, that you don’t give up on any opportunity, to bring everyone home and not postpone it by a day or an hour.”
Comments at the meeting by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu were not released but were reported by ynet. CNN cannot verify they are accurate.
Netanyahu is reported to have told the hostages: “I came together with my friends to hear you. There is still darkness to get rid of. And we need to bring them all back. I heard the anxiety, the humiliation, the suffering, the torture, the rape. This thing that shakes the whole world and it is important to continue to tell. It is important that we listen. You are right: there is a huge enterprise that collects evidence, trying to reach each and every one. How to bring everyone in.”
At that point, there was heckling, with some people saying “Shame.”
Netanyahu’s reported response
Referring to a dog tag with the name of a hostage that he had been given, Netanyahu said: “The dog tag you gave me is by my bed, it’s in my heart.”
But the father retorted: “You don’t put it on your neck because you’re ashamed,” to which Netanyahu responded: “Absolutely, absolutely not.”
Netanyahu continued: “The first thing you asked is whether we have the possibility to bring them home all at once. It is important to know, and my friends can reinforce that, that this thing didn’t exist. Until we started the ground maneuvers there was nothing. Nothing, nada, zero. Just talk.
“Only when we started the ground maneuvers, only then was the pressure created that began to exert its signals on Hamas and this created the possibility of releasing hostages. With God’s help, we were able to increase the list and with the help of [US] President [Joe] Biden, who we asked him to help him with the matter.”
When Netanyahu said Hamas was to blame for the end of the truce, an individual identified by ynet as a family member of a released hostage replied: “Nonsense.”
Netanyahu responded: “No bullsh*t. What I’m saying here are clear facts. I respect you too much. I heard your heartbreak. We couldn’t release everyone at once. The price they want is not prisoners. The price they want is not only the prisoners.”
The Prime Minister went on: “It is shocking to hear about what you went through in the face of our shelling and our activity, of the IDF, and it still continues.”
“I can tell you that it penetrates not only the heart, it affects, as you will surely hear from my friends, also the considerations of our actions and if you wanted to bring this message - you brought it.”
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the leaked recordings.
CNN’s Rob Picheta contributed reporing
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