Inside the volunteer hunt for Israel’s hostages

Frustrated by the government’s response, grassroots organisations are springing up

By Wendell Steavenson

On the morning of Saturday October 7th Orly Gilboa woke up to the sound of sirens. She and her husband, Ran, and their 15-year-old daughter, Noam, went to the reinforced safe room at their home in Petah Tikva, a town near Tel Aviv. Gilboa tried to call her other daughter Daniela, 19, who was in Nahal Oz, very close to Gaza. She worried that there might be rockets attacking the south, too.

At 6.40am Gilboa texted Daniela to ask what was happening. It was 40 minutes before Daniela replied.

pray for me
whats that?
what is going on with you
can you speak?
call me
I cant mum
are you in a secure place?
pray now
what happened???
for u
pray no
for all of u
lots of shooting everywhere
and bombs
are they with you
mum its not the time for questions I told you what it is please pray for us
ok ok
my soul, calm dow
She didn’t hear anything for ten minutes, so texted again.
my beautiful Im worried here update us
Another ten minutes passed.
♥ ♥ ♥

The pain of waiting (Opening image) Orly Gilboa, mother of hostage Daniela, awaiting news at home in Petah Tikva, Israel. From top to bottom Roy Dadon’s screensaver of him and his girlfriend Daniela. The agonising wait for friends and family

Daniela was texting her boyfriend, Roy Dadon, also 19, at the same time as her mother. He was at home, between postings in his three-year compulsory military service. She told him there had been an incursion. He was confused. When he managed to speak to her, at a little before 7am, she told him that things were chaotic. He could hear gunfire in the background.

Shortly afterwards, Daniela sent him a video, just a few seconds long. It shows a group of girls, dressed in pyjamas, cowering beside the wall of a shelter. The girls judder as rifle shots crack loudly close by, one after another. Some hold their hands to their mouths in fear and there are a few nervous titters. Voices say: “Wow wow, it’s getting worse...It’s getting worse...Let’s go back to the room...What room? I’m not going out...Get in the corner, get in the corner...Fuck...It’s better to be here.” There is a single gunshot, then terrified crying.

The last anyone heard from Daniela was at 7.19am. Similar scenarios played out in hundreds of other Israeli families that day. Some people heard their relatives screaming on the other end of the phone – or gunshots followed by silence. Hamas terrorists called family members from victims’ phones and shouted abuse. There were reports that some murders had been live-streamed onto the victims’ own social-media accounts. In the aftermath of the attacks, many families didn’t know whether their relatives had escaped, been killed or kidnapped and taken to Gaza.

The number of victims and quantity of information has overwhelmed the Israeli army and security services. More than ten days afterwards there was still no definitive list of victims or hostages. Families and volunteers have been left to do their own detective work, sifting through the welter of images on the internet, eyewitness testimony and geolocation data from mobile phones.

Gilboa formed a WhatsApp group with parents of the other missing girls – none of them knew what had happened to their daughters, either. On Saturday evening she and her husband went to their local police station along with Dadon, Daniela’s boyfriend. The police confirmed that Daniela’s phone had been turned off at 8.19am in Nahal Oz.

“There were three days of complete madness,” said Dadon when we met at his family home in Petah Tikva. “I lay here on the sofa. I didn’t eat or drink or sleep. I was looking at videos all the time. I saw terrible things. I was searching, looking for an ear, the smallest detail, to find her.” He is tall, handsome and shy. A blue budgie called Blue hopped in a cage, as Dadon’s mother folded up a camp bed in the living room. “I can’t bear to sleep in my bed,” said Dadon. “There are too many memories of Daniela there.”

Dadon could tell from the video Daniela had sent him what she was wearing that day. Although his girlfriend was behind the camera, he could make out the sleeve of a long-sleeved black T-shirt and the knee of the pale pink Mickey Mouse pyjama bottoms. Her mother remembered Daniela packing those clothes days before.

He scoured dozens of Telegram channels for any trace of her. In one he saw a video of a dead woman, her legs on fire. In another he saw a friend of Daniela’s being pulled by the hair by a gunman into a sports utility vehicle (SUV). A video posted with the logo of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group, circulated widely on social media. It showed three girls being driven away in the back of an SUV. The forehead of one of the girls was streaked with blood. One of the others was the girl Dadon had seen being pushed into the SUV. Their  friend had a distinctive blue top, which Dadon recognised from Daniela’s video.

