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Freed Israeli hostage: Hamas kidnapping was 'hell'

Israeli Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, described her kidnapping by Hamas in a remarkable press conference in Tel Aviv held the day after she was released.
Erik Marmor
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, described her kidnapping by Hamas in a remarkable press conference in Tel Aviv held the day after she was released.

Updated October 24, 2023 at 7:35 PM ET

Follow the latest updates on the Israel-Hamas conflict via NPR's digital live coverage.

JERUSALEM — In a remarkable press conference the day after she was released by Hamas, freed Israeli hostage Yocheved Lifshitz described her kidnapping by militants on Oct. 7 as "hell."

Speaking from a wheelchair at the hospital in Tel Aviv, where she is being treated, Lifshitz, 85, recounted her harrowing experience: tied up, thrown over a motorcycle, beaten with a wooden pole, her jewelry stolen as her captors drove her away from Nir Oz, the tiny kibbutz where she lived less than two miles from Israel's border with Gaza.

"I constantly have the images of what happened repeating in my mind," Lifshitz said.

Lifshitz and Nurit Cooper, 79, were released Monday after an agreement brokered by Egypt and Qatar. There was no indication of why the two women were chosen for release or what, if anything, Hamas received in return.

Nor was there word on the hostages that remain, including the two women's husbands. Israeli officials say there are still 220 hostages from the deadly assault by Hamas on Israeli communities around Gaza.

Eventually, Lifshitz said, her captors escorted her through a "spiderweb" of underground tunnels to a large hall where she was kept for more than two weeks. Hamas provided food, medicine and a doctor to examine the hostages regularly, she said.

"They schooled us with this terrible attack," she said, lamenting the fact that Hamas took Israeli security forces by surprise.

A video released Monday by Hamas showed the two women being greeted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which transported them across Gaza's Rafah border with Egypt. In the video, Lifshitz can be seen reaching back out to shake the hand of a Hamas fighter as she says "shalom," the Hebrew word for "peace" that is used as a greeting and farewell.

On Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces dropped leaflets on Gaza urging Palestinians to contact them with information about the hostages, and promising a financial reward along with "maximum effort in providing security for you and your home."

World leaders and humanitarian groups have called on Hamas to release the remaining hostages unconditionally. The U.S. has reportedly advised Israel to delay its much-expected ground invasion of Gaza in order to facilitate the release of the remaining hostages.

Israeli military officials say they have not paused their preparations and have emphasized their commitment to eliminating Hamas' military capabilities.

"We want to bring Hamas to the point of full dismantlement," Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said in remarks Monday. "There are tactical, operative, strategic considerations that have provided additional time. And troops who have more time are better prepared, and that is what we are doing now."

People injured in nearby Israeli strikes rest at a school housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday.
Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People injured in nearby Israeli strikes rest at a school housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday.

1 million in Gaza flee to the south

In Gaza, more than 1 million Palestinians heeded Israel's warning to evacuate the northern half of the territory and packed by the dozens into homes, schools and hotels — anywhere with walls and a roof — in the south.

But Israel has stepped up the pace of its attacks on the territory, including in the south's densely populated areas in Rafah and Khan Younis. More than 5,700 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed in the conflict, Palestinian officials say.

"We live just to live our lives and our dreams, and they killed our neighbors. They're targeting our neighborhood. It's a massacre," said Mahmoud Khuwaiter, 30, who is stranded in Gaza.

Despite the evacuation notices, Khuwaiter has not yet left Gaza City because it is too difficult to move his 30-some family members, especially his elderly parents, who are in poor health, he told NPR in a voice memo.

Instead, he has stayed to see buildings in the area damaged and destroyed, including the apartment where he had been living for only one month as a newlywed with his new wife. The family's food supply has dwindled to some rice and some canned food — not enough to last through tomorrow, he said.

"I'm afraid for my family members to die in front of my eye. I'm afraid for the next day. I'm afraid for the night to come," he said. "All Gazan people think that we are dreaming and we need someone to wake us up, because it's unbelievable."

Fifty-seven truckloads of aid — mostly food, water and medical supplies — have entered Gaza over the past three days, a "drop in the ocean," according to the U.N. refugee agency.

UNRWA, the United Nations' humanitarian agency in Gaza, reports that it has fewer than 48 hours worth of fuel, and without more soon, it would be unable to distribute aid throughout the territory. Fuel is also needed for generators at bakeries, hospitals and water infrastructure, as Israel put Gaza under a near-total electricity blackout.

Relations between the U.N. and Israel are now strained, however, after comments by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

Guterres said during the U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday that the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 "did not happen in a vacuum."

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Israel's ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan canceled a meeting with Guterres and said their country must "reassess" its relations with the U.N. and its officials stationed in the region.

"He doesn't really care for the suffering of the Israeli civilians," Erdan said. "The U.N. is failing and you, Mr. Secretary-General, have lost all morality and impartiality."

World leaders continue to step in to crisis

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on October 24, 2023 in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Christophe Ena / POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on October 24, 2023 in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron was in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before traveling to Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Many leaders from the West continue to take strong pro-Israeli stances.

During the U.N. Security Council meeting, United Kingdom Security Minister Tom Tugendhat expressed steadfast support for Israel's right to self-defense and committed $37 million in aid for Gaza civilians.

Russia's Ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya and China's Ambassador Zhang Jun called for a two-state solution.

Nebenzya also accused the U.S. of sabotaging potential solutions to the conflict with years of "destructive positions" in its relationship with Israel.

Qatar, which has taken a lead in mediating negotiations between Israel, Hamas, the U.S. and other countries around the region, called Tuesday for an end to the war without embroiling others in the region into the conflict.

"We say to Israel: Enough is enough. It is not permissible to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege and settlement," Qatar's emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani wrote on the social media site X.

"We refuse to attack civilians from any party, regardless of their nationality, and we refuse to act as if the lives of Palestinian children do not count, as if they have no faces or names," he said.

Cohen, the Israeli foreign minister, had his own strong words for Qatar's leaders on Tuesday and accused Qatar of directly funding Hamas for more than a decade.

"They give shelter to their leaders," Cohen said. "The minimum they should do is work to release all the hostages."

Liz Baker and Alon Avital contributed reporting in Tel Aviv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 23, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
NPR has updated this story to reflect a more accurate translation of Yocheved Lifshitz's statement describing her time in captivity as "hell," rather than a "nightmare" as previously published.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.