A frail grandmother has become an overnight symbol of bravery after her release by Hamas.
Yocheved Lifshitz had shaken hands with one of her 6ft masked and gun-toting captors and looked him in the eye before saying ‘shalom’, the Hebrew word for peace.
The 85-year-old later said she had been ‘treated very nicely’ by the terrorists who held her for 16 days.
She and her fellow hostages were given shampoo and conditioner, pitta bread and cucumber and daily visits from a doctor to check on their health. The toilets in their Hamas jail were meticulously scrubbed by guards who were ‘very concerned about hygiene’.
And so when she and another elderly Israeli were freed on Monday night, Mrs Lifshitz did what polite elderly ladies do and offered her thanks.
After being released, grandmother Yocheved Lifshitz shook hands with one of her captors and looked him in the eye before saying ‘shalom’
The 84-year-old said that she had been ‘treated very nicely’ by terrorists who held her for 16 days and had daily visits from the doctor to check up on her health
Sixteen days after she was taken hostage, Mrs Lifshitz was taken by helicopter to the Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv
The world could only marvel at her magnanimity as Hamas handed her over to Red Cross medics. Sharone Lifshitz, her British daughter, said simply: ‘It’s just … so her.’ Sharone, 52, from London, said: ‘I’m so proud of her. She’s amazing. Just the way she walked off, and then came back and said ‘Thank you’ was quite incredible to me.’
This is the first time since the massacres and mass kidnappings in Israel on October 7 that we have had any insight into what became of the 200 or so hostages, including up to five Britons. In the most appalling circumstances, they were snatched by marauding Hamas gunmen, and some were seen on video begging for their lives as they were taken to Gaza on motorbikes and pick-up trucks.
Since then, their fate has looked bleak as vengeful Israel began bombing the enclave to bits, vowing to annihilate ‘every single’ Hamas terrorist. Intense efforts by diplomats, spies and SAS-style military squads to free the abductees have been going on behind the scenes for over two weeks.
But anguished families have been given little idea if their loved ones are even alive.
That changed yesterday in a jaw-dropping press conference in Tel Aviv given by Mrs Lifshitz, who gave the world some answers at last. In front of over a hundred journalists hanging on her every word, Mrs Lifshitz, sitting in a wheelchair but speaking in a determined voice, described her ordeal.
I watched as her daughter, who flew in from London and was at her side throughout, held her hand and helped to interpret her mother’s extraordinary account in Hebrew to the world’s press.
At one point, in a revelation that will lift hearts among the families of other hostages, she said she had seen 25 other abductees in a hall.
Mrs Lifshitz is one of the 100 villagers taken from Nir Oz, one of the closest kibbutz communities to the Gaza border, and where one in four of the tight-knit population were kidnapped, including children and the elderly. She recalled: ‘They stormed into our homes. They beat people. They kidnapped others, the old and the young, without distinction.’
The octogenarian said that as she was carted away to Gaza on a motorbike, ‘the young men hit me on the way – they didn’t break my ribs but it was painful and I had difficulty breathing’
Speaking through her daughter Sharone (left), Mrs Lifshitz said she was told by her captors ‘they were Muslims and that they are not going to hurt them’
The octogenarian said that as she was carted away to Gaza on a motorbike, ‘the young men hit me on the way – they didn’t break my ribs but it was painful and I had difficulty breathing’.
Sharone said her elderly mother had suffered from bruises and shortness of breath following her beating. And her mother said: ‘When I was on the bike, my legs were on one side and the rest of my body on the other side.’
She was driven over a patch of ploughed fields that stands between her village and the supposedly impregnable fence about a mile away that separates Israel from Gaza. She was ‘hit with sticks’ until they reached tunnels, and then they walked for ‘a few kilometres on wet ground’.
Translating her mother’s account, Sharone said: ‘There are a huge network of tunnels underneath – it looked like a spider’s web.’
Hamas boasted in 2011 it had constructed a tunnel network totalling more than 300 miles. Thirteen years ago, I was shown one of these tunnels during a trip to Gaza. It was an engineering marvel lined with strings of fairy lights.
The people of Gaza – blockaded from the world for years – use them to smuggle everything from food and everyday goods to weapons. They are also a military nightmare for the Israeli soldiers.
There have been fears that the 200 hostages are being held by Hamas as ‘human shields’ in the tunnel system. Mrs Lifshitz certainly appears to have seen the tunnels. On her account, which will be pored over by security officials for clues as to the whereabouts of the other hostages, she was first taken to Abasan al-Kabira and then Khan Yunis, in the south of the Gaza Strip.
After that, she does not know where she was kept. During her ordeal, her captors told hostages ‘they were Muslims and that they are not going to hurt them’, her daughter said.
But unsurprisingly for an 85-year-old woman beaten and dragged away by Israel’s most savage enemies, she admitted: ‘I went through hell.’