Information hub From top to bottom Photographs of the hostages on the Kariya wall in Tel Aviv. Volunteers scanning images in Tel Aviv’s exhibition centre in their search for the missing. Orly Gilboa with her daughter Daniela

He watched the seconds-long clip of the girls in the SUV again and again. On Sunday it occurred to him to slow it down and examine it frame by frame. There, behind a green-uniformed shoulder and the outline of a rifle, he saw the familiar curve of the back of Daniela’s head, her hair drawn into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. He screenshotted it, circled Daniela in green and sent the image to her family.

A few days later, a friend forwarded Dadon another short video. It showed a small windowless room, which Dadon presumed was in Gaza. The camera panned over around 20 people, maybe more, who were crammed in, sitting and lying against each other on the floor – a tangle of bare arms and legs. A hand with rings and bangles reached towards the camera. At the end of the clip, a woman with curly hair framing her face stared at the viewer. Another woman’s voice, off camera, could be heard, saying in Hebrew, “We can’t move. I don’t have anywhere to move.”

Roy believes this is Daniela’s voice. “I am sure it is her,” he told me. “I also sent it to her friends who have known her for years and they say for sure it’s her voice.” Daniela’s mother is not convinced. ”My husband and my daughter recognise it as Daniela’s voice, but I don’t hear it,” she said. The video had appeared on a woman’s Facebook page. Roy messaged her – she said she didn’t know where the clip had come from. Later it was deleted.

The Israeli army confirmed the videos were genuine, but weren’t able to tell Daniela’s family anything more. To work out whether the voice was indeed Daniela’s, they sent the clip to one of several volunteer groups that are trying to identify missing people and hostages by analysing images and video.

“We call it the civilian war room,” said Karine Nahon when I visited one of these organisations. She waved her hand over a borrowed hall in an exhibition centre in Tel Aviv, where around a hundred volunteers were sitting at trestle tables, hunched over laptops.

When I visited on Monday, nine days after the attacks, there were still 1,200 people listed as missing, Nahon told me. She said there were 600 unidentified bodies, most of them burnt. So that still left 600 other people unaccounted for. The tallies of those confirmed as killed or kidnapped, or listed as missing, frequently change. On that day, an IDF spokesman put the number of kidnapped in Gaza at 199, higher than previously thought. The following day, Hamas released the first official video of one of the hostages.

A siren went off, signalling a Hamas rocket attack. As we funnelled down a staircase into an underground car park, Nahon picked up a megaphone and urged people to take shelter. “I’m a professor focused on the politics of information,” she told me, wryly. “And here I am using a megaphone to communicate.”

Earlier this year Nahon had been helping organise protests against Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, for his proposed overhaul of the judiciary, which would make it harder for the Supreme Court to act as a check on the government. The activists had “basically converted the infrastructure we had built over the nine months of protest, to help in the recovery from these attacks,” Nahon said. Many of the volunteers come from the professional classes of Tel Aviv. I met a fighter pilot, a chief executive and a physics professor. “That guy there”, said Karine pointing over a sea of people, “is the vice-president of Google in Israel.”

Light a candle Protesters and memorials in Tel Aviv

Ofer Firstenberg, the physicist, explained they had created a database containing the names of those killed, kidnapped and missing, and were “pouring information into it”. The families send them photos, then the volunteers try to find pictures taken on October 7th to work out what people were wearing when they went missing. Clothing, jewellery, tattoos, hairstyles are all noted. Then the volunteers use a mixture of AI algorithms, proprietary programs leant to them by Israeli tech companies and facial-recognition software to scour thousands of images of the attacks and kidnappings that have been posted on social media.

In some cases, they have been able to verify who has been killed and who has been kidnapped, and share that information with the army, security services and other government departments. “The numbers are so vast that even the military doesn’t have the resources to deal with it as fast as it is needed,” said Firstenberg. Disentangling people’s fates could be tricky, he said. At one point they were searching for four people with the same first and last name. It turned out two were alive and two were dead.

