Hamas, the group that controls the Gaza Strip and staged the surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and other Palestinian groups are believed to be holding more than 200 hostages — people taken after Hamas stormed across the border in a brazen assault that killed at least 1,400 people.
Here’s what we know about the captives.
How many hostages are there?
The Israeli military has notified the families of 240 people kidnapped during Hamas’ attack, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesperson, said Tuesday. The count has risen as the army has collected more intelligence and accounted for the many foreign citizens who were kidnapped, Hagari said.
At least 33 children are among the hostages, according to the Israeli government.
On Monday, the Israeli military said that it had rescued an Israeli soldier who was taken hostage from her army base Oct 7.
Hamas has released four hostages: an American Israeli mother and daughter on Oct. 20 and two Israeli women three days later, which raised hopes about the effectiveness of hostage negotiations. The Biden administration had advised Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza, hoping to buy time for such talks and allow more humanitarian aid to reach the sealed-off enclave.
Who are the hostages?
The hostages were seized from homes in towns along Israel’s border with Gaza that Palestinian gunmen overran Oct. 7, as well as from military bases and a large outdoor dance party.
They include civilians, soldiers, people with disabilities, children, grandparents and even a 9-month-old baby. Some are peace activists, part of collectives near the Gaza border whose members tend to be left of center and support peace initiatives and Palestinian rights.
The hostages include people from more than 40 countries and at least one Palestinian resident of Israel, a bus driver who spent the night near the outdoor party after driving Israelis there.
Relatives have expressed despair at the dearth of information about the hostages’ well-being, expressed fears over what an Israeli invasion of Gaza might mean for their loved ones, and held rallies at the United Nations and in major cities to demand continued attention to the hostages’ plight.
When Hamas released the first hostages on Oct. 20 — Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie Raanan, 17 — it said it was freeing them for “humanitarian reasons” but did not elaborate.
Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, were released three days later. Their husbands, who were also taken by Hamas, remain in captivity. Family members said they were frail and required medication.
Lifshitz offered the first public account of being held hostage, telling reporters that she “went through hell.” Her husband, Oded, is a well-known left-wing journalist, and the couple helped found the Peace Now movement in Israel, according to a statement from the advocacy group Americans for Peace Now.
On Monday, Hamas’ armed wing released a video showing three women — Yelena Trupanob, Daniel Aloni and Rimon Kirsht — who remained in captivity.
“When I saw Daniel on television, my heart almost stopped,” said Ramos Aloni, Daniel’s father. “My wife and I were shocked, but we also felt relief — she was alive and we were seeing her.”
Where are the hostages being held?
Abu Obeida, a spokesperson for Hamas’ armed wing, has claimed that the group has hidden “dozens of hostages” in “safe places and the tunnels of the resistance.” Hamas is said to use an underground network of tunnels, much of it under civilian infrastructure, to travel undetected and move weapons.
Hamas has claimed, in statements that could not be independently verified, that Israeli airstrikes have killed several hostages. It has also said that other groups are holding some of the hostages.
In mid-October, Hamas released a video of Mia Schem, a 21-year-old who disappeared from the outdoor music and dance festival. In the 60-second video, Schem is seen receiving medical treatment for a wound.
“At the moment I am in Gaza,” Schem says in a solemn, clipped voice. She says that she is being looked after and that her arm was operated on for three hours at a hospital. The video ends with her plea to be returned to Israel.
After the video was released, the Israeli military said in a statement that Hamas was “trying to portray itself as a humane organisation, while it is a murderous terrorist organisation responsible for the murder and abduction of babies, women, children and elderly.”
How is Israel responding?
Amid early widespread criticism about the lack of reliable information on the hostages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the appointment of Gal Hirsch, a retired general, as coordinator for the captives and missing.
Netanyahu has since been under pressure from some hostages’ families, who have accused his government of prioritising the military campaign over the effort to bring back their loved ones. Some have expressed willingness to consider a deal to exchange Israel’s Palestinian prisoners for the hostages.
In the latest hostage video released by Hamas’ armed wing on Monday, one of the women says they are being held in “unbearable conditions” and sharply criticises Netanyahu, demanding that he exchange them for Palestinian prisoners.
Netanyahu’s office called the Hamas video “cruel psychological propaganda” and said that the invasion of Gaza “actually creates the possibility of getting our hostages out.”
The Israeli military has dropped leaflets in Gaza offering protection and financial compensation to Palestinians who could provide information about hostages being held in the area.
What happens next?
A Hamas planning document — found by Israeli emergency responders in one village that was attacked — showed that the terrorists were organised into well-defined units with clear goals and battle plans. Some units had specific instructions to capture Israelis for use as bargaining chips in future prisoner exchanges.
Hamas officials have since said that they are willing to release hostages in exchange for a cease-fire and in exchange for the release of all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — prospects that the Israeli military has all but ruled out.
Thousands of Palestinians are being held in Israeli prisons, many of them convicted of security offenses or involvement in terrorism. Muhammad Deif, the leader of Hamas’ military wing, cited the detention of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails as one reason for the Oct. 7 assault.
There also is a chance that Hamas could use the hostages as human shields amid Israeli strikes. Hamas’ armed wing initially threatened to execute a civilian hostage every time an Israeli airstrike hit Gazans “in their homes without warning,” but it has since said nothing about harming them.
Complex diplomatic efforts have been underway in hopes of securing the hostages’ release. Qatar has been acting as a mediator between Hamas and officials from the United States, which like Israel and the European Union considers Hamas a terrorist group.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed to Hamas to release the hostages immediately “without conditions.”
The Pentagon also sent a small team of Special Operations forces to Israel to assist with intelligence and planning to help locate and try to rescue the hostages.