Israel and Hamas have reached a deal to exchange 50 Israeli hostages held in Gaza for a four-day pause in fighting and the return of Palestinian prisoners. Orna Dotan, leading a team of therapists tasked with aiding these hostages and their families, takes us inside a uniquely charged personal and political situation.
TEL AVIV — Israel and Hamas have reached a deal to exchange 50 of the hostages held in Gaza for a four-day pause in fighting and the return of 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The families of the hostages, who have lived through the past seven fraught weeks, are now being thrown into a new experience as they await the possible release of their loved ones.
They are living in a "state of psychological terror," one relative of a hostage said Thursday morning on Israeli radio after learning that there was a delay in the agreement between Israel and Hamas.
Volunteers have urged the media to handle the situation with respect and sensitivity as the next few hours are expected to be "exceedingly stressful" for these families. After six weeks without news of their children, husbands, wives, grandchildren, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents, these hours are the final barrier to embracing their loved ones.
Thomas Hand is among the hopeful and anxious. His eight-year-old daughter, Emily, is due to be one of the soon-to-be liberated children. However, as is true for every family and every hostage, Hamas has not provided any evidence that the little girl is alive and well. "Until I see Emily's blue eyes looking into my own, I won't allow myself to believe anything," Hand said.
Team of therapists
Given how delicate and traumatising such a situation is, the "resilience team" of the Committee for Hostages and Missing Families Forum in Israel has been tasked with caring for the psychological well-being of both the hostages and their families.
"It's a challenge for everyone," says Orna Dotan, the coordinator of a team of around one hundred volunteer therapists who have been living alongside the hostages' families for a month and a half.
"Yes, the next few hours will be filled with anxiety and will be very emotionally stressful, but they have all been living in this uncertainty for six weeks!"
Being together and facing the situation collectively makes us stronger.
"We find ourselves in unprecedented circumstances," Dotan says. "Being together and facing the situation collectively makes us stronger. That is the purpose of the resilience team."
Since October 7, the Israeli families have not had any contact with their relatives who were taken hostage.
'"They don't know how the hostages are," Dotan adds. "Whether they are healthy. Whether they are ill, or, god forbid, are no longer alive. Nor have they had the chance to help their captured relatives: they had no way of sending them those small everyday items that may seem insignificant but make a huge difference. Glasses, hearing aids, shoes."
November 9, London: Pro-Israel protesters gathered outside the offices of British Red Cross calling on the organisation to visit Israeli hostages.
Steps to reintegration
"The social aspect is just as important as the medical aspect," explains the therapist, emphasizing the need for a holistic approach which caters not only for the released hostages but also for their families and for those whose relatives are still in captivity. Throughout every phase of this ordeal, happiness and pain coexist, as the joy for those freed from captivity does not diminish the anguish felt by the families of those who remain hostage in Gaza.
When reintegrating into reality after weeks of total disconnection, the freed hostages will likely encounter new traumas, such as discovering that they have lost their homes or even that some of their loved ones have died.
Patience is also essential, especially when discussing their time in captivity.
Families require guidance in handling the return of their loved ones and should be ready to welcome individuals who may be in a post-traumatic state. These individuals might experience nightmares or panic attacks, needing time before they can communicate or share their experiences. The resilience team advises families to be patient both in the short and long term, providing information gradually to their loved ones.
From a forensic perspective, collecting evidence and memories promptly is of upmost importance. However, Dotan emphasizes the importance of considering whether it's "the right time for the patient". Dealing with this sensitive phase of the conflict between Israel and Hamas with delicacy and understanding is crucial for everyone involved.