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Interfaith gathering urges peace as Hamas hostage families relate crushing fears

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Jun 4, 2024

An interfaith conference held in New York City on Monday urged world leaders to remember the hostages still in Hamas custody and to seek a deal that will ultimately see them returned to their families. 

“I hope that our event yesterday can motivate other religious leaders around the country and around the world to see and speak to our shared humanity… and see and speak to the opportunity that we have as religious leaders to speak up for what we have in common and to be partner who brings people together and for healing to begin,” Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of the Midway Jewish Center told Fox News Digital. 

“We’ve seen in this country an unfortunate rise in antisemitism,” Levenson said. “I know from speaking with folks in our community that there’s a fear of Islamophobia, but we can speak to what we share in common and hear each other’s stories and let healing begin by honoring those stories.” 

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum of New York on Monday presented six family members of people still held hostage by Hamas terrorists after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, including one woman who herself had returned from their captivity. The United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation of New York hosted the event in its headquarters. 

FAMILIES OF HOSTAGES TAKEN IN ISRAEL ON OCT. 7 PLEAD FOR PEACE AT INTERFAITH CONFERENCE IN NYC

The families shared their experiences with the media and those gathered: Fear over what state their loved ones are in while Hamas continues to hold them; hope that they can bring the remaining hostages home safely; and concern that the hostages have fallen out of favor with media coverage and taken a back seat to anti-Israel sentiments. 

“To this day, we hope that they’re still alive,” Orna Neutra, mother of American hostage Omer Neutra, said. “We have not received any sign of life about Omer since he was taken, and, of course, it’s a grave concern, and the news is very disheartening”

“Of course, you know, we too, are people that believe that communication is key,” she added. “We really, really hope you feel that the world has become dominated by the extreme, and we really need to hear more of the moderate voices on all sides… Moderation needs to speak up.”

Among the group was Aviva Siegel, herself a returning hostage whose American-born husband Keith remains held by Hamas. She described the often cruel conditions she experienced and that her husband is still experiencing, relating how the captors would not give them water and food when they had run out. 

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“They didn’t give us food while they ate in front of us,” she said. “We had to beg them for water. Beg. Even though we showed them an empty bottle that didn’t have any water inside.” 

“They didn’t even stay with us because it wasn’t easy to feel like you don’t have any oxygen,” she continued. “We were just lying on the floor and trying to breathe, and I knew and felt that one more day, I’m going to die.” 

“I remember thinking: What will happen if Keith, my husband, will die before me, and I have to watch him die? What happened on the 7th was beyond…” she said before going on to describe atrocities Hamas committed on the day of the attack, including that people were burnt alive, and how children watched the men murder their parents in front of them. 

“I asked myself what kind of world this is. And I want to ask everybody if that’s the world we deserve. We don’t,” she said. “Every one of us needs to do everything we can for everybody in the world, to have a life, to feel that they can drink water, to feel they can breathe, not to worry about simple things. Just to enjoy life.”

The family members included two Israeli Muslim men – Salem Alatrash, brother of hostage Muhammad Alatrash, and Sha’ban al-Sayed, father of hostage Hisham – who described great hurt among a small, tight community of people. Alatrash described the family that his brother has waiting for him, including the incredible suffering that led to a heart condition for their father after he could not “bear it for too long,” according to a translator. 

MORE THAN A THIRD OF REMAINING GAZA HOSTAGES ARE BELIEVED TO BE DEAD, ISRAEL SAYS

“I’m not just asking to get my brother back, who is a Muslim,” Alatrash said. “I want to get everyone back. We are all brothers and sisters, and… they should all come back.” 

Al-Sayed greeted all the faith leaders present, insisting that “this is what Islam is about” and that he must first know the men before he spoke to them. 

“I was born in Israel,” al-Sayed said through a translator. “My family was born in Israel. My extended family was born in Israel. All my brothers were born in Israel, and I’ve been living there all my life.” 

“When we talk about the Gaza-Israel conflict, there is an organization here where I was trying to divide and conquer, dividing the people,” he insisted. “The people of the Negev, the Bedouin of the Negev and the people… come from the same roots. We are brothers to one another. It’s the same people, and there is, someone who’s trying to separate those people from one another.”

“When we hear on the news people that are talking about Gaza and Israel… we don’t understand this because back there before Hamas was in control, and we were talking to one another, we were working with one another in trade and other business,” he said, claiming that “ever since Hamas came to power, it has changed.” 

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“We can live with one another,” al-Sayed argued. “We have done so before, and in this equation, there is an organization that is using its own people as leverage and is using us as leverage, and this is wrong. They are using their own people, and, unfortunately, some of them are losing their lives because of it.” 

In speaking with the faith leaders, Fox News Digital found a repeated desire that protesters on college campuses educate themselves on the conflict and Hamas: Sheikh Musa Drammeh urged the young people to think about what they’re protesting.

“We will never, ever discount the right to protest,” Drammeh, the founder of Daylight America, a community activist and interfaith leader, said. “We will never ignore the plight of the Palestinians. We will never say the deaths that are happening in Gaza should be normalized.”

“However, you can never, ever discount what Hamas did on Oct. 7, and you can never, ever rationalize it, and you can never, ever forget to know that Israel is the only Jewish nation in the world,” he continued, noting dozens of Muslim nations exist, some of which are “some of the wealthiest” in the world.

“For us now not to give Israel what Israel deserves, which is sovereignty, safety and security of its citizens – Israel is the only nation where 4- and 5-year-olds are taught, the first thing, how to run in seconds to a bomb shelter,” he added. “That should never happen.”

“That is why it is incumbent upon me and my wife and others to make sure that the Muslim world normalizes Israel, and the relationship between Israel and the Muslim world will continue to improve,” he promised.  

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