Monday, July 22

Israeli hostage’s family determined to get him back

Their eyes red from exhaustion and worry, Jonathan Polin and his wife, Rachel Goldberg, sat Tuesday in a corner of their Jerusalem living room, now converted into a makeshift command center with one aim: finding their son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin.

It had been five days since Goldberg-Polin, a 23-year-old California native, left a family dinner celebrating the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah to meet up with his best friend. Goldberg kissed her son goodbye, expecting to see him the next day, Saturday.

The following morning, however, air-raid sirens reverberated throughout Jerusalem shortly after 8 a.m. — the first sign there of the massive Hamas operation that would swiftly grow into the deadliest attack on Israel in 50 years. Stepping out of her apartment building’s underground shelter for a moment, Goldberg switched on her phone, normally kept off for the Sabbath, in order to check on her son.

Two texts immediately popped up, both from Goldberg-Polin, sent just 12 minutes earlier.

“The first text said ‘I love you.’ The second said ‘I’m sorry,’” Goldberg recounted, her face fighting the grief of the memory. “I immediately took that to mean he knew he was in trouble, that it would cause us a lot of pain, and he was sorry.”

 An Israeli solider stands amid burned vehicles.

An Israeli soldier on Tuesday at the grounds of the Supernova electronic music festival, where militants killed an estimated 260 concert-goers and captured others.

(Ilia Yefimovich / DPA/Getty Images)

Goldberg called her son’s number. No answer. She texted him: “Are you OK?” Nothing.

Ten minutes later: “Tell me you’re OK.” Another 10 minutes passed. “I’m leaving my phone on. Let me know you’re OK.”

She still hasn’t heard anything.

Goldberg, 53, and her two daughters, Leebie, 20, and Orly, 17, began to contact Goldberg-Polin’s friends to see where he had spent the night. It was Leebie who found online videos of the savage assault by Hamas on a music festival in the southern Israeli desert near Gaza, where militants attacked and hunted down concert-goers, killing an estimated 260 of them as they tried to flee. Others were kidnapped and taken over the border into Gaza.

Leebie showed the videos to her mother, whose heart sank. Goldberg-Polin, who was born in Berkeley and lived there for eight years before moving with his family to Israel in 2008, loved music festivals. He had once gone on a nine-week trek through six different countries in Europe, attending different musical events along the way.

Goldberg eventually confirmed that her son had been at the festival near Gaza.

“Since then we’ve had this real nightmare,” Goldberg said.

Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups are now holding more than 150 Israeli soldiers and civilians hostage in Gaza, according to the Israeli military. Their predicament has become one of the most prominent — and harrowing, for their families — aspects of the four-day-old war, in which more than 1,000 Israelis and 800 Palestinians have been killed, according to authorities.

Israel, which had thought Hamas weakened, now vows to crush its longtime enemy utterly. But the kidnap victims greatly complicate that aim, forcing the military to come up with a hostage-rescue operation alongside the large-scale offensive now being prepared against Hamas in Gaza. The group says its captives are scattered throughout the crowded coastal enclave, where 2.3 million Palestinians have lived under Israeli blockade, in misery and impoverishment, for the last 16 years.

Seeing the authorities overwhelmed, Goldberg, Polin and their two daughters — like the relatives and friends of other missing Israelis — have mounted their own campaign to try to find their son and brother.

“It’s a war, so we realize that there are a number of things that are important on a national level. But this is the most important thing for us, so we need to do it,” Polin, 53, said.

“The country needs to defend itself, and we need to help our son. We understand it’s not everyone’s top priority. But it is ours.”

Friends and family converged on the couple’s apartment, ready to help.

“It was a real situation room. We’ve had 10 people since every day, sleeping here with us. They haven’t left us,” Polin said.

Some scoured the dozens of videos coming out of Gaza showing the hostages for any sign of Goldberg-Polin or his best friend, Aner Shapira. Others called hospitals, police stations, survivors of the attack on the music festival, anyone who they thought could have seen the pair — a heart-wringing process that pushed the family between hope and despair.

A visit to the area near the festival, a stone’s throw from a tiny kibbutz named Re’im — meaning “friends” — gives a hint of the violence that took place early Saturday. Vehicles with cracked windshields and bullet holes line the roadside, their contents disgorged along the berms. Around them, in a field by a stand of trees, are the spread-eagled corpses of Hamas fighters, stripped to their underwear to make sure they weren’t strapped with explosives, their bodies bloody and bloating in the afternoon sun.

Polin and Goldberg finally found a picture online from a bomb shelter near the concert site that showed Shapira near the shelter’s door and Golberg-Polin toward the back. They tracked down a survivor who was able to tell them what had happened.

When the gunmen attacked around 6:30 in the morning, it was pandemonium. An hour into the assault, a group of about 30 people hid in the bomb shelter, with the militants firing weapons and lobbing grenades through the door.

“Aner was the hero of the story. He threw the grenades back. The people there owe their lives to Aner,” Goldberg said, her voice cracking.

An hour and a half later, the militants stopped firing and marched everyone out at gunpoint and put them on a truck. Then, for reasons no one can fathom, about eight were ordered back inside the bunker, where they stayed a few more hours before finally being picked up by civilians and soldiers.

An Israeli soldier walks past burned vehicles in a field.

A soldier walks past burned vehicles at the site of the music festival, where Goldberg-Polin’s family eventually confirmed he had attended. They tracked down a survivor who told them militants had taken him away.

(Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

Witnesses told Goldberg-Polin’s family that he had been injured, his arm perhaps sheared off in one of the explosions; in any case, he was seen boarding the truck conscious but with a tourniquet. His last known location from his phone shows him on the border with Gaza at 12:45 p.m.

Shapira, too, was injured, witnesses said. It’s unclear where he is as well.

Polin refuses to entertain the idea that his son might be dead. “Hersh is,” he said sharply, when a reporter inadvertently said “was.”

He and his wife have rallied whatever contacts they’ve had to try to save their son. Though it’s not clear if there will be hostage negotiations, Polin — an American citizen, like his wife and children — has talked to current and previous U.S. ambassadors to Israel, White House staff, the United Nations, and diplomats in Germany, Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

“Anyone we can get to,” he said. “Our interest is Hersh, but there are lots of others who are likely severely injured.”

For now, all Goldberg and Polin can do is hope they can get their son back. They keep on thinking about his future plans. Since finishing his mandatory military service, he had been planning to go on a yearlong trip, backpacking through India and other countries before going to university — another example of Goldberg-Polin’s wanderlust, a trait he exhibited even during his bar mitzvah, when all he wanted as gifts were globes and maps.

“From the time he was young, he had a sense that experiences mattered more than material goods,” Polin said.

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