Every afternoon at 3, the men of the Bedouin Alziadna clan, who live in villages near the city of Rahat down south, gather outside one of their houses. They sit on plastic chairs arranged in a semicircle, drinking water and bitter coffee.
They’ve been doing this every day for a month now, receiving guests who come over to provide a little encouragement. Of the 239 Israelis being held by Hamas and other factions in Gaza, one is 53-year-old Yusuf Alziadna, who was kidnapped from Kibbutz Holit’s cowshed along with his sons Bilal and Hamza and his daughter Aisha.
Ali Alziadna and family members at their unrecognized Negev village.Credit: Michal Chelbin
Inside the house, far from the semicircle of men, sit the mothers: Yusuf’s mother, one of his two wives – the mother of the three kidnapped children – and Hamza’s wife and their two children. The little ones run inside and outside between the two groups. The whole village is ensconced in a tense silence, praying for some good news.
In the middle of the semicircle sits Ali Alziadna, Yusuf’s brother, a retired policeman and a well-known figure in Israel’s southern Negev region. He’s the family member liaising with the media. Ali and Yusuf are two of 12 children; Yusuf has been working at the kibbutz’s cowshed for 17 years.
A few years ago he was joined by Hamza, now 22, and Bilal, 18. On October 7 they were joined by 17-year-old Aisha, who is due to be married to a member of the clan in a few months.
At the cowshed, Yusuf and the three children prepare fodder for the cows, feed them and milk them. When Hamas terrorists from Gaza entered the kibbutz, they didn’t spare the cowshed. The family learned about the kidnapping from two video clips, one that the terrorists uploaded immediately after they captured Bilal and Hamza. For 21 days, Yusuf and Aisha were considered missing.
“But we knew that the army had cameras on the road to Gaza, so we asked all the relevant agencies to look at the footage,” Ali says. “They did and spotted them; they brought the footage to our home. It showed all four of them walking – healthy – entering Gaza. You can see them crossing the border fence.”
53-year-old Yusuf Alziadna | Resident of an unrecognized village in the Negev | Kidnapped from: Kibbutz Holit | Father of 18 children and grandfather of 20 grandchildren | Yusuf has been working at Holit’s cowshed for past 17 years | He has diabetes and needs his medicine
Yusuf Alziadna.Credit: Courtesy of the family
Ali says the sound of the fighting over the border only makes them more nervous about the fate of their loved ones. “Every night that goes by is very difficult for us. We’re hoping they’re still in good health, but we don’t know what is happening with them,” Ali says.
“Every time we hear a boom we say, oy, let’s hope it isn’t anywhere near the hostages. And we hope this will stop when our children and all the hostages come home.”
Has anyone from Gaza tried to contact you?
“No. We haven’t had any contact with anyone. We don’t know anyone there.”
Bilal, Hamza and Aisha are three of Yusuf’s children with his first wife; he has four small children with his second wife. All told, he has 18 children, whom he supports with his work at the cowshed. He has 20 grandchildren.
22-year-old Hamza Alziadna | Resident of an unrecognized village in the Negev | Kidnapped from: Kibbutz Holit | Married with two children
Hamza Alziadna.Credit: Courtesy of the family
“Yusuf is a friendly guy, well-liked by everyone, one of the best in the clan,” Ali says. “He resolves conflicts and problems, bridging between families. He takes care of everyone like a brother and a friend. Everyone respects him. He’s an exemplary person, he really is.” Ali says.
Ali is especially worried because Yusuf has diabetes and may not have access to medication. Ali hopes the fact that Yusuf and his children are Muslim will hold some sway with their abductors.
“Our children are believers, they pray regularly. I hope their captors realize that these are people who deserve mercy, as does the whole group they’re part of. They’re laborers who work for a living. They went there to make a living, not to fight,” Ali says, referring to Kibbutz Holit.
17-year-old Aisha Alziadna | Resident of an unrecognized village in the Negev | Kidnapped from: Kibbutz Holit | Aisha recently got engaged
Aisha Alziadna.Credit: Courtesy of the family
“I don’t know why they took them. What can they do with them? Why take families? I don’t understand it. I never imagined something like this. I can understand a battle between one army and another, but what does that have to do with civilians?”
Ali says the family hopes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will focus on the hostage issue. “We’re already a month after the incident and nothing has moved,” he says.
“The hostages are still hostages and the missing persons are still missing. ... We hope the state speeds up its operation in this regard and does whatever it takes to bring them back,” Ali adds.
“I don’t know if they can be brought back by war; I find it hard to believe that this is possible. I really hope they’ll agree to a cease-fire on condition that the hostages are released. I hope this happens fast because every day that passes is horrific for everyone. Let [Netanyahu] make the decision today. Let him declare a cease-fire and trade hostages for security prisoners.
“At the same time, we’re calling on the world, including the Arab world, including Arab countries such as Qatar, Egypt and Jordan and anyone else who can help. ... I hope the entire world intervenes, stopping the war and swapping the hostages for their prisoners. Let’s finish with it so everybody can return home safely.”
18-year-old Bilal Alziadna | Resident of an unrecognized village in the Negev | Kidnapped from: Kibbutz Holit
Bilal Alziadna.Credit: Courtesy of the family
The family is in touch with the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, as well as the government office headed by retired general Gal Hirsch that’s trying to free the hostages.
