More than 200 people are believed to be held hostage in Gaza following the Hamas attack in southern Israel three weeks ago.
Members of the North American Jewish Federation are headed to Israel on a mission to provide support to the families.
CEO of the Sarasota/Bradenton chapter of the Jewish Federation Shep Englander is one of 30 federation leaders across the U.S. who have been tasked with taking on this mission.
He confirms some of the hostages kidnapped during the invasion of Israel have ties to Florida.
Federation members will act as liaisons between the families of hostages, families of victims, and government officials.
They are also raising money to support trauma relief and help those families rebuild homes that were destroyed during the invasion by Hamas terrorists.
“We will be meeting with families of the 220-something hostages individually and in groups to understand what they are going through and to talk to them about how we can help,” Englander said. “I know of several people just in Sarasota alone, who have family members who have been taken hostage…I can’t image what they are going through.”
Within the past 48 hours, Hamas militants have claimed that Israeli air strikes in Gaza have killed 50 hostages. Although the claims have not been verified, fears of Hamas using hostages as a human shield to prevent retaliatory attacks have not gone unnoticed.
“I don’t think anyone can come to terms with that. I know I couldn’t. The idea that terrorists are using my child as a human shield, how can anyone accept that?” he said.
Englander and the other heads of Jewish Federation chapters leave for Israel this weekend.
Englander said that while their main mission is to provide support for the families of hostages, they can’t ignore the fact that there are innocent Palestinians who don’t support Hamas who have been caught in the crossfire.
Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are reported to have been killed by Israeli air strikes in retaliation to the Hamas terror attack.
“What we know is that only a small minority of Palestinians ever voted for or supported Hamas. We know that Hamas doesn’t represent them and that most Palestinians want a decent life and would be very willing to live alongside Israel,” Englander said.
For days now, the Israeli military has been preparing for a massive ground assault in Gaza to go after Hamas and free the hostages, but this could also lead to more Palestinians being caught in the crossfire. Englander says it’s a difficult tightrope to balance.
“None of us want to see Palestinian civilians harmed and yet we know what we would do if it was our children who had been taken hostage or our children who had been slaughtered in their homes. Not out of a sense of revenge but how do we protect ourselves,” he said.
According to multiple published reports in that region, the Palestinian death toll since the war began nearly three weeks ago is believed to be in the thousands.