‘I can’t breathe’: B.C. woman learns her Israeli aunt, held hostage by Hamas, is free


For the past two weeks, Vancouver’s Rutie Mizrahi has been taking deep breaths, preparing for the worst.

Her aunt and uncle, peace activists Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz, were among more than 200 people abducted by Hamas during its deadly attack on Israel earlier this month.

Held hostage with health problems in their 80s, their chances of survival “are really not good,” Mizrahi tells Global News, sitting at home holding posters calling for their release.

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Israel-Hamas conflict: EU foreign policy chief backs UN call for humanitarian pause

“They disappeared. Their home was burned to the ground, nothing left,” she says, trying to keep her voice steady.

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“We don’t know if they’re alive. We don’t know if they’re hurt … Both need their medication. My aunt needs an oxygen tank at night when she’s sleeping.”

In the middle of the interview, Mizrahi gets an unexpected phone call — her aunt, 85-year-old Yocheved, was among two hostages freed on Monday by Hamas following mediation.

“Oh my God, I can’t breathe,” she says, putting the phone down and grasping her heart. “I’m sorry. I need to call my sister.”

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Israel conducts “limited” raids in Gaza as convoys deliver much-needed aid

On Oct. 7, some 1,400 people — mostly civilians — were killed in Hamas attacks, prompting Israeli retaliation that has since killed more than 5,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry. The latter toll includes the disputed count from an explosion at a hospital last week.

In addition to the second hostage freed Monday, another older woman, Hamas let two others go — an American woman and her teenage daughter last Friday. The United States has advised Israel to delay an expected ground invasion of Gaza to allow time to negotiate the release of more hostages.

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In Vancouver, Mizrahi hurriedly starts making phone calls to family, sharing the good news about Yocheved, who apparently left captivity on her own two feet into the safe hands of the Red Cross in Egypt. She has since been returned to Israeli soil.

“They don’t know anything about my uncle yet,” Mizrahi says. “I just want everybody to be back. You know, those are civilians. Those are older people. Those are children, babies.”

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Mizrahi grew up in Israel, and moved to Vancouver in 1998 after spending a few years in Seattle. She currently works as an early childhood educator and Hebrew language teacher.

Being far from home during the conflict has been difficult, she says, and she has seriously considered flying to Israel to volunteer and look after her aging parents.

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“They’re old, they are both handicapped and they don’t have a safe room or a safe shelter in their condo. They live in a very old building. Just the thought of them during the alarm going off — it breaks my heart,” she says.

“Unfortunately with my personal situation right now, I can’t leave.”

Click to play video: 'Israel/Hamas Latest'

Israel/Hamas Latest

Mizrahi says her uncle is a veteran journalist and peacekeeper who has long advocated for Palestinian rights. He and her aunt lived close to the Gaza Strip in a kibbutz, one of hundreds of collective communities in Israel whose income — traditionally from agriculture — is shared among residents.

Their kibbutz has since been burned down by Hamas, she says.

“He used to drive to the border and pick up Palestinian citizens and civilians that needed any kind of medical treatments that they get in Israel,” she tells Global News.

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“So he drove them to the hospitals all over the country. He used to wait for them and drive them back. He was a volunteer.”

Mizrahi says she grew up praying for peace between Israel and Palestine and still wants that outcome, despite everything that has happened in the past two weeks.

“I also always took part in demonstrations for the Palestinians’ human rights, and I still believe in it, by the way — it didn’t change my mind in this way, but it must come from both sides.”

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Teaching children about the Israel-Hamas conflict

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush and destroy” Hamas in response to its brutal incursion.

Hamas leaders, meanwhile, have said an Israeli crackdown on militants in the West Bank, continued construction of settlements, which the UN and many international nations consider illegal, thousands of prisoners in Israeli jails, and its ongoing blockade of Gaza, pushed it to attack.

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It has been designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Egypt and Japan.

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The West Block: Oct. 22, 2023 | Challenges in containing the Israel-Hamas conflict

Until the most recent conflict, Mizrahi says she didn’t realize how many Jewish and Israeli people live in B.C.’s Lower Mainland — afraid to be candid about their heritage.

“Nothing will scare me,” she says. “Nobody will frighten me, I’m sorry.”

Mizrahi says she visits Israel annually to spend time with family and friends and will do so again at the next opportunity.

Intense airstrikes continued Monday across Gaza, with some 20 trucks entering the strip carrying food, water, medicine and medical supplies, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. The aid is coming through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only way into Gaza not controlled by Israel.

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It’s “a drop in the ocean” compared to the needs of the population, according to Thomas White, Gaza director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. He said the agency has only three days of fuel left for its trucks, bound for hospitals and UN schools in the south of Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people are taking shelter, running low on food and largely drinking contaminated water.

At least 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza have fled their homes, and nearly 580,000 of them are sheltering in United Nations-run schools and shelters, the UN said Monday.

— with files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea and The Associated Press

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