“We take part in demonstrations,” Ali says. “It’s hard to talk with Gal Hirsch. I have his phone number but he hardly answers any calls. When we see him at meetings, he says he’s very busy and doing a lot. We’ve also met with Yossi Cohen, who meets with the families and wants to help, even though he’s an unpaid volunteer,” Ali says about the previous Mossad chief.
Does anyone visit you regularly?
“We have a liaison officer who’s responsible for us, and representatives of the Welfare Ministry come here and help. People from all over the country come to hug and support the family. The entire nation is one family now.
“Interior Minister Moshe Arbel was here, as were Knesset members, mayors, and the president of Ben-Gurion University. Everyone who hears about this case comes. Many people from [nearby] Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev come. They’re good neighbors. People from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum call us several times a day. We also have a headquarters, a war room.
“But what can we do? There are demonstrations in Tel Aviv, and yesterday we were at a meeting of all the families in Be’er Sheva. We do what we can, but decisions are made by politicians and defense officials. We aren’t the ones making decisions. If I were making decisions, I’d return them in a swap and that would be that.”
’There are Arab soldiers on the front’
Besides the four Alziadnas, three other members of the Bedouin community were taken hostage on October 7. One was near the rave outside Kibbutz Re’im and two were farmworkers; one is Samar Talalka, a 22-year-old from the Negev town of Hura who was working at a chicken hatchery on Kibbutz Nir Am.
He has two brothers and four sisters. His mother is a teacher in Hura and his father, an employee at the hatchery, wasn’t working on Black Saturday. Talalka’s kidnapping was also captured on video; the family was notified by the army.
The men of the Bedouin Alziadna clan, in the unrecognized desert village where they live.Credit: Michal Chelbin
One of the three other Bedouin, a resident of an unrecognized village in the Negev, was working as a guard near Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. He is 52 with two wives and 11 children.
The family prefers that he remain unnamed. In this case too, the family was notified by the army. In addition to these seven Bedouin taken hostage on October 7, another Israeli Bedouin has been held in Gaza for eight years now, Hisham al-Sayed.
Lt. Col. (res.) Wahid al-Huzeil, the head of a nonprofit group, has set up a war room to help get the Bedouin hostages freed. He says the Bedouin families need special sensitivity.
“I set up the headquarters so I could maintain contact with the families. I’m with them every day; I sit with them and find out what their needs are,” he says.
“For Jewish families, everything goes through the central headquarters of the families forum. But Bedouin families don’t come. You have to go to them and listen to them. Working with the media is also different. You have to know how to present issues to the family and explain the boundaries to journalists.
“For example, women in Bedouin society aren’t shown in the media, and every decision has to be made by the entire family. The processes are quite different, as are the conversations.”
I noticed that the Alziadna family didn’t put Aisha on the poster showing the hostages; only Yusuf and the other two men are shown.
“Exactly. The family didn’t want to post the daughter’s picture, and they don’t let anyone talk with the women of the family. The women don’t talk. This is something Jewish society doesn’t necessarily understand, which is why a separate headquarters is necessary.
“When I talk with families, if they say no, that means no. With Jews, many people bring the families food. Here we don’t need that, it’s not customary to donate food. The family prepares its own food. Help is given in different ways. Everything has to be done with meticulous care so as not to offend the family.
“Our headquarters brings together all the information on the Bedouin victims and provides solutions linked to education, mental health care, welfare and social equality. The families feel that I’m at home with them and they trust me; I’m not somebody coming for a moment and moving on.”
According to al-Huzeil, the fact that Hamas abducted Muslim Israelis too makes clear that this isn’t a religious war or a war between Arab and Jew. “Hamas wanted to kidnap anybody holding a blue I.D. card,” he says, referring to the card denoting full Israeli citizenship.
“The fact that Hamas abducted innocent civilians, including women and children, shows that this organization doesn’t represent Islam. It represents only itself. This is a terror group.
“What Hamas did contradicts Islam. Islam opposes the murder of women, children and the elderly. ... We sometimes get confused and mix things up, but this incident shows how much it wasn’t a religious action; their struggle isn’t a religious one.”
When asked about the increasing number of Jewish Israelis who have become more extremist, violent and exclusionary in recent years, al-Huzeil says: “There are Arab citizens in Israel who are part of the war effort, helping the state. There are Arab soldiers on the front, and there are Arab citizens on the home front – doctors, farmworkers and manual laborers.
“If we say we don’t consider Arabs part of Israeli society, part of the whole, this serves Hamas. Arab society does a lot of things to be together [with Jewish society] and has paid a heavy price: 25 fatalities so far, eight hostages and many people wounded in body and soul.”
He says that Mansour Abbas, the head of the United Arab List party, is the only Arab Israeli political making the truth clear.
“Israeli society must realize that its struggle isn’t against Arabs, it’s against Hamas. You have to give screen time and press coverage to Arab society, letting it speak and say what it thinks about this struggle,” he says.
That’s an important message. Otherwise, we’ll face serious problems on the day after because of the Jews who don’t want to see Arabs or hear Arabic.”