Yakov Argamani has the pale face and broken soul of a man whose child is in extreme danger. He shuffles around his immaculate house in southern Israel, a book of psalms in his right hand, the front door constantly banging open and shut with visitors, plates of freshly made food, more than he could ever possibly eat, piling up on the countertops.
“Noa was here, there, everywhere,” he said of his daughter, Noa, who was kidnapped. “Her smell is missing, her voice. All of a sudden it’s gone.”
“And I’m lost,” he said.
Hen Avigdori, a screenwriter, is missing his wife and daughter. He sits in a quiet apartment near Tel Aviv with his teenage son. They have a deal: Mr. Avigdori shares all the information he has — which isn’t much — and his son shares how he is feeling.
But Mr. Avigdori is struggling himself.
“I’m in this endless loop of hope and despair, hope and despair,” he said. “I need some proof of life. I need to know where my wife and daughter are. It’s driving me crazy.”
Ilan Regev Gerby, a door salesman with a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard, is haunted by the last conversation he had with his daughter, Maya, which he recorded on his phone. She was at the rave party on Oct. 7 where gunmen from the Hamas militant group massacred hundreds of young people and kidnapped many others. She called as the gunmen closed in.
“Dad, they saw me, dad, they saw me, dad, they saw meeeee.”
Then the line cuts.
These are the families experiencing the unbearable anguish of being in the middle of the world’s most complicated hostage crisis in recent memory. Babies, grandmothers and wounded Israeli soldiers. Americans, Filipinos, French and Mexicans. Scores of people have been abducted from that rave party and from a ring of small towns and kibbutzim that heavily armed Hamas members besieged for hours before Israel’s security forces could respond.
On Monday, the number of publicly known hostages increased to almost 200, up from the 150 that had been spoken of since the beginning of the conflict. An Israeli military spokesman said that the military had “updated” the families of 199 hostages, but he did not say what they discussed.
Experts say that Hamas has most likely locked them up in a warren of underground tunnels in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli Air Force bombards the territory and the army prepares to invade. It’s not clear to anyone how Israel is going to launch a full-scale invasion of Gaza without putting the hostages at greater risk.
What terrifies family members even more is that the men who decide whether their loved ones live or die are the same ones who demonstrated a level of brutality that shocked the world. They slaughtered more than a thousand unarmed civilians, they hunted down children, they butchered people with axes and knives. But the hostages are also perhaps the last leverage these men hold.
Hamas could use them as human shields. Or trade them for prisoners in Israeli jails or for direly needed humanitarian aid or for something else. The presence of such a large number of hostages is complicating Israel’s battle plans, and on Sunday senior diplomats said that an ad hoc group of officials from several countries, including Egypt and Qatar, two nations that could possibly act as middlemen, were holding frantic meetings about the captives.
Israeli officials say Hamas hasn’t stated what it wants, how to start negotiations, or even how many people it’s holding.
“I don’t know anything, and I believe nobody in the country knows specifically what they want except the smashing of the state of Israel,” said Ory Slonim, an experienced hostage negotiator who is helping advise the Israeli government.
Hamas had threatened last week to start executing the hostages if Israel bombed homes in Gaza but has since made no announcements about harming them.
For some captives, like Noa Argamani, there’s little doubt about what happened to them on Oct. 7. Footage of her being taken away on a motorcycle, screaming desperately to her boyfriend, who was marched off with his hands behind his back, has gone viral.
But for many others, like Mr. Avigdori’s wife and daughter, it’s a mystery. They were visiting relatives on a kibbutz near Gaza. Many people were killed around them. Their bodies haven’t been found. And eight other members of the extended family have vanished.
Mr. Avigdori said that government officials are still sorting through the grimmest of categories: missing, kidnapped or dead.
“Two army officers came to my house yesterday,” Mr. Avigdori said on Sunday. “We sat for an hour. They offered to help us with anything we need, like shopping. At the end, one said: ‘Time for updates.’”
“And you know what?” Mr. Avigdori continued with a look of incredulity spreading across his face. “The officer took out a notebook, flipped to a blank page, and said: ‘Tell me what you know.’ And I was like: Aren’t you supposed to tell me what you know?”
Feelings are becoming raw. At a recent meeting for hostage families, held in an underground parking garage because Tel Aviv continues to be rocketed, an Israeli government representative tried to calm down an angry crowd.
“This will take time,” said Gal Hirsch, a retired general who has been appointed the official coordinator for the captives and missing. He soon dashed out, telling the families, “You have our phone number.”
Shouts then erupted, like: “The government is blowing up its own citizens!”
The frustrations about the hostages are adding to the criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been surging this year. Every day, protesters gather across the street from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv to wave flags and belt out chants like “Bring them home!”
All Mr. Argamani thinks about is his daughter walking through the door. His nightmare began last Saturday while he was standing in the emergency room of a hospital in southern Israel, not far from Gaza, in a growing crowd of other dads who had rushed down there, many armed with pistols, desperately looking for their children.
After someone shared with him the video clip of Noa, 26, and her boyfriend being abducted, “I fell apart,” he said.
Since then it’s gotten worse.
Noa was the center of the family. She was an only child. She was in college, studying electrical engineering, but still found time to take care of her mom, who is suffering from cancer and can barely walk.
“Day after day, it’s harder to stomach,” her father said. “You open the door, you don’t know why. You wash your face, but for what purpose. What? What’s next?”
“And she’s a beautiful young woman,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about what they might do to her.”
Like many hostage relatives — but not all — he doesn’t want Israeli troops to invade Gaza, and it’s not only because Noa is trapped there.
“They go in, and they kill and kill and kill,” Mr. Argamani said. “And then what? What’s next? Just more bleeding?”
His house is always busy. Noa was a nucleus, she was the one “who always had the action around her,” said Ofir Tamir, a friend.
“She had a thousand friends,” he said. “No,” Mr. Tamir corrected himself, because no one seems to know the right tense to use when describing a hostage. “She has a lot of friends.”
The effort to free the hostages is sprawling across many governments, private organizations, offices and living rooms. Noa’s friends, for example, are calling their contacts to find people who can help, including higher-ups at McDonald’s, where Noa used to work, and Israelis doing business in China. Noa’s mother was born in China, and China is seen as a neutral player that might be able to lean on Hamas.
American officials said they don’t know exactly how many Americans Hamas is holding. On Friday, President Biden held a Zoom call with 14 families. “It was so personal,” said Adi Leviatan, whose sister and niece were kidnapped from a kibbutz. “Biden was so heartwarming. It felt like there was somebody we could talk to.”
Mr. Regev Gerby seeks support from wherever he can get it. His daughter, Maya, 21, disappeared from the rave, and so did his son, Itay, 18. They had gone together. They are very close. In one Hamas video, Itay is shown, hands bound, in the back of a pickup truck, alive.
Mr. Regev Gerby has been making the rounds of Israeli television stations, sharing his agony. People now come up to him on the street and give him a hug.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “To get support from a stranger? It gives me goose bumps.”
On Saturday night, his neighborhood held a vigil for Maya, Itay and one of their friends who was also kidnapped. In the soft, warm air, surrounded by elegant apartment buildings and beautiful trees and bushes, the crowd of several hundred sang songs of hope.
A black sign had been placed in the roundabout that will stay up until this nightmare ends.
It reads: “We are waiting for you at home.”
Adam Sella contributed reporting.