A family has 1 goal: to get back their son who vanished when Hamas attacked Israel
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Of the many hostages Hamas is holding in Gaza, one in particular is on the mind of someone I know in the United States. She told me about it before I left home to come to Israel.
EDNA FRIEDBERG: So my name is Edna Friedberg. I am your neighbor from across the street. I am a Midwestern American Jew.
INSKEEP: She grew up in Indiana and now lives in Washington, D.C.
FRIEDBERG: And just having a hard time right now.
INSKEEP: Edna Friedberg has many friends and relatives who live in Israel, and that extended group includes the family of an 18-year-old, Ofir Engel. His family told her that Hamas took Ofir hostage this month.
FRIEDBERG: I hurt for them, and so I can't stop talking about it.
INSKEEP: She even talked about it at her son's soccer game.
FRIEDBERG: I heard some dads from the opposing team next to me a few feet away with their dogs talking about Israel and Gaza, and one of them was saying, you know, well, what do you expect? Israel has been, you know, blockading Gaza for 15 years. I'm thinking in my head, buddy, it's actually 16, you know? Like, know your facts - just justifying what had happened. And I lost it. I went over, and I started screaming at him really loud. I was not at my best self. I didn't like feeling that way. I didn't want to be eaten by anger.
INSKEEP: And then she thought of the hostage, Ofir.
FRIEDBERG: I pulled up one of the photos that his uncle had sent me, and I went over to the dad, who had been the most vitriolic, and I said, I'm really sorry for cursing at you. May I show you something? I want to show you a picture of this boy. We both have high school students out here on the soccer field, and tomorrow's his birthday, and his family doesn't know where he is. And I just would like you to look at him. And the guy told me, actually, that his family is Lebanese. And he started to cry, and I started to cry. And we actually hugged each other.
INSKEEP: A few days after Edna told me this story, I arrived here in Israel, and some colleagues and I went driving to meet the family of Ofir Engel.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just over here...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All this is the kibbutz.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...All of this green over here, this is the kibbutz.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All the land is kibbutz.
INSKEEP: This orchard here - these trees.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, kibbutz.
INSKEEP: Kibbutz is the name for an old-style collective farm. Today, this prosperous kibbutz feels more like a gated community surrounded by orchards.
We're at a gate here. We call to get through the gate.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. I'm just going to call Yael and see.
INSKEEP: Yael, who got us in, is Ofir's aunt - a woman with curly blond hair who has made herself a point of contact for the international media who want to cover this young man's story.
YAEL ENGEL LICHI: I'm the minister of foreign affairs here.
ENGEL LICHI: My father is the minister of Dutch affairs because he speaks Dutch, and...
INSKEEP: The family has also reached out to the government of the Netherlands because Ofir, like many hostages, has dual citizenship.
(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE MAKER)
INSKEEP: One of Ofir's relatives made coffee as we walked through the house and emerged on the rear deck. We were on a high ridge overlooking Jerusalem on nearby hills.
ENGEL LICHI: But you can see all Jerusalem from here.
INSKEEP: This is a beautiful view.
ENGEL LICHI: It is.
INSKEEP: Five interrelated families live in this community, and as we talked, adults came and went while children ran around the house.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SCRAPING)
INSKEEP: One of the adults spooned pomegranate seeds into little bowls for us as we sat at the table with the parents of Ofir. They are Yoav and Sharon Engel. Their son is an avid basketball player with a girlfriend he'd met in summer camp.
What did you think of his girlfriend?
SHARON ENGEL: I like her very much.
INSKEEP: Ofir's mom didn't say much in our conversation - though the anxiety was visible on her face. Ofir's girlfriend lived in another kibbutz, one called Be'eri, which is just outside of Gaza. Ofir was visiting her on the morning of October 7, and at 6:30 in the morning, Ofir called home to report the attack.
YOAV ENGEL: And we are going to the bomb shelter. We asked him to - you know, to write something every 10 minutes - you know? - that everything is OK.
INSKEEP: Every 10 minutes, hour after hour, the messages came, but they grew more urgent. Ofir and his girlfriend's family reported houses burning. They heard explosions.
Y ENGEL: In the last message, Yuval, his girlfriend write me, we are afraid. We hear Arabic people in our house.
INSKEEP: The messages stopped. Ofir's parents did not learn the rest of the story until later that evening.
Y ENGEL: The Arabs - Hamas people come in the house. They open the bomb shelter. They shoot the dog, and they take all the family out.
INSKEEP: The gunmen separated the women from the men and left the women on the grass to tell the story. Yoav Engel says he has only one goal for the more than 220 hostages.
Y ENGEL: I don't want to say nothing about how to do it and what price that we need to pay for them. Bring them home now.
S ENGEL: Yes.
Y ENGEL: That's all. And if not, we don't have country.
INSKEEP: I think you're saying if Israel cannot protect my family, what's the point of Israel? Is that what you're saying?
Y ENGEL: Yes.
S ENGEL: Yes.
Y ENGEL: Yes.
INSKEEP: Ofir's ancestors narrowly escaped the Holocaust. His great-grandparents left Poland in 1938. A few years after that, his grandmother, Yonit Harari-Engel, was born in what became the state of Israel. She says she felt she was living in peace with her Arab neighbors but feels that some look on her as a foreigner who should go back to Poland, where her parents came from.
YONIT HARARI-ENGEL: I think that they want only one thing. They want our land. They don't want to see us here.
INSKEEP: I want to understand. You're saying you think that what Palestinians want, or what Hamas wants, is for those who emigrated from elsewhere to go back wherever they...
HARARI-ENGEL: Yes. They say...
INSKEEP: ...Came from.
HARARI-ENGEL: ...It all the years. It's not something new. They say it all the time. This land, it's our land.
INSKEEP: What do you think about when they say it - exactly the opposite? They say Israel wants our land. They say the opposite of what you say. What do you think about when you hear that?
HARARI-ENGEL: I don't think nothing now because I born from this situation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: She said she was born here in Israel. Ofir Engel's relatives accuse elected officials of showing little interest in their case, by the way. Hours after our interview, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did meet some families of hostages, but Engel's family declined to attend. His aunt explained to us it is important for us to save our energies for the most important things. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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