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Desperate families of Israeli-American hostages plead with White House to get creative for loved ones’ release

By MJ Lee, CNN

Washington (CNN) — For some of the family members of the Israeli-Americans that Hamas is believed to have taken hostage, evenings can feel especially excruciating.

Ruby Chen, whose 19-year-old reservist son Itay, has been missing since October 7, recently spoke with CNN just before midnight in Israel. “This is the most difficult part of the day,” Chen said, because that is when he finally lets himself pause long enough to wonder: “How productive have I been in moving the release of my son an inch?”

For Iris Haggai Liniado, whose parents are believed to have been kidnapped by Hamas two months ago while they were on their morning walk, every meal can serve as a painful reminder of how little she knows about her mother and father’s whereabouts. “Today I sat and ate dinner with my sister,” Haggai Liniado told CNN one evening this week. “I’m having this huge plate of food – and my mom is not eating at all. Or maybe eating rice. Or maybe not even alive.”

Not knowing whether her parents, Judih and Gadi Weinstein-Haggai, are even still alive – and if they are, how much suffering they may be enduring – has been torture, she said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemies. I wouldn’t wish this on Hamas who did all these things.”

Chen and Haggai Liniado are now among the families of the American hostages desperately calling on the Israeli government and the Biden White House, to do something – anything – to get their family members out of Hamas captivity.

The release of multiple Israeli-Russian hostages as part of a separate deal that Russian President Vladimir Putin struck with Hamas has left an impression on the families of the American hostages. Even as they recognize the unique circumstances that appear to have made the release of Russian nationals possible – chiefly, Putin has been accused of supporting Hamas – the families are increasingly wondering whether any kind of arrangement that secures the release of just the American citizens might be possible.

“President Putin kind of opened our eyes that there is the ability to do a separate deal on a specific nationality,” Chen said. “So that precedent is something that I think is logical to suggest or to consider.”

Haggai Liniado echoed that sentiment, even as she, too, acknowledged the reality of Moscow’s ties to Hamas. “If the Russians had it done,” she said, “there just has to be a way. Somehow.”

Chen was also among the families of hostages that met with Vice President Kamala Harris’ national security adviser Phil Gordon in Israel on Wednesday. Some of the families, according to Chen, pressed Gordon on the idea of the Biden administration crafting a hostages deal with Qatar – which has served as the main interlocutor in negotiations with Hamas – without the Israeli government’s initial involvement.

“Sometimes you have kids arguing – and need adults to get involved,” Chen said. Gordon appeared receptive, he said.

There are still seven American men and one woman missing since the war began, according to the White House. Four Americans – a four-year-old girl and three women – have been released so far.

As the war enters its third month, the families of those missing Americans have become something of a support system for one another. They have an active WhatsApp group chat, where they share information about the war and the hostages – and discuss next possible steps.

The families CNN spoke with said they are appreciative of the White House’s engagement with the families so far – but the reality that American citizens are still missing has been a tough pill to swallow.

“As a US citizen, I ask myself – what is my US government doing?” Chen said.

“I do expect the American government to definitely bring all the eight Americans back. I believe that’s their duty,” Haggai Liniado said.

The families spoke with President Joe Biden via Zoom one week after the October 7 attack, and since then, there has been consistent outreach from the White House and the office of Biden’s hostage envoy, Roger Carstens, according to the families.

That is a stark contrast, they said, to the minimal outreach and support they have received from the Israeli government, which has come under intense criticism from released hostages and their families. Leaked audio recordings of a meeting between freed Israeli hostages, the relatives of those still being held and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet this week captured their fierce anger and frustration.

Last Thursday, the families of the unaccounted for Americans again spoke with Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Sullivan himself described the conversation afterwards as “heart-wrenching.”

Shortly after that meeting with Sullivan, things took a turn.

For seven days, Hamas had been releasing a small group of Israeli women and children hostages each day, as part of an agreement with Israel to temporarily pause the fighting. But on day seven, after Hamas refused to release any more of the kidnapped women and Israel, in turn, rejected Hamas’ demands to move on to the next category of hostages – men – Israel’s military operation swiftly resumed.

The halt of the daily release of hostages was a gut punch for the families, some of whom had begun to hope that their loved ones could soon be getting out.

Jon Polin’s 23-year-old son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, is believed to have been taken from the Nova music festival on October 7. Polin told CNN that the end of the truce prompted a “night and day difference in all of our thinking.”

“We went from optimism to a level of despair,” he said.

The formal hostage negotiations that had been taking place in Doha, Qatar, officially disbanded last week. Senior US officials said the administration continues to be in close contact with their Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian counterparts about ways to get more hostages out, but the seeming lack of progress on that front is fueling the families’ growing anxiety.

“I wish that I were hearing more creativity coming out of everybody involved – the administration, the Israelis, Hamas, Qatar, Egypt,” said Polin, even as he emphasized that he doesn’t question the White House’s dedication to the mission and said he has received “tremendous support” from the administration. “I just feel like there’s not a lot I’m hearing that’s creative thinking.”

Describing the past few days as an “inflection point,” Chen said the Biden administration must “reevaluate some of the working assumptions that the US has.”

Many of the families have been unsparing in their criticism of the Red Cross. Despite the truce agreement stipulating that Red Cross officials would be allowed to visit hostages in Gaza by the end of Day Four of the pause in fighting, more than a week later, that has yet to happen. As a result, there has been barely any new information about the whereabouts or conditions of the missing Americans – including whether some of them are alive.

“The question came up on the call: What could the US do to further pressure ICRC action?” Polin said about the families’ meeting with Sullivan last week. “It was a point of frustration for him.”

Asked why the Red Cross has not been able to go into Gaza yet to check on the hostages, White House spokesman John Kirby told CNN Wednesday that “the blame has to be laid at Hamas’ feet.”

“Hamas has not allowed Red Cross in to visit the hostages as they agreed to do. And it’s unacceptable,” Kirby said. “If we could get Red Cross access to them, not only would they have a measure of solace – which is the most important thing that somebody knows where they are and cares about their condition – but it would help give us some information.”

For now, Chen, Polin and Haggai Liniado are holding on to the very last WhatsApp messages they received from their sons and parents before everything went dark.

Chen’s son, Itay, texted at 6:45 a.m. that his military base was under missile attack. Haggai Liniado’s parents messaged her to say they were lying face down in the fields near their kibbutz as they watched rockets fly over their heads.

Polin’s son, Hersh, sent two messages in quick succession the morning of the attack: “I love you.” “I’m sorry.”

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