Hamas moved Israeli hostages from house to house in the south Gazan city of Khan Younis to avoid detection and supplied them with little food, family members have said.
Osnat Meiri told The Telegraph that she was shocked to see her aunt, 78-year-old Ruti Munder, and cousin Keren Munder, 55, when she met them in a hospital outside Tel Aviv on Friday night. The pair were released in the first group of hostages alongside Ruti’s grandson, nine-year-old Ohad.
“They were a lot thinner, they were very tired and they were undernourished,” she said. “They were themselves, but there was that terror you could see in their eyes.”
While some hostages were kept in Hamas’s sprawling network of tunnels, the Munder family, who were kidnapped from Nir Oz kibbutz close to the southern tip of Gaza, were taken to the city of Khan Younis.
There, they were shuttled from one house to another without beds to sleep on, with some of the residences clearly commandeered from civilians. Ruti told Ms Meiri one flat they moved to had been so hastily abandoned by its residents the washing machine was still running.
Food allocations were gradually cut as the IDF offensive disrupted food supplies.
“At the beginning there was more food but later it was significantly cut,” Mr Meiri said. “All they had was pitta bread, cheese and some rice.”
Elderly women returning from captivity have lost between 17 and 33lb (8 and 15kg), the Israeli health ministry said on Tuesday.
In Khan Younis, the Israelis were given benches to sleep on or waiting-room chairs that could have come from a public office or a hospital. They were lucky to have a sheet to cover themselves.
A portable radio was the Munders’ only window to the world, and it brought them both good news and bad.
“A cousin from the other side of the family was speaking on the radio – my aunt heard him talking. That’s how she knew her son Roy was murdered,” Ms Meiri said.
The same broadcast mentioned that her husband Avraham, who turns 79 this week, was kidnapped but is still alive.
The Munder family believes he is being held at another location in Gaza.
Despite her ordeal, 78-year-old Ruti Munder was seen laughing with soldiers at an Israeli Defense Force base and has emerged as one of the most resilient hostages, according to her niece.
“My aunt said she was so lucky: she had never spent so much time together with her daughter and grandson. It gave them strength,” Mr Meiri said, contrasting her experience with a number of children kidnapped alone or separated from their parents in captivity.
While the families of the majority of hostages that were released in recent days said their relatives were not subject to physical violence, reports of mistreatment began to surface on Tuesday.
Deborah Cohen, an aunt of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, told French BFM TV that Hamas fighters beat the boy in captivity.
“When he arrived in Gaza, all residents, everyone, beat him,” she said. “Every time a child cried, the terrorists would threaten them with a gun to keep quiet.”
Most hostages returned in good physical shape, including 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Yaffa Adar who was discharged from hospital on Tuesday in front of cheering staff.
Others like Ruti Munder were ordered to stay at the hospital for a few more days for doctors to monitor her condition.
In one of the first personal accounts to emerge, Ms Munder told Israel’s Channel 13 news on Tuesday how captives had slept on plastic chairs in a “suffocating” room while they were held by Hamas.
She said that people were left hungry as the “economic situation” in Gaza worsened amid Israeli bombardment.
“It was very difficult,” Ms Munder told reporters.
The vast majority of the hostages themselves have not yet faced the press, with doctors warning they remain in a delicate state.
Itai Pessach, director of Sheba Medical Centre’s children’s hospital, said on Tuesday that his staff heard “very difficult and complex stories from the [hostages’] time in Hamas captivity without elaborating and warned that “there’s a very, very long way go to before they are healed.”