Which makes the remainder of her story all the more remarkable. For Mrs Lifshitz told yesterday how her Hamas captors, despite being number-one targets for Israeli assassination squads, treated her and others with something akin to compassion.
When asked at the press conference why she had shaken a Hamas terrorist’s hand, she replied: ‘Because they treated us very nicely.’
It is not obvious that everyone would agree with that, especially given the brutal beating she suffered. But through her daughter yesterday, she said that during her 16 days as a prisoner, her captors ‘took care of all the women’s needs – shampoo, conditioner.’
On Mrs Lifshitz’s account, which will be pored over by security officials for clues as to the whereabouts of the other hostages, she was first taken to Abasan al-Kabira and then Khan Yunis, in the south of the Gaza Strip
Her daughter said: ‘When they arrived, they arrived to a large hall where about 25 hostages were gathered. After two or three hours, five of them were taken into a separate room. She said they were very friendly towards them, they took care of them, they were given medicine.’
Her mother, who was freed with Nurit Cooper, 79, added: ‘They took care of us. They made sure we could be clean, and eat, they gave us pitta bread, cucumber, hard cheese and low fat cream cheese, and that was our food for the entire day.’
She described how each prisoner was assigned their own guard, and they would talk and eat with them every day. On top of this, a doctor examined the hostages daily and gave them with any necessary medication.
Sharone, speaking for her mother, said the terrorists were particularly anxious about cleanliness, saying: ‘They were very concerned with hygiene, and were worried about an outbreak of something. We had toilets which they cleaned every day.’
It is doubtful the general population of Gaza have enjoyed such attention. Indeed, according to Gaza officials, during Israeli’s relentless air strikes, more than 5,700 residents have been killed, including 704 in the past day. And more than 2,300 children have died, they claim.
Mrs Lifshitz has been so gracious about her treatment by Hamas. For one thing, they are still holding her husband, Oded, 83, and dozens of her friends from Nir Oz.
Sharone also said her mother had been bitterly disappointed with Israel’s woeful lack of preparedness for the October 7 atrocity, despite the vast cost of the fence supposedly protecting their village from the terror group.
IAN BIRRELL: A shaft of hope amid a bloody war fuelled by rage as an elderly woman freed after more than a fortnight turns to shake hands with one of the terrorists who kidnapped her
It was a wondrous sign of hope after days of blood-soaked war. A frail old woman, freed after more than a fortnight being held hostage in dank underground tunnels, turning to shake hands with one of the terrorists who kidnapped her and saying ‘shalom’ [peace].
Yocheved Lifshitz is 85. She endured unimaginable horrors after being seized with her husband from a kibbutz that suffered terrible carnage at the hands of Hamas.
Yet after 16 days that she later described as hell, this grandmother being handed to Red Cross workers turned to a menacing black-clad gunman whose face was hidden by a balaclava, and surprised him with that simple gesture of shared humanity.
It was a powerful image of defiance: a dazed woman, in the twilight of a life dedicated to peace, showing extraordinary courage and nobility to the cowards who think their cause is boosted by atrocities and bloodshed.
Her daughter Sharone, an academic and artist in London, told the BBC her parents had worked hard to build bridges with their Palestinian neighbours.
The couple helped found Kibbutz Nir Oz near the Gaza border a decade after the Holocaust – where about one quarter of the 400 residents were either killed or kidnapped earlier this month in the Hamas rampage.
Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, center, and Nurit Cooper, 79, were escorted by Hamas as they were released to the Red Cross in an unknown location
Like many victims, they were committed to the ideal of peaceful co-existence. ‘It’s a twist of history that these communities that were so peace loving sustained a horrendous massacre,’ said Sharone.
She explained how her father Oded, 83, a retired journalist, spoke Arabic and spent time going to the border to drive sick Palestinians to hospitals in Israel. I met one of the beneficiaries of such activities in Gaza – a pro-democracy activist who had defied the Hamas fanatics to lead protests against their abusive misrule despite being imprisoned seven times in two years.
He hated the brutally oppressive group that has inflamed the misery of two million people trapped in that tiny enclave by the Mediterranean, telling me how he had witnessed Hamas execute rivals near his home. ‘I can’t endure to see another drop of blood spilled.’
Like most Palestinians, this man wanted the right to return to his historic terrain – but he did not seek the removal of Israelis from their homes and was grateful to their medics for his stomach surgery in Tel Aviv.
He was a testament to decent people such as the Lifshitzes, fighting like him to build a better future for everyone in this fiercely contested patch of the Middle East.
Rage is growing on both sides as death tolls mount, but Sharone rightly argues that the awful recent events should strengthen the determination to tackle toxic hatreds. ‘We have come out of the Holocaust,’ said Sharone. ‘I have many German friends.’
It is easy to despair in times of darkness. Yet as Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion once said, ‘in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles’ – a faith in the future writ large in the resolve of a remarkable grandmother escaping from hell.