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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
National
Bel Trew and Mike Bedigan

His US teenage son won’t be among the freed Hamas hostages: ‘Hopefully he is alive’

Ruby Chen

As millions of Americans gather together for turkey and pumpkin pie, one New York family is desperately missing their 19-year-old son, who is still being held hostage by Hamas.

“Today is Thanksgiving. As Americans we have an empty seat at the table — you do not want to live in my universe,” his father Ruby Chen told The Independent.

His son Itay Chen was captured by the militant group during the deadly attack on October 7 that killed 1,200 civilians in Israel. Earlier this week a major diplomatic and humanitarian breakthrough was reached, with 50 women and children hostages expected to be released by Hamas on Friday morning. Part of the deal is a four day ceasefire to allow the removal of the hostages, and rare respite for Palestinain civilians barely surviving under ferocious Israeli bombardment of the besieged strip.

Teenage Itay – who was a member of the Israeli military stationed near Gaza – is not expected to be freed yet.

“There is no separation: in the end a human being is a human being, it doesn’t matter if the hostages are male, female, 10, 40 or 80 years old — each one is a universe of its own and should be reunited with their family,” Mr Chen said.

He hopes that the first wave of hostage releases should serve as a “catalyst for other deals going forward”.

In the time since his son’s capture Mr Chen says he has created “a new family” of 240 other families united in their pain and worry.

“The way that the families of hostages are looking at it is that everyone fights for everyone until the last one is out,” he said.

Itay Chen
— (Courtesy of Itay Chen’s family)

It has now been 48 days since Itay was captured.

“You feel like you’re in a hurricane but you don’t know when it is going to end,” Mr Chen said. “When you wake up, what do you do? Is today a sprint - is there something attainable? Or are you on a marathon?

“I can’t articulate it, it is not pain. I don’t think it has a word in the dictionary.”

Itay Chen was captured following the attack on Israel by Hamas militants on October 7
— (Ruby Chen)

Itay’s family heard from him at around 6.30am on October 7, when he told them his base was under attack. Two hours later, contact with him and his team was lost.

Initially he was defined as “missing in action”. After a day, nobody was able to identify him in the field or any hospital. Then, after four more days, the Chens received a knock at their door from two “senior officers”.

“That is when your heart stops - you don’t want to open that door but you know you don’t have much choice,” he said.

He doesn’t know his current condition. “Hopefully he is alive,” he said. “We do not know or have confirmation. We hope somehow he is mentally in a good place and keeping his spirits high knowing we are doing everything possible to bring him home as soon [as possible].”

Itay’s father was born in Brooklyn, New York, both are US citizens. Itay was in the Boy Scouts until the age of 18 and was always giving back to the community through mentorship programmes with younger children, according to his father.

“I hope the combination of being New York tough — New York in DNA — being spunky, helped when he had that moment to survive,” Mr Chen said.

Fraught negotiations between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Qatar, have resulted in a temporary humanitarian pause.

News of a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages, amid an Israeli bombardment that has killed over 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza, was cause for celebration — even for those whose loved ones won’t be freed.

“You have to be happy for them as well: that is the way we are taking it, focusing on the fact that this is just the first part,” Mr Chen said.

Mr Chen says he is grateful to the US government for their ongoing support, but hopes that more will be done by other western nations including the UK and those in Europe.

But despite holiday celebrations looming, there is only one thing that the families of those taken by Hamas desire.

“We just want our kids back. I don’t care what it costs,” Mr Chen said.

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