Israeli child hostages have begun recounting the nightmare of their captivity, with one boy saying they were forced to watch horror videos of Hamas’s October 7 massacre.
Some children were forced to speak in whispers and were threatened at gunpoint to keep quiet. Others say they were not beaten or hurt, they were always fed breakfast and could draw or play cards.
The stories have emerged as children were reunited with their families in Israel as part of a truce between Israel and Hamas that reached its fifth day on Wednesday (AEDT).
Both sides have largely held their fire after the deal was extended by two days on Tuesday (AEDT).
The ceasefire was maintained despite a clash breaking out between Gaza militants and Israeli troops on Wednesday morning (AEDT).
A 12-year-old French-Israeli boy who was released on day four told his family the children he was held with were forced to watch the atrocities filmed by Hamas militants when they stormed villages in Israel.
“Hamas forced him to watch horror videos,” the boy’s aunt, Deborah Cohen, told French TV BFM.
“When he arrived in Gaza, all of the residents, all of them, beat him up. He’s a 12-year-old child,” she said.
“Every time one of the children there cried, they threatened them with rifles to shut them up.
“I wanted to hope that he was treated well, but it turns out he wasn’t, they’re monsters. Now that I know this I’m worried. His father is still there, and there are 160 people who have not yet returned.”
Thomas Hand, the father of Emily Hand, 9, who was kidnapped during a sleepover with her friend, said his daughter now spoke in whispers. When he looked into her eyes could see “glassy-eyed terror”.
“The most shocking, disturbing part of meeting her was she was just whispering, you couldn’t hear her. I had to put my ear on her lips,” he told CNN. “She’d been conditioned not to make any noise.”
When he asked Emily how long she thought she was gone, she replied “a year”.
“Apart from the whispering, that was a punch in the guts. A year,” Hand said.
Among Israeli hostages yet to be freed are 10-month-old baby Kfir Bibas, along with his brother Ariel, 4, and their parents Yarden and Shiri.
Israeli officials said they believed the family was being held by a militant group other than Hamas.
“Kfir … is a child who still doesn’t even know how to say ‘mummy’,” Jimmy Miller, a cousin, told Channel 12 TV.
“We in the family are not managing to function … The family hasn’t slept for a long, long time already – 51 days.”
The truce, which began on Friday, has brought the first respite to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in seven weeks, during which Israel had bombed swathes of the territory into a desolate moonscape.
Although conditions on the ground in Gaza remain largely peaceful, Israel’s military said three explosive devices had been detonated near its troops in two different locations in the northern Gaza Strip, “violating the framework of the operational pause”.
In one of the locations, gunmen opened fire on the soldiers who returned fire and that “a number of soldiers were lightly injured”.
Earlier, a single column of black smoke was seen rising above the obliterated wasteland of the northern Gaza war zone from across the fence in Israel. But for a fifth day there was no sign of jets in the sky or the rumble of explosions.
Both sides also reported some Israeli tank fire in the Sheikh Radwan district of Gaza City in the morning. There were no reports of casualties.
Israel said its troops had been approached and had fired a warning shot.
Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi, chief of Israel’s armed forces, told a press briefing that the military remained on alert in Gaza and was prepared to continue fighting.
“We are using the days of pause within the framework to learn, to bolster our readiness and to approve future operational plans,” he said.
Since the truce started, Hamas has released 69 hostages – 50 Israeli women and children, including some toddlers, as well as 19 foreigners, mainly Thai farm workers.
In return, Israel has released 150 security detainees from its jails, all women and teenagers.
Israel has said the truce could be prolonged as long as Hamas continues to release at least 10 Israeli hostages a day.
But with fewer women and children left in captivity, keeping the guns quiet beyond Wednesday could require negotiating to free at least some Israeli men for the first time.
“We hope the occupation (Israel) abides [by the agreement] in the next two days because we are seeking a new agreement, besides women and children, whereby other categories that we have that we can swap,” Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya told al-Jazeera.
Qatar’s foreign ministry said it was trying to secure a further extension based on Hamas releasing more hostages.
Many Gazans are using the truce to return to abandoned or destroyed homes. Among them was Abu Shamaleh who was picking through the rubble of his flattened home in Khan Younis, looking for anything recoverable in the masonry.
He said 37 family members had been killed and that there was no machinery to excavate the body of a cousin still buried in the ruins.
“The truce is the time to lift the rubble and search for all the missing people and bury them. We honour the dead by burying them. What use is the truce if the bodies remain under the rubble?” he said.