As the war continues, the hostage issue could play an increasingly important role in Israeli politics. The weekend after the attacks, Israel’s national-security adviser reiterated that the Israeli government does not negotiate with terrorists. Family members of some of the hostages, along with some other protesters, have been demonstrating every day opposite the Kiryat, the army headquarters in Tel Aviv. The banners are emphatic: “Bring them Home!” “Free Our Kids!” “Prisoner Deal Now!” “Netanyahu, you have blood on your hands”. “Exchange the Hostages Now; War, maybe later”.

Ronen Tzur, a former Labour member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, who is now a PR executive, is leading the main campaign on behalf of the families, called the Hostages and Missing Families forum. In a borrowed office suite, he has gathered researchers, psychologists to counsel family members, and doctors, who are collating hostages’ medical information.

Among its other volunteers are diplomats, hostage negotiators and security-service officers. I spotted Yossi Cohen, head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, between 2016 and 2021 and a close adviser to Netanyahu. Surrounded by plain-clothes bodyguards, he told me he was there to help.

“The government is dysfunctional,” said Amos Pickel, a businessman in charge of the fundraising for the forum. “The support of civil society is filling the gap.” Pickel said several million shekels had already been donated. The bulk of the funds would be spent on international media campaigns. “Our strategy is to influence public opinion worldwide and to push the countries who are funding and supporting Hamas to put pressure on Hamas. That could be the key to everything.”

Gilboa, along with many other family members of the kidnapped, has decided to go public with her story, to keep the hostages in the headlines. “For now this is the only way to make our government understand, to put pressure on them to act to bring them back, and not just to bomb Hamas and ruin all of Gaza. I am a realistic person, I understand that this is not going to happen quickly, but meanwhile we are pushing for the Red Cross to have access to them, to have proof of life, to get them essentials like medicine.”

Searching From top to bottom Protests in Tel Aviv. Dadon in his home studio where he and Daniela recorded music

Many of the families of those kidnapped tend to be on the left of the political spectrum and not natural Netanyahu supporters. But they have found themselves, miserably, uncomfortably, in the middle of a hostage crisis in the middle of a war.  The parents who have bandied together are “not political”, said Gilboa. “But we understand we have to pressure our government for some kind of discussion with Hamas. In the past, when they took hostages, they wanted their people released from prison. I think we have 4,000 prisoners now; so I say: give them all their prisoners and get our children back. Yes, that’s what most of the parents want. Of course we understand that a ground invasion is not going to be good for us, it will complicate things.”

Each member of Daniela’s family is dealing with their anguish in their own way. “My husband is religious,” said Gilboa. “He has gone to the north of the country to pray at the graves of great rabbis…My daughter Noam didn’t stop crying for two days. I told her to stop looking at the images on social media and now I understand she needs her friends around her. Me? I am more practical.”

One family member described the emotions of having their loved ones kidnapped as “being on a rollercoaster you can’t get off”. Some of the families have been subject to harassment and catfishing. A cousin of one of the hostages told me a man had sent her on WhatsApp a map of Gaza with an arrow pointing to her relative’s supposed whereabouts. Then she said her cousin’s credit card had been used and tried to inveigle the details.

I asked Dadon, Daniela’s boyfriend, if he had been harassed online. “Funny you should mention that,” he said, “because I got something just half an hour ago.” He showed me an Instagram exchange on his phone from someone called “Abdullah”.

i know something about gilboa
Who are you?
It’s not important. But i killed Your bitch
sorry for that …

Dadon’s commanding officer has told him he doesn’t need to return to active duty until he is ready. Meanwhile many of his friends are among the IDF forces waiting to go into Gaza. He has mixed feelings about whether to join them. An army psychologist said he could leave the IDF if he wanted to. “I’m thinking about it,” he told me. “But I think if I leave it means Hamas has won.”

The couple met at secondary school when they were in the same music class. They both played the piano and Daniela sang, too. Dadon is spending his time mixing the songs they had begun to record together. Daniela wanted to be famous for her singing, he said, and he is trying to make her dream come true.

He played us two of her songs, leaning back in his chair and singing along. He likes to think his girlfriend is singing to the other hostages, telling them jokes. “I think she is strong and will be giving others strength.” Dadon draws strength from the couple’s bond. “We went through a lot of deep things together. I know she will be the grandmother of my grandchildren.” 

Wendell Steavenson has reported on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for 1843 magazine. Additional reporting by Meni Gross and Elise Apap


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