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Families of dead American hostages plead for the return of their bodies: ‘We can’t even mourn’


By MJ Lee, CNN

Washington (CNN) — Iris Weinstein Haggai received confirmation about her parents’ deaths in quick succession.

On December 22, she learned that her father, Gadi, had been killed on October 7. Six days later, word came about her mother Judi: She too, was murdered by Hamas on the day of the attacks.

Weinstein Haggai and her family then had an unthinkable decision to make. Could they sit shiva, as is customary for Jews after the passing of a loved one? Judi and Gadi’s bodies were still being held by Hamas.

There was ultimately a small family gathering in Toronto, where some members of the Weinstein Haggai clan grew up and still live. Two virtual gatherings over Zoom organized by extended family followed, bringing together Judi and Gadi’s relatives, friends, students and neighbors from the couple’s kibbutz.

Weinstein Haggai and her three siblings did not participate but watched the recordings of the Zoom gatherings afterward. The stream of tributes of her parents – two “peaceniks” who had been out for their usual early morning walk when Hamas came for them – was beautiful, but also tough to stomach.

“I felt it was very final, and my heart’s – I couldn’t bear that yet. Because I don’t have bodies to bury,” Weinstein Haggai, 38, told CNN. “To hear people talk about them, and kind of like a shiva, kind of like a ceremony – to me, it was hard. And I couldn’t really join that.”

Andrea Weinstein, Judi’s younger sister who lives in Connecticut, traveled to the small family get-together in Toronto. She recalled that a rabbi who was present appeared to be at a loss at one point. He told the family that he had searched for a prayer that would be fitting for the moment but had difficulty finding one.

“Is there a prayer for this?” Weinstein recalled the rabbi wondering out loud. “There’s nothing that really speaks to this. This is not normal.”

Trying to grieve and honor the life of a deceased family member, before getting the chance to bury their bodies, is the wrenching position that numerous families of the hostages abducted by Hamas now find themselves in. Three American hostages have been confirmed dead so far: Judi Weinstein Haggai, Gadi Haggai and Itay Chen, all dual Israel-American citizens.

Their families say there can be no peace of mind until the bodies are returned.

“To me, there’s no closure. I need to make sure that they have a respectful burial; they’re laid to rest,” Weinstein Haggai said. “I can’t rest. I’m not rested.”

Itay, a soldier in the Israeli military, was 19 when he was killed on October 7. After receiving the devastating news, the Chen family opened up their home for several days for family and friends to stop by. They also marched from their home to a local synagogue, where they paid tribute to his life.

‘The deceased are not a negotiating chip’

His father, Ruby Chen, was among the group of family members of American hostages in Washington, DC, this week that participated in meetings with top US officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

This week’s in-person meeting with Sullivan was one of many that Chen has attended since October 7. But it was the first since Itay was declared dead by the Israeli government on March 12

In an interview this week, Chen said he looks forward to the day when he has no reason to see Sullivan again. But until his son’s body is returned to him and his wife, Chen said, he must continue showing up to meetings with Biden administration officials.

In both meetings with Sullivan and Harris this week, Chen said he pleaded for the US government to make an urgent push for the return of the dead hostages – alongside the living.

“The deceased are not a negotiating chip,” Chen said. “It doesn’t need to be instead of the living. I recognize the fact that the living have a timeline that is even more difficult. But the deceased should not wait until the end.”

Chen is referring to the ongoing negotiations between Israel and Hamas – mediated by the US, Qatar and Egypt – to implement a temporary ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages taken by Hamas. Negotiators say the first category of people to be released would be women, the wounded and sick, and the elderly. CNN has previously reported that the remains of the dead would be among the last categories of hostages to be released.

“There needs to be pressure to release those who are living and presumed living – and those who are no longer alive,” said Weinstein, who also attended this week’s meeting with the vice president.

She and Chen both said they wished to see “parallel” negotiations unfold at the same time – one for the immediate release of the living hostages, and another for the bodies of the deceased.

Both Sullivan and Harris sounded receptive to their urgings, according to Chen. Weinstein described the vice president as “really present in the room, really listening and taking it all in.”

“I felt that she was supportive of the families and all the complexities of the issues,” she said.

A White House readout of the vice president’s meeting with the families specifically mentioned the bodies of the American hostages. Harris “reaffirmed the US commitment to bring home the remains of those who have been tragically confirmed to be deceased,” it said.

A White House official told CNN that the recovery of the bodies remains an active and urgent part of the ongoing hostage release negotiations.

Families haunted by thoughts of their loved ones’ bodies

Gadi Haggai was known for being a talented jazz musician and chef; Judi Weinstein Haggai was a poet who regularly wrote haikus – sometimes about peace. Her sister Andrea Weinstein, who affectionately describes Judi as her “tiny big sister,” said the couple “took extraordinary care of their bodies.”

“They were such a creative force, separately and together, and they fed themselves healthy foods so they could be creative,” she said. “If you wanted to join them for a salad, Gadi would just chop a little more.”

Ruby and Hagit Chen have described their son, Itay, as a “happy boy” who was “always smiling.” Since his death, friends have flooded the Chens with stories about how funny Itay was, his great laugh, and how much he loved to help people. “They will always, always remember him as the best person they knew. Beautiful boy,” Hagit Chen told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Immediately after October 7, the Chens, Weinstein Haggai and Weinstein were tortured by the thought of their loved ones not making it out of Gaza alive. Since learning about the deaths of their son, parents and sister and brother-in-law, they are haunted by the prospect of never getting the bodies back.

“I don’t want him to rot in some hellhole in Gaza,” Chen said of his son. “That’s not the respect that he should get. The savages took his body.”

Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, is a month away. Like Chen, Weinstein Haggai is sickened by the idea of her parents’ bodies being stuck somewhere in Gaza. She wonders if she and her family will ever have a place to go to visit her parents.

“In Judaism, it’s very important to have a certain burial ceremony; a shiva. It’s something that’s very, very important, and for good reasons. I need closure,” she said. “And right now, we can’t even mourn their death, even though we know they’re dead.